It's a normalminicamp lunch break at the San Francisco 49ers' training facility. The playersare unwrapping their sandwiches in the locker room, and Joe Montana is givingan interview upstairs in p.r. director Jerry Walker's office. Well, most of JoeMontana is concentrating on the interview. His right hand is busy withsomething else, as if it has a life of its own, a mechanized life of autographproduction.
A steady stream ofobjects appears on the table in front of him—hats, jerseys, photos, posters—andMontana's right hand automatically rises, then lowers, producing a largesweeping J and tailing off to an almost illegible ana. Then his hand risesagain, and another item is moved into place. Secretaries, p.r. people, coaches,players all come to present offerings at this ritual.
"A book tosign," says Walker. "Two pictures," says tight end Jamie Williams."A ball," says p.r. assistant Dave Rahn. "Make this one out to 'aNevada sports fan,' " says defensive coordinator Bill McPherson, sliding ina picture.
Rise and fall,rise and fall; the big J, the scribbled ana. Most of the time Montana doesn'teven look at what he's signing. You get the feeling that someone could slip ina small child, a hamburger bun, a fish. It's all the same. At 34, the world'smost famous quarterback has turned into an autograph machine.
Secretary DarlaMaeda brings a hat. Walker is back with a toy rabbit. Guard Guy McIntyre isnext with a jersey.
"Oh, no, notyou too," Montana says, rolling his eyes.
"Yeah,me." It's Norb Hecker, the team's senior administrator, and he has a postershowing a glowering Montana. "A beauty, huh?" he says.
"They nameanimals after him," Rahn says, producing a picture of a German shepherd."They send in every piece of football equipment you can think of. Theoffice is cluttered with stuff." There is a children's book from a woman inHillsborough, Calif. "To Joe Montana, for your kids...let me know if youneed extra copies," reads the accompanying letter. There are eight mailcartons filled with letters going back four months, letters from France,Ireland, Tokyo.
"He'll come uphere once or twice a week to sign stuff," says p.r. assistant Al Barba. Weuse the real Joe pictures until they run out, then we send the ones with theprinted autograph. Everyone will get something—eventually."
Since he blisteredthe Denver Broncos in last January's Super Bowl, Montana is hot again, just ashe was after the 49ers' Super Bowl victory in '82 and the one in '85, havingbeen voted the game's Most Valuable Player each time. The first successrepresented the thrill of discovery, the potential star who blossomed, and itcarried a heathly round of commercial endorsements with it. The second onereestablished him after Miami Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino had captured mostof the headlines in '84. But then, in the 1985 season, the adulation forMontana cooled.
There were drugrumors, all unsubstantiated. Montana in his Ferrari reportedly stopped bypolice, even though the car was in his garage at the time. Montana seen in abar, when he happened to be in a team meeting. In '86 there was the backoperation two weeks into the season. Doctors said Montana might never playagain. He was back in 55 days. The '87 season was his best statistically atthat time, but the year ended with a disastrous loss to the Vikings in an NFCdivisional playoff. When Montana was lifted for Steve Young in that game, itwas the first time since he had reached football maturity that San Franciscocoach Bill Walsh had given him the hook. The fans cheered when Young enteredthe game. Trade Joe now, they said, while you can still get something forhim.
Walsh startedYoung a few times in '88, saying he was giving Montana time to get over nagginginjuries and "general fatigue." Montana says it was a lack ofconfidence, tracing back to the end of '87. "It's tearing my guts out,"Montana told his wife, Jennifer. But the exclamation point on the '88 seasonwas the terrific 92-yard drive in the final minutes to beat Cincinnati in SuperBowl XXIII, and Montana came into '89 riding the crest. He put together aremarkable season, the best any quarterback has ever had, according to theNFL's rating system. And he was even better in the playoffs and Super BowlXXIV, reaching a level of brilliance that had never been seen in postseasonfootball. Which leaves only one question to ask about this remarkable 11-yearveteran: Is he the greatest quarterback ever to play the game?
