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Eddie DeBartolo's focus on family lands him in Hall of Fame

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Eddie DeBartolo Jr. thanks the people behind the scenes (0:50)

Former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. explains that part of the reason he is standing on the Hall of Fame stage is because of all the people behind the scenes. (0:50)

For every guest who arrived at former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr.'s Hall of Fame party Friday, there was a gift. And in every gift, there was a note.

The note was handwritten by DeBartolo, thanking them for what they'd done for him and letting them know that he considered each attendee a part of his family. In DeBartolo's speech Saturday night, there were plenty of memories, plenty of jokes, plenty of sentimental wishes, but at the center of it all was family. It was a fitting speech for a man who built the Niners empire with family as the foundation.

"The story of the 49ers of the 1980s and '90s is really the story of family," DeBartolo said. "Ultimately, family is what my life and career have been all about. Truly, I have lived the American dream."

It was that focus on family that brought so many former 49ers to Canton, Ohio, for the weekend. Whether it was a chat with Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, a selfie with Steve Young or any number of other players who had played for the team in his regime, DeBartolo always wanted the focus to be on a group coming together for a common goal.

In case it wasn't obvious how close DeBartolo was to his former players, his speech featured no shortage of jokes and jabs for them and himself. He started by pointing out that he needed to stand on a box to deliver his speech and deadpanned that he was probably the only person with a gold jacket not to make his high school football team. From there, Rice, Montana, Dwight Clark, Young, and others were among the targets.

And DeBartolo even managed one of the lines of the night upon stepping to the podium. DeBartolo noted the many Niners and Green Bay Packers fans in attendance and said it felt like an NFC Championship Game. Then came the punchline.

"I don't know about Joe Montana, but I think we could probably talk Brett Favre out of retirement," DeBartolo said.

But DeBartolo's speech wasn't all jokes. He expertly weaved in sentimental stories, including his love for former coach Bill Walsh, and made it a point to say that he was standing there in large part because of the many equipment managers, groundskeepers, scouts, public relations staff, bus drivers, cooks, and all other employees who helped build not just a championship team but a championship organization.

DeBartolo even found a moment to point out the need for today's NFL to improve the frayed relationship between its players and the league, noting that when he was owner, he would always be there for players when they suffered injuries.

"Frankly, I think we could use more of that sense of family in the NFL today," DeBartolo said.

That approach paid off as the 49ers won five Super Bowl titles and played in 10 NFC title games. From 1977 to 2000, the 49ers won 10 or more games in a season 17 times. The only non-winning year came in the strike-shortened 1982 season.

Sure, there were plenty of great players and coaches who were instrumental in that rise to prominence, many of them were sitting in the stands Saturday night. But DeBartolo said he believed that success all came back to one overriding characteristic.

"If there's one secret to the success of the 49ers, it is this: We did not see players as simply players -- we saw them as men," DeBartolo said. "We saw them as sons, husbands, fathers, brothers, with families and responsibilities. We knew if we made it possible for them to bring their whole selves to work, they would give us their all. That's why we welcomed mothers, wives, girlfriends, and children to the team. ... We weren't just a family on Sundays. We were a family every single day."