Donald Trump has pardoned a former San Francisco 49ers owner convicted in a gambling fraud scandal who built one of the most successful teams in American football history.

Edward DeBartolo Jr, who owned the 49ers during their 1980s-90s 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 dollars to former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards in exchange for a riverboat gambling licence.

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.

Former 49s stars Jerry Rice and Charles Haley
Former 49s stars Jerry Rice and Charles Haley (Alex Brandon/AP)

DeBartolo, whose 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 but was fined a million dollars and suspended for a year by the NFL. 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 cancelled the project after DeBartolo withdrew.

Rice, an NFL Hall of Famer who played on three of DeBartolo’s Super Bowl-winning teams, said the former owner “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 property, mostly owning shopping malls. The family business was started by DeBartolo’s father, who died in 1994. The family also owned the Pittsburgh Penguins ice hockey team before selling up in 1991.

DeBartolo Jr ran the 49ers from 1977, and his hiring of coach Bill Walsh in 1979 led to the franchise’s most successful era, winning five Super Bowls between 1982 and 1995.

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.