Wait, let's backoff from that one for a minute. Greatest ever? What about Unitas, Baugh,Luckman, Graham? History's a serious business. Van Brocklin, Bradshaw, Tittle?When, in the long history of the NFL, was a quarterback in his prime called thegreatest ever? The man in the most glamorous position in football going againstthe most famous names of the past? Does anyone point to a surgeon in Houstonand say, "Yep, there's the greatest doctor ever"? How about AlbertSchweitzer? It's rare ground we're treading on.
Montana's rootsare in western Pennsylvania, the cradle of quarterbacks. Soft coal andquarterbacks. Steel mills and quarterbacks. Johnny Lujack from Connellsville,Joe Namath from Beaver Falls, George Blanda from Youngwood, Dan Marino fromPittsburgh, Montana from Monongahela, Tom Clements and Chuck Fusina from McKeesRocks, Arnold Galiffa from Donora, Terry Hanratty from Butler—he was Montana'sidol as a kid. Terry Hanratty of Notre Dame, the Golden Domer. Montana wouldthrow footballs through a swinging tire in the backyard, just like Terry did.Why? Why do so many of them come from western Pennsylvania? "Toughness,dedication, hard work and competitiveness; a no-nonsense, blue-collarbackground," says John Unitas, from Pittsburgh.
But there are alot of no-nonsense, blue-collar places in the country. Why not Georgia orTexas, where the great running backs come from? Why not Michigan or Ohio, withall those fine linemen? What is it about western Pennsylvania andquarterbacks?
"Maybe it'sthe Iron City beer," says Montana.
The most logicalanswer is tradition—and focus. If you're a kid with athletic ability in westernPennsylvania, you've probably got a picture of Montana or Marino on your wall.Montana had the athletic gift. You could see it right away.
"He used towreck his crib by standing up and rocking," his mother, Theresa, says."Then he'd climb up on the side and jump to our bed. You'd hear a thump inthe middle of the night and know he hit the bed and went on the floor."
And he had thefocus, supplied by his father, Joseph Sr., who put a ball in his son's handswhen the kid was big enough to walk and said, "Throw it."
"I played allsports in the service, but when I was a kid I never had anyone to take me inthe backyard and throw a ball to me," says Joe Sr., who moved to Californiawith his wife in '86. "Maybe that's why I got Joe started in sports. Oncehe got started, he was always waiting at the door with a ball when I came homefrom work. What I really wanted to do was make it fun for him. And I wanted tomake sure he got the right fundamentals. I read books. You watch somequarterbacks, sometimes they need two steps to get away from the line ofscrimmage. I felt the first step should be straight back, not to the side. Weworked on techniques, sprint out, run right, run left, pivot and throw theball.
"You know,I've been accused of pushing him. I don't think that's right. It's just that heloved it so much, and I loved watching him. And I wanted to make sure helearned the right way."
Joe Jr. was anonly child, a pampered child, perhaps, but he didn't see it that way. Thefamily lived in a two-story frame house in a middle-class neighborhood on ParkAvenue, a house no better than the neighbors' and no worse. To Montana, hishome was his strength, his support system. He was shy with strangers, outgoingat home. He had a few friends, neighborhood kids mostly, but no one was asclose to him as his father—and his mother. His fondest childhood memory?Playing ball in the backyard with his dad, then coming into the kitchen, wherehis mother would have a steaming pot of ravioli on the stove. That was thebest.
Montana startedplaying peewee football when he was eight, one year younger than the legallimit. His father listed his age as nine. His first coach on the LittleWildcats was Carl Crawley, a defensive lineman in college and now an NCAAreferee.
"We ran a prooffense, with a lot of the stuff he's doing now, the underneath stuff,"Crawley says. "Joe would roll out. If the cornerback came off, he'd dump itoff; if he stayed back, he'd keep going and pick up five or six yards. He wasan amazingly accurate passer for a kid."
Montana's favoritereceiver was Mike Brantley, who caught his passes through junior high and highschool. Brantley eventually made it as far as the Pittsburgh Steelers' trainingcamp. "Joe throwing to Mike was like the right hand throwing to the lefthand," Crawley says.
Crawley remembersMontana as an "exuberant kid who had stardom written all over him, butnobody ever resented it because it came so naturally. And there was no show-offin him. He wanted to win, and he'd do whatever it took, and that's anotherthing the kids liked about him. With Joe on the field, they knew they werenever out of any game."
