Ask a 49er legend what made the golden years so golden, and they're likely to mention a feeling of family.
The first great 49ers dynasty was born and thrived under the thoughtful ownership of Eddie DeBatolo Jr, whose attitude and generosity toward players made the team a desirable destination for great athletes. Additionally, Eddie's treating players and coaches as family motivated and inspired them to be great, and not let him down.
When a player was injured in a road game and had to stay behind for treatment, he would send his private jet for the player when he's ready to go home. "So he'll be more comfortable," he said.
It wasn't all some motivational trick. DeBartolo actually cared about his players. "Thank god Eddie didn't have to cut guys" Bill Walsh once said "or they'd never have gotten cut."
He'd send flowers when player's wives had babies. Lots of flowers. He'd send out long-stem roses to all the player's wives when SF won their division, or just because it was Easter. A happy wife makes a happy player.
When the 49ers won Super Bowl XXIII, DeBartolo flew every player and office staffer and a guest to Youngstown, Ohio, his hometown, for two nights. That's being treated like family.
Jed York might have a ways to go, but he's getting there. The young new owner has brought back a level of caring not seen since his uncle Eddie's departure.
When Mike Singletary proved himself as an interim head coach, Jed said "stick around a while Mike, here's a contract."*
When Michael Crabtree held out last season, Jed flew him in for a face-to-face sit-down. Crabtree was soon suited up and ready to play.
When former GM Scot McCloughan backed his things and split just weeks before the NFL Draft, Jed York fired up the jet and darted back from London to put out the fire. The 2010 Draft may be the most successful 49ers draft since the mid '90s.
The most recent indication of glory's potential return? Patrick Willis' contract extension. The last time a 49ers linebacker came in and led the team in tackles his first three years, two of which lead the NFL was—never.
Making the pro-bowl in his first three seasons, he has already accomplished a feat unmatched since Ronnie Lott. Quietly becoming the leader of the 49ers defense, speaking more through actions than words.
Chad Johnson (or whatever his name is now) nicknamed Willis Bam-Bam because "he hits everything."
Already there have been puzzled looks on the faces of analysts. They call his $50 million contract extension low-ball, because in a way, it is. It was rumored he would test the free-agent waters next year. It was possible he could have gotten paid, not only as the leagues top linebacker, but the top defender in the entire NFL. Instead, he didn't get greedy. Instead, he respected, and accepted the 49ers offering.
Many wonder how the 49ers got the leagues premier young linebacker at such a bargain. The fact is Willis is 49ers family now.
Since my youth, I've been of the opinion that you take a family where you get it, blood relatives or otherwise. I think Patrick might understand this.
When Willis was four, his parents divorced. When he was 10, he worked in a cotton field in order to help financially support his family. When he was 16, his high school basketball coach became his legal guardian because his biological father neglected his children and physically abused Patrick’s younger siblings. When he was 21, his youngest brother, Detris, drowned while swimming with friends.
So Bam-Bam, like many of his tough-life teammates, is well aware of the punches life throws and how to roll with them. It's just one more solid link in the chain unifying the new 49ers family—from the top down.
The caring culture of the Bay Area's premier football family is back; and it is a hard nosed, extremely tough, and win loving culture; as the rest of the NFC West should discover soon enough.
*(Not an actual quote, at least I don't think it is.)