As Joe Montana glided across the grass of Candlestick Park Sunday at the start of his first game in eight weeks, suspense hung in the San Francisco sunshine. On Sept. 15, Montana had undergone surgery to repair a herniated spinal disc, and some doctors said he might never play again. And here on Nov. 9, Montana was facing the St. Louis Cardinals.
For 10 plays he wasn't even touched. The 49er faithful squirmed in their seats as if watching a sinister Laurence Olivier from Marathon Man closing in on the unanesthetized and bound hero with a dental drill. Then, on second and seven from the St. Louis 45 late in the first quarter, Montana read a Cardinal blitz and launched a long pass to wide receiver Jerry Rice. Before he could see the result, Montana was jumped and crumpled by linebacker Charlie Baker. Baker drew a personal foul for a late hit, but Montana brought back the breath of the 59,172 spectators when he popped up clapping his hands. Rice had caught the ball for a touchdown.
And that was just the beginning. In leading the 49ers to a 43-17 win, Montana was 13 of 19 for 270 yards, with 3 touchdowns, all to Rice. In addition to the 45-yarder, he had TDs of 40 and 44 yards, respectively. The Niners, now 6-3-1, played like the Super Bowl winners of 1982 and 1985, scoring on seven of the nine possessions under Montana's control. He was so obviously fit that coach Bill Walsh brought him back into the game midway through the fourth quarter for one play to replace the injured backup quarterback, Mike Moroski.
Montana's performance even moved the Cardinals. The most spontaneous tribute came from Cardinal defensive end Bubba Baker as he hovered over a supine Montana on the 40-yard TD strike to Rice. When a touchdown was signaled, Baker's head dropped. Face mask to face mask with Montana, he said, "You're a helluva man."
Actually, Montana, the most successful quarterback of the '80s, had been sufficiently confident of his physical condition to dump a back brace before the game because it hampered his breathing. After the game, he was thankful that he had suffered no pain or injury, but seemed most concerned with his rustiness on a couple of short passes and mistakes in reading a few coverages. He had so completely assumed his old role as dispassionate leader, it seemed incongruous that two days before the game he had said, "I guess this is the biggest challenge I've ever faced."
In retrospect, though, the statement made plenty of sense. Montana, 30, had been among the NFL's most durable quarterbacks over the last seven years, but last season he began having nagging back problems. In the season opener this year against Tampa Bay, he injured his back in the third quarter while rolling left and throwing a sideline pass across his body to Dwight Clark. Although he stayed in the game and threw for 356 yards in a 31-7 romp, the next day he could barely move. "I knew this time it was bad," Montana said.
Tests revealed a rupture of the lowest disc of Montana's spinal column. The rupture put pressure on one of the roots that make up his sciatic nerve and caused sharp pain, numbness and weakness in his left leg. After it was determined that he might be facing permanent nerve damage, Montana had surgery in San Francisco. The major portion of the disc was removed, and the interiors of that vertebra and an adjacent one were widened in order to create larger openings in the canal that carries the nerve fibers of the spinal cord. The two-hour operation, performed by Dr. Arthur White, went well, but there was no guarantee that Montana would be able to play again. Almost surely, some doctors said, he was out for the year. A return to competition in two months, said White, would be "phenomenal."
On the Friday before the game, White said, "Any person, by our standards, is virtually crazy to submit themselves to unprotected trauma to the spine...after surgery. If I tell my patients to go play football, then I'm crazy." After Sunday's game, White said his patient had come through with no problems.
Montana's surgery and reports of his progress had run more prominently on Bay Area front pages than the statewide election. A Joe Montana Hotline at St. Mary's Hospital gave updates on his condition, and fans sent thousands of get-well messages to the 49ers office.
But Montana was depressed during the days following the operation. "I considered retirement," he said, "but I was in sort of an altered state. I was cross-eyed, and some of the things I thought I saw were bizarre. I thought water was running up the walls."
Teammates Ronnie Lott and Clark visited Montana a few days after the operation. "Joe had to use a walker to see us to the elevator, and it exhausted him," says Lott. "As soon as the doors closed, Dwight and I looked at each other and both of us were thinking,' It's no way. Ever.' It was scary, and really sad."
After awhile Montana's thinking brightened, and he threw himself into a three-hour-a-day rehabilitation program of weightlifting, partial sit-ups, running and swimming. "I have my schedule, and the doctors have theirs," he said. "Naturally, I will push harder than they want." By early October, he was throwing footballs through a soccer goal in a Foster City park, with his wife, Jennifer, and a cousin working as shaggers. He was way ahead of schedule.
Meanwhile the 49ers were struggling. Jeff Kemp filled in ably at quarterback before being injured, but third-stringer Moroski lacked the arm and experience to run Bill Walsh's offense. When the Saints dominated San Francisco 23-10 on Nov. 2, the 49ers looked on the verge of falling out of the playoff race.
By this time Montana was saying he was ready, and Walsh was ready for him. His big test came in practice on Nov. 3, the Monday before the Cardinals game. White was there to observe. "I felt more under the microscope than I did at the Super Bowls," said Montana. But White declared Montana "healthier than he has been in two or three years." Walsh said he could see no difference in Montana's abilities, and Joe's only question was how he would react to punishment in the game. "I need to get beat around out there," he said.
Whatever reservations he felt, Montana reacted like a player and not a patient against St. Louis. He missed his first pass, an 11-yarder over the middle to Clark, and after the play he chided Rice for running the wrong pattern. "He told me we should have had a touchdown," said Rice. "But he said we'd get it back."
Montana's return had a salutary effect on the whole team. Kicker Ray Wersching ended a slump with three long field goals. Joe Cribbs had his first 100-yard game as a 49er—actually, 105 yards—and the offensive line fired off the ball better than it had all year.
It was easy to forget that St. Louis isn't a power, and that the 49ers may have the toughest homestretch schedule of any NFC team. "We can't think we are going to march right into the playoffs now," said tackle Keith Fahnhorst. "Not having Joe wasn't the only reason we weren't producing." But then Fahnhorst looked across the locker room at Montana and smiled. "He's a superstar, he honestly is," he said. "I remember [guard] John Ayers and I were watching Joe do this incredible stuff on film once, and John looked at me and said, 'You know, maybe he is all we have.' "