In the spring itwas baseball, and Montana played all the positions. As a pitcher in LittleLeague, he threw three perfect games. In the winter it was basketball, forwhich there was no organized program for kids until Joe Sr. started one. Theteam practiced and played in the local armory, and the kids paid a dollarapiece for a janitor to clean up after them. The practices were five nights aweek, and there were always tournaments to play in. "Those were the mostfun," Montana says. "The trips. We'd go anywhere. One night we playedin a tournament in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, then drove up to Niagara Fallsfor another one, then back to Bethel Park for the finals."
Montana has alwayssaid that his favorite sport, through Waverly Elementary and Finleyville JuniorHigh and finally Ringgold High, was basketball. He loved the practices. "Icould practice basketball all day," he says. Practicing football waswork.
He came toRinggold with a reputation for being something of a wunderkind. When coachChuck Abramski took his first look at Montana on the football field, he saw anagile, 6-foot, 165-pound sophomore with a nice touch on the ball, but a kid whowas too skinny and too immature to stand up to the rigors of westernPennsylvania Class AAA football. Abramski gave Montana a seat on the bench andtold him to watch and learn. And to be sure to report to the summer weightprogram before his junior year. Montana had other ideas.
"For me,competing in sports was a 365-day-a-year thing," he says. "I wasplaying American Legion baseball, summer basketball. It was hard for CoachAbramski to accept that."
Last January, aweek before the Super Bowl, a story appeared in the Baltimore Sun saying that,in Monongahela, Montana was regarded as a lesser god, a fact the rest of theworld was dimly aware of. A number of old resentments surfaced in the story,but the worst quotes of all were from Abramski. "A lot of people inMonongahela hate Joe," was one of them. "If I was in a war, I wouldn'twant Joe on my side...his dad would have to carry his gun for him," wasanother, and it was the one that bothered Montana most because it hit him wherehe lived. No one connected with football had ever questioned his courage.
"I called himabout it," Montana says. "Three times now, I've seen those Abramskiquotes around Super Bowl time, about why people hate me. I asked him why hekept saying those things, and he said, 'Well, you never sent me a picture, andyou sent one to Jeff Petrucci, the quarterback coach.' I said, 'You neverasked.' I mean, I don't send my picture around everywhere. We ended up yellingat each other. We had to put our wives on.
"Of course, Iknow what it was really about... that summer weight program. Chuck was a greatcoach in a lot of ways. He always tried to get the kids good equipment, he wasalways helping them get into college. I even wrote a letter of recommendationfor him to go to another school after he left Ringgold. He was a fired-up,gung-ho coach, but he never got over the fact that I didn't take part in hissummer weight program before my junior year. The man's all football."
Abramski, hard andwiry at 58, still lives in Monongahela, but he's out of football now. He sellsreal estate, just as Joe Montana Sr. does in the Bay Area. Abramski bouncedaround the western Pennsylvania high school circuit and held one collegecoaching job, at California University of Pennsylvania, under his old assistantat Ringgold, Petrucci. The problem was always the same: He was a great guy fordeveloping a program, but school administrators found him impossible to dealwith.
"I came fromthe south side of New Castle, the poor side," Abramski says. "My fatherwas an alcoholic. My mother died of tuberculosis when I was 10. My grandmotherraised me. There have been coaches with more brains, but nobody in the worldworked harder at football than me. The year before I came to Ringgold, theylost every game and scored two touchdowns. They left me 14 players in uniform.Two years later, we had 100 kids out for football and we dressed 60, home andaway. Three years later, Joe's senior year, we had one of the best teams in theeastern United States. We went 8-1 and then lost to Mt. Lebanon in the playoffson a miserable, sleety night with three starters out. Before the season wescrimmaged South Moreland and scored 19 touchdowns. Nineteentouchdowns!"
The weight programwas Abramski's baby, his joy. It was part of the toughening-up process.According to Abramski, Montana and only one other player, a halfback, didn'tparticipate in his summer program. Petrucci says that about 20% to 30% of thesquad didn't take part. Some former players say the number was higher. But herewas Abramski's junior quarterback, a guy who had superstar written all overhim—hell, everyone knew it—and he wasn't there. It ate Abramski up. When theseason started, Montana was on the bench. "It's very painful now, whenpeople say I harbored this hatred for Joe," Abramski says. "Hell, Iloved the kid. I was doing what I thought was right for my squad."
