WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump on Tuesday pardoned Edward DeBartolo Jr., the former San Francisco 49ers owner convicted in a gambling fraud scandal who built one of the most successful NFL teams in the game's history.
DeBartolo Jr., who owned the San Francisco 49ers during their 1980s-1990s dynasty, was involved in one of the biggest owners' scandals in the sport's history. In 1998, he pleaded guilty to failing to report a felony when he paid $400,000 to former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards in exchange for a riverboat gambling license.
The White House announced the surprise decision to reporters on Tuesday, with NFL greats Jerry Rice, Jim Brown, Ronnie Lott and Charles Haley in attendance.
“You know what, we all make mistakes and today the president cleared that mistake from him," said Haley, an NFL Hall of Fame defensive end who played on two of DeBartolo's Super Bowl winning teams..
DeBartolo, whose San Francisco 49ers won five Super Bowls under his leadership, stepped down as owner in 1997 after two Louisiana newspapers reported he would be indicted for gambling fraud.
He avoided prison, was fined $1 million and was suspended for a year by the NFL. But the episode effectively ended his NFL career.
DeBartolo withdrew from the project after the state gambling board demanded he hand over all documents he gave to the grand jury. The documents included an “unexecuted agreement” between DeBartolo and the former governor's son, Stephen Edwards. The state gambling board canceled the project after DeBartolo withdrew.
Rice, an NFL Hall of Famer who played on three of DeBartolo's Super Bowl-winning teams, said DeBartolo “was like that 12th man” of the great 49ers teams.
“He's the main reason why we won so many Super Bowls,” Rice said. "So today is a great day for him. I'm glad to be here and be a part of that. It's just something I will never forget. This man, he has done so much in the community, has done so much in NFL football."
The DeBartolo family built their fortune through commercial real estate – mostly owning shopping malls. The family business was started by DeBartolo’s father, who died in 1994. In addition to the 49ers, the family also owned the Pittsburgh Penguins of the National Hockey League before selling the team in 1991.
DeBartolo Jr. ran the San Francisco 49ers starting 1977, and his hiring of coach Bill Walsh in 1979 led to the franchise’s most successful era. From 1982 to 1995, the team won five Super Bowls.
After the suspension, DeBartolo gave control of the team to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York.
He never returned to the NFL after his suspension. The team is now run by his nephew, Jed York.
DeBartolo was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016.
Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed to this article