When I read that CBSsportsline.com was having a contest to pick a correspondent to cover each NFL team I was excited. I submitted my application right away. I had been looking for a reason to start writing again and this was the perfect motivator.
Writing about something I am passionate about would be a dream job and I was going to give it my best shot.
I learned applicants needed to write a series of articles and that based on those articles, and some other factors, a winner would be picked to cover each team. I was given a list of topics to choose from and one jumped off the page to me.
What turned you into a fan of the team you’d like to cover?
I thought about it. What a great question. Everyone can relate to why we root for the teams that we do. But as I considered the answer, MY answer, it dawned on me just how personal the answer really is to each and every fan. We all have our own unique answer to that question, and this is mine.
It wouldn’t be accurate to say I became a fan of the San Francisco 49ers because of Eddie DeBartolo, Jr. I had never heard of him when I started blindly rooting for the team.
But it is because of him that I developed a bond with the team that I will continue to enjoy, agonize over and be passionate about the rest of my life.
My family moved from St.Joseph, Mo to San Jose in 1969 when I was 4. My dad and older brother were Chiefs fans. Because of that there is no way I would ever be a Raider fan. It was never a decision for me...I just liked the 49ers.
The 49ers were 8-6 during the 1976 season, the year I turned 11. According to an old Sports Illustrated article ("Really, Joe, Is All This Necessary?" October 31, 1977) I just read they were pretty good.
I don’t remember that. I remember bits and pieces of watching John Brodie and Gene Washington when I was really young. I remember Delvin Williams and Wilbur Jackson being good running backs and Jim Plunkett trying to direct a hapless 49er offense. But those are just bits and pieces. Almost like photos.
My first memories of watching and truly agonizing with the 49ers are during the dismal seasons that followed. They won a total of nine games over the next three seasons. Mostly I remember a steady procession of fumbles and dropped passes and failures to sustain a drive or stop an opponent.
I recall one particularly depressing loss to end the 1978 season. They actually moved the ball well against their old coach, Monte Clark, and the Detroit Lions. But they fumbled the ball 10 times! They lost four of those, had three more interceptions and lost 27-14.
I remember sitting on our couch with my head in my hands as Dave Williams dropped an easy touchdown pass while standing all alone in the end zone. I was literally nauseous.
I highlight these times for a reason. They were a mess. But as a fan you don’t appreciate the good times without remembering the depths of the lows. As is the case with any franchise performing badly on the field they were not much better off of it. I didn’t realize it at the time...but that was all starting to change.
We all know what happened next.
I went from sitting on that couch holding my head in agony...to jumping off of it screaming with delight and disbelief when Dwight Clark seemingly climbed a ladder (I know he had never jumped that high in his life!) to make The Catch.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Multiple years of glorious history. Top notch team after team. All of the Hall of Famers, the great coaches, the sustained level of excellence. Each a great story in its own right.
The 49ers brought so much joy to my life over the next 14 years. By the time they won Super Bowl XVI in 1982 I was 16 years old and a junior in high school. I was studying hard and thinking about college. The 49ers started to become part of my education process.
I left the Bay Area to attend UCLA in 1983. By the time I joined my family in Palm Springs to watch the 49ers win Super Bowl XIX I was a sophomore and trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life.
I was studying Sociology (one of my classmates was Ken Norton, Jr.) coupled with a program to earn a certificate in Business Administration. It was in one of these business classes that I was asked to do a case study on a successful business. Why not write about the 49ers?
I started looking at the 49ers organization from a different perspective. Their success on the field was the end product enjoyed by all. But for the first time in my life I began to look at the steps taken to produce that product. How had this miserable team (that could only disappoint you) turned into the Team of the 80’s?
I started looking at the organization in terms of its success as a business. They became a real life case study for me about how to succeed in business. My connection to them became deeper than I could ever have imagined. And the object of my admiration was Eddie DeBartolo, Jr.
His philosophy for success was so simple and made so much sense to me. I can’t tell you how exciting that was to a student trying to figure out how to succeed in the business world.
Find the most capable people to do a job, give them the tools necessary to do that job and show them how appreciated they are.
So simple, and yet so hard for the majority of businesses to implement.
Business people like to throw around the cliché “we are a family” to their employees when it really does not apply. In this case, by all accounts, it applies. DeBartolo changed the whole culture of the organization from the very top down to the very last employee.
I have a lot of material about the things DeBartolo did to build a successful organization. I will be writing a follow up article with first hand accounts from 49er players about what he meant to them. But really that is another whole story on its own.
I received an A grade on the paper I wrote about the 49ers organization and DeBartolo. My professor pulled me aside and had a suggestion for me. “Its clear from your writing that you have a real passion for sports.” she said, “Have you ever considered writing about sports for the school paper?”
I had not.
The next day I made a list of things to do beginning with find the school paper.
I sought out the Sports Editor and told him I would like to write for the paper. He said "ok" and gave me an assignment. He said if I did a good job we could talk more.
I ended up writing on the staff of the Daily Bruin for almost three years and was fortunate enough to cover the 1986 Rose Bowl Champion football team during my time there. I had the opportunity to travel all over the country meeting interesting people and covering exciting sporting events. I cherish those experiences.
But if it hadn’t been for the 49ers and that business case study I am pretty sure none of that ever would have happened. And I wouldn’t be writing this today.
So no, Eddie DeBartolo, Jr. is technically not the reason I became a fan of the 49ers. But in my life, as it turns out, being a fan of DeBartolo ended up being responsible for a whole lot more.