"It's just anunfortunate thing," says Petrucci. "Here's a kid who never did anythingwrong, never smoked or drank or broke curfew, never gave anyone a hard time,just a terrific kid. And on the other side, you've got a good coach who'sstubborn."
People who wereclose to the situation feel that the real source of Abramski's resentment wasnot Joe but his father, who had worked with Joe for so long and taught him allthe right habits. It was a matter of control, the fact that the father, not thecoach, had had more to do with making a star out of the boy.
And now Abramskihad benched that potential star, and his quarterback was 6'3", 215-poundPaul Timko, a big, rough youngster who splattered defenders when he ran theoption play but had a throwing arm like a tackle's. In the scrimmages, Timkowould line up at defensive end and take dead aim at Montana, the guy who wastrying to take his job away. "Every day he just beat the hell out ofme," Montana said. "I'd be dead when I came home. Football wasn't muchfun at that point."
The Ringgold Ramswere blown out by Elizabeth Forward 34-6 in the 1972 opener. They won the nexttwo games by forfeit because of a teachers' strike, but lost the two practicegames that were played to fill in the schedule. Timko wasn't the answer,obviously, especially with an away game coming up against mighty Monessen, thefavorite to win the Big Ten league title. During the time of the forfeitsMontana had moved up to become the starter. Timko was shifted to tight end."Hell, I wanted to play there anyway," Timko says.
Keith Bassi, whowas the Ringgold fullback, says the scene that night at Monessen was likenothing he has ever seen before or since. "You had to be there," hesays. "I mean Monessen had some players—Bubba Holmes, who went toMinnesota; Tony Benjamin, who went to Duke. The rumor was that guys there hadbeen held back a year in nursery school so they'd be more mature when they hithigh school. We were doing our calisthenics, and there was this big roar, andhere they came, 120 of them, in single file from the top of that concretestadium, biggest stadium in the [Monongahela] Valley. It was like Custer's LastStand."
The final scorewas 34-34, Holmes scoring for Monessen in the last moments. "We call it our34-34 win," Bassi says. Montana's passing numbers read 12 for 22,223 yardsand four touchdowns, three of them to Timko, the new tight end.
Last April,Ringgold threw a welcome-home dinner for Montana at the New Eagle Fire Hall.The 1,000 tickets were sold out in three hours. Among the gifts presented toMontana was a set of videotapes of all his high school games. A month later JoeRavasio, the current football coach at Ringgold, showed me the original gamefilms in a storeroom off the boys' locker room.
The first passMontana threw against Monessen was on a scramble to his right; he pulled up andhit Brantley, crossing underneath. The second was a sideline completion toTimko, neatly plunked between two defenders. The show was on. "They playeda three-deep, where they give you the short stuff," said Frank Lawrence,who had been the offensive line coach. "Joe just killed 'em with timedpatterns." It was an eerie feeling, watching Montana drop back from center,set and throw. All his 49er mechanics were there, the quick setup, the niftyglide to the outside, scrambling but under control, buying time, looking for areceiver underneath. It seemed as if he had been doing it all his life, andthis was a kid in his first high school start. "Watch Joe now,"Lawrence said as Ringgold scored on a one-yard plunge. "See that? Hebackpedals after the touchdown and throws his hands up. Same mannerisms asnow."
There were someamazing athletic plays by Montana—a 10-yard bootleg to the one, having fakedeveryone; a 35-yard touchdown pass to Timko, a play on which he rolled left,corkscrewed his body, dodged a rusher and laid the ball into the hands of thetight end, who was surrounded by three defenders.
We watched it all,junior year and senior year. The somewhat slender kid was gradually fillingout, standing taller in the pocket, almost 6'2" now, up to 180 pounds—themakings of a superstar. In the Laurel Highlands game his senior year (won byRinggold 44-0), Montana rolled to his right, went up on his toes and pump-fakedtwo defensive players out of position before he hit his receiver on a crossingpattern. But the most interesting thing was that the cameraman wasn't fooled.He kept the camera right on Montana. By then everyone knew what he was capableof.
