Eddie DeBartolo Jr. rises at 4 a.m. on his 3,000-acre ranch in Montana and takes his three dogs for a walk in the frigid winter air.
No matter it was minus-3 the other morning. Off he went.
The former football owner who guided the 49ers to greatness — and five Super Bowl titles — in the 1980s and ’90s now raises Clydesdale horses while operating his Florida commercial development and management business from thousands of miles away near the mountain resort town of Whitefish, Mont. It’s a long way from the football world that long ruled his life.
Now, DeBartolo offers guidance from a distance, mentoring nephew and 49ers CEO Jed York whenever asked or needed.
It was DeBartolo who presented the George Halas NFC championship trophy to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York, last weekend at Atlanta. He was asked to be an honorary captain by Jed York before the NFC title game, DeBartolo’s first live appearance all year.
These days, the 66-year-old DeBartolo takes great pride in seeing the 49ers back among the NFL’s elite, with Jed successfully running the operation that DeBartolo once did with every bit of his heart and soul. He is content cheering for San Francisco from afar, still getting a thrill when York names him an honorary captain, or regularly seeks his input and advice.
“He was the most dominant NFL owner ever only 1 w/5 rings,” former 49ers offensive lineman Randy Cross said earlier this month on Twitter.
DeBartolo is among 15 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, with between four and seven new members to be announced Saturday, the day before the 49ers and play the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl in New Orleans.
“I’m so honored just to be where I am and among the final 15,” he said. “That in itself is a tremendous honor, just to be with the people and the men that are there right now. I know it’s a long shot, but anything can happen.”
DeBartolo loves the intensity of 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh.
“I see a lot of Bill Walsh in coach Harbaugh,” DeBartolo said. “Obviously, they’re different. Bill was a lot more low key than coach Harbaugh. I think coach Harbaugh wears his heart on his sleeve. But he, too, is a great coach and I think he’s going to go down as one of the great coaches.”
Whether DeBartolo finds a place in Canton, Ohio, and the Hall, for all of those winning years, he has no idea. He was suspended for a year — the 1999 season — by the NFL after being found guilty of failing to report a bribe by a government official, a felony.
DeBartolo has much loftier team goals at the moment — for his former franchise, and his nephew, to bring another Lombardi Trophy home to the Bay Area.
“I don’t think there’s any question they’re going to go and win the Super Bowl,” he said. “I think they’re too good in every phase of the game.”