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Eddie DeBartolo Jr.'s Hall of Fame entry brings life 'full circle'

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Of all the striking sights Nikki DeBartolo has witnessed during her loud and eventful life, from raucous Super Bowl victory parties to bedside notes from childhood "first crush," occasional house guest and San Francisco sports icon Dwight Clark, the scene she encountered at her parents' Tampa-area home on May 10, 2016, might have been the most surreal of all.

Joining a small group of family members and friends, DeBartolo watched as sculptor Blair Buswell got to work on the bronze bust that will greet her father, Eddie, when the former 49ers owner takes the stage on Aug. 6 at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio.

Having been selected as part of the Hall's 2016 class on the eve of Super Bowl 50, the elder DeBartolo -- a notorious fidgeter who missed one of the most epic catches in 49ers history because of an ill-timed bathroom trip -- fully understood that his modeling efforts would be required.

Seeing it, for the youngest of his three daughters, was disbelieving.

"He was sitting still," Nikki DeBartolo recalled last month. "I mean, listen: This guy doesn't sit still for anything. We have family meetings in the office, and he doesn't sit still for five minutes. He'll play with his phone and literally get up 15 times during the meeting.

"Now here he was, sitting on this barstool with a wooden back -- no distractions, no phone ... nothing. And I'm thinking, How on earth is this guy getting him to sit still for so long? I don't know if he tranquilized him, or what?"

Call it the most powerful drug in the football universe: Immortality.

After presiding over one of the greatest runs of sustained excellence in sports history, enduring an inglorious exit fueled by a gaming scandal and embarking upon a Hall of Fame quest that, even a year ago, he presumed would be futile, the man affectionately known as "Eddie D" was in no position to disobey.

"Oh, God, I did sit still -- so help me God, for almost nine hours," DeBartolo confirmed. "While everybody around me got half-drunk, they wouldn't even give me wine. They did give me bathroom breaks, though, and when it was all over, I got to have some bourbon.

"Hey, it wasn't easy ... but this really is a humbling honor."

It's an honor that DeBartolo does not take for granted. He understands the emotions associated with enshrinement because he frequently has had a front-row seat to the proceedings.

Last August, DeBartolo came to Canton at the behest of former 49ers and Cowboys pass rusher Charles Haley, the fifth time he had presented a Hall of Famer for induction. The others: The late Bill Walsh, Joe Montana, Fred Dean and Jerry Rice.

Before the ceremony, Rich Eisen and I interviewed DeBartolo for NFL Network, and I broached the notion of him entering the Hall the following year. DeBartolo had been a finalist for three consecutive years before a special "contributors" category was created for those who did not play or coach, at which point former general managers Bill Polian and Ron Wolf were chosen as the inaugural selections for the Class of 2015.

"It didn't seem real," DeBartolo remembered. "Talking to you and Rich up there ... I thought I'd be one of those guys who hung around for years but, like a lot of others, couldn't quite make it in. I never in my wildest dreams thought it would happen."

Working against DeBartolo were two forces: First, the convenient and misleading perception that, predominantly in a pre-salary-cap era, the driving force behind the Niners' two-decade run of excellence was his bank account; and second, his inglorious exit from the NFL in the late '90s after a gaming scandal that resulted in him pleading guilty to "misprision of felony" (essentially, failing to notify authorities of an attempt by former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards to solicit bribes in exchange for a casino license).

The wrenching ordeal ultimately led DeBartolo to sell his share of the team to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York, with whom his relationship became highly strained. They are on better terms now, and DeBartolo has also repaired a rift with ex-49ers president Carmen Policy, a fellow Youngstown, Ohio, native who was once his close friend and confidante.

The fallout was significant: An emotional and ultra-generous man who never claimed to be perfect, DeBartolo had a hard time absorbing the blow.

"It was so hard, for him and for us as his family, to watch someone who has the heart that he has, to watch him go through that," said Nikki DeBartolo, the youngest of his (and his wife, Candy's) three daughters. "It killed all of us. It's definitely taught us as sisters -- how to be better to one another, how never to let anything break us apart."

Said Eddie DeBartolo, whose eldest daughter, Lisa, will be his presenter in Canton: "You can't undo the past. It was something that if I could erase, I would. I hate to keep using this goofy term, but it's way, way back in my rear-view mirror. Once you get past that, you're basically just retired from the game that meant so much to you, like Joe or Ronnie [Lott] or anyone who didn't get to leave on his own terms."

It's not surprising that DeBartolo identifies with his former players; nearly two decades after his time as an active owner ceased, he has remained close to many of them -- and not just the Hall of Famers or other stars.

It's a love affair that transcends the typical employer/employee relationship. Granted, these were extremely well-compensated employees, but money isn't the reason DeBartolo remains beloved.

While he spent aggressively in his pursuit of excellence, outsiders always missed the heart inherent in his approach. From sending flowers to players' family members after surgeries to bringing his personal chef to prepare meals on team flights to handing out towels as players trudged through the locker-room tunnel, DeBartolo managed to make the men in uniform believe they were not merely pieces of meat.

He did this while simultaneously creating a culture that treated losing as unacceptable and intolerable -- and, not coincidentally, the 49ers did a whole lot of winning. San Francisco had never won a professional sports championship until DeBartolo's Niners, with Walsh as franchise architect, captured the first of five Super Bowl triumphs in January of 1982. San Francisco went nearly two decades without losing more than two consecutive games in a single season, extending its excellence into the salary-cap era.

For all the credit that Walsh, successor George Seifert and their assistants have justifiably received -- and, of course, for all the plaudits due to so many of their players -- it's tough to find someone associated with the franchise during the '80s and '90s who doesn't revere DeBartolo's role as a tone-setter. Yes, he threw tantrums, and some of them weren't pretty, but he also gave out hugs and kisses with abandon, and no one questioned his passion.

"I think that was the way we were brought up," DeBartolo said. "We hugged. We kissed. We were emotional. And it's still that way today."

A few weeks ago, DeBartolo took a trip to Las Vegas with a group of former players that included Montana, Rice and Clark -- famed singer Paul Anka was there, as well -- and, said the Hall of Famer-in-waiting, "We were all hugging and kissing each other the whole time. We get together every few months, and that's just how we are. To still be so close to all these guys, and not just [the stars] ... it's like one big family. Always has been, and it always will be."

Because the Hall of Fame is situated so close to his hometown, DeBartolo's weekend in Canton will be overflowing with well-wishers and witnesses to various parts of his journey.

"I've always known what a big deal it would be for him, but I guess I never realized how much it really meant to him," Nikki DeBartolo said. "I still don't think -- until that day, when he's standing up there -- it will truly hit him. He's still kind of in awe."

Said Eddie: "I think it's just sort of a culmination. All the stuff that's been good, some that's been not so good ... you never realized that something like this could happen. It's just all of it: the love, the friendships, the blood, the sweat, the tears ... and here we are.

"I'm a guy who had his whole life come full circle. I went from Youngstown to San Francisco and back to Canton, which is less than 40 miles from Youngstown. This place is for the immortals of the game. It's crazy to think about."

And as the moment approaches, so many people that DeBartolo touched along the way are thinking the same thing: Canton or bust.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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