He wasall-everything his senior year—including Parade All-America as a quarterback—agifted athlete who starred on a league championship basketball team ("Hecould stand flat-footed and dunk with two hands," says Fran LaMendola, hisbasketball coach), a baseball player good enough to get invited back to a majorleague tryout camp, a potential standout in sports in which he merely filledin—a victory in his only tennis match, an informal 6'9" high jump, a juniorhigh record in his only attempt at the discus. He was a B student who couldhave done better if someone had figured out a way to get him indoors, in frontof a book, a little longer. He was popular in school, easy to get to know, hardto get close to. His classmates elected him class vice-president his senioryear; the Ringgold yearbook, Flame 74, lists him as a member of the choir as asenior. The photo that appears under "Sports Personalities" in theyearbook shows a thin kid with blond, floppy hair that is almostgirlish-looking. He is leaning on the wall next to a trophy case; no waist orhips, string-bean legs in long bell-bottoms. "Joe Banana" was one ofAbramski's nicknames for Montana.
North CarolinaState offered him a basketball scholarship. Notre Dame basketball coach DiggerPhelps said he would try to arrange it so Montana could play football andbasketball. A few dozen college offers came in. Georgia assistant coach SamMrvos stood next to Montana's dad at one practice session, watched Joe throw abullet while sprinting to his left and told Joe Sr., "We'll give him ascholarship right now." Georgia was one of the schools Montana visited,along with Boston College, Minnesota and Notre Dame. His parents had taken himfor a look around Penn State, and he had been to Pitt many times to watch thePanthers play.
It was all windowdressing. His mind was already made up. It would be Notre Dame, where his idol,Hanratty, had played.
"In his senioryear, the games at Legion Field were a happening," said Bob Osleger, thegolf coach at Ringgold. "There was this flat bit of ground above thestadium, and Joe's father would stand there and watch the game, and all thesecollege coaches and scouts would vie for position to stand near him. Thewhispers would start, about which college coaches were there that night, and Ican see it so clearly now. Joe's dad would be standing there with his hands inhis pockets and all these guys jockeying for position around him."
Sixteen and a halfyears later Montana was back, sitting on the dais at the dinner in the NewEagle Fire Hall, facing a roomful of people who had paid the cut rate of $20 ahead, same price they paid for his first welcome-home dinner in '79. Earlier inthe day he had given four speeches to a few thousand school kids—elementary,middle and high school—and there was a gleeful moment when six-year-old AnthonyVaccaro asked him, "Do you know who's living in your house?"
"I am,"Anthony said, "512 Park Avenue."
"Do you sleepin my bedroom?"
But there was alsoan edge to Montana's return that some kids couldn't quite understand. That daythe Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a story that dredged up all the oldresentments. Some people felt Montana had turned his back on the Mon Valleywhen he moved to San Francisco, and that his parents had done likewise whenthey followed him west. There was mention in the Post-Gazette of his infrequentvisits home and how his name had been rejected in a newspaper phone-in poll onthe naming of Ringgold's new stadium. Once again there was an old Abramskiquote about all the people who hated him.
Montana read thepiece on his way to Monongahela from the Pittsburgh airport, and his openingremarks to the Ringgold middle school students left a few kids scratching theirheads. "What you hear about me, about my feelings, are totally false,"he said. "When they say Joe Montana doesn't think of the Mon Valley as hishome, well, you can tell whoever's saying it that he's full of it." It wasa sentiment he would repeat to the high school kids, and at the dinner. Hisrelatives in town knew only too well what he was talking about.
"My14-year-old granddaughter, Jamie, was afraid to go to school that day,"says Montana's aunt, Elinor Johnson. "She was afraid the kids were going toboo him."
"The kids weretelling me he doesn't really care about Monongahela," Jamie says."There's a picture of Joe on a locker in school that says, 'My Hero—Joke!'They don't know him. They hear what some people say. Sometimes I'll get upset,sometimes I'll walk away."
"You grew upworking in a mill or a factory," says Pam Giordenango, Jamie's mother."Now the mill's closed, the factory's closed. Heavy industry moved out ofthe Valley. People lost their jobs, lost their homes, lost their families.They're bitter. Whatever they read in the news gives them something to bitchabout, other than the fact that they can't make their house payments, can'tafford to put food on the table. Now here comes Joe, who's made a lot of moneyplaying football. He's an easy target."
I am standing infront of the armory, the old place where Montana practiced basketball at night.It seems small, much too small to hold a basketball court. A blue Chevy pullsup and stops. "If you want to get inside, you have to get the key from theminister down the street," the woman in the car says. She seems friendly.On an impulse I ask her, "What do you think of Joe Montana?"
"I don't likehim," she says.
"Stillers," she says.
Stillers? A bitterfamily in town?
"Stillers,Pittsburgh Stillers," she says. "Joe should be a Stiller."
A youngster askedMontana the same question earlier in the day. How come you aren't a Steeler, ifyou like this town so much?
"The footballdraft is like the draft in the Army," Montana had said. "When they callyou, you go."
"Hey, you'rein Steeler country," Elinor Johnson says. "They don't want Joe to beatTerry Bradshaw's record. You can get your man in the street, your man in thebar, he'll tell you that."
There's more, ofcourse, like the fact that Montana's parents worked for Civic Finance—hisfather was the manager, his mother a secretary—while the area was going througha financial crisis. "One person who defaulted on a loan can spread more badnews around town than 50 people can spread good news," says Carl Crawley.And then the fact that the Montanas left for California, to be with Joe andJennifer. Joe Jr. had instigated the move in 1986. He had always been close tohis parents, but how could you be close when you were 2,500 miles apart?"Joe said, 'Quit and come out here with Jennifer and me,' " his fathersays. "It's hard, though, when you've lived somewhere all your life, whenyour roots are there."
There had alsobeen a newspaper story about a financial mix-up, an accusation that Montana hadbilled a Monongahela group for speaking at a dinner held to honor him for beingthe '82 Super Bowl MVP. It was a bum rap. Montana was an infrequent publicspeaker in those days, and the few appearances he made were mostly unpaidcharity work. There was no fee for his Monongahela appearance, only a guaranteeof airfare, but when he put in an appearance at a second affair, in nearbyWashington, Pa., there was a tap dance about who would pick up the expense forMontana's trip home. "I never knew a thing about it until I read all thatstuff in the paper," Montana says.
As for the stadiumthat does not bear his name, the newspaper poll drew on a wide area, feeding onneighborhood rivalries and jealousies. None of the other local heroes wasacceptable either, not Stan Musial, not Ken Griffey.
Perhaps the maincause of conflict is that Montana has always guarded his privacy. "We'vecome back to Monongahela four or five times in the last few years to visitrelatives," Jennifer Montana says, "but people don't know that. What ishe supposed to do, go down to the corner drugstore and hang out?"
That's probablywhat the people of Monongahela wanted. They wanted a superstar to act like one.But Montana's public persona had become a nightmare for him. "I love to eatout," he says, "but it's just no fun anymore. There's always a group ofpeople coming by your table, always some guy just pulling up a chair andlighting a cigarette and starting to talk football."
He did what he hadto do publicly—sign autographs and give interviews—but his privacy was his, andthat included trips back home. In Monongahela, it was hard to understand. Hewas still Joey, the local kid. It's a complex area, the Mon Valley, fiercelyloyal at times, but a place where it's easy to form resentments. And it's thearea that Montana left in the fall of 1974 for a strange sojourn at Notre Damethat mirrored his entire athletic career—lows, moments of despair, followed byglorious highs.
He was 18 when hearrived in South Bend, still skinny, still shy with people he didn't know, abit at sea so far away from his hometown and his parents. He had become engagedto his high school sweetheart, Kim Moses, from Monongahela Valley CatholicHigh. They would be married in the second semester of his freshman year anddivorced less than three years later.
At Notre Dame hefound himself amid an incredible collection of talent. He was a high schoolhotshot who was surrounded by hotshots, a hatchery fish in the deep ocean.Forty-six players who played for Notre Dame during the Montana years would bedrafted by the NFL, eight in the first round. The Irish won a nationalchampionship under Ara Parseghian the year before Montana arrived in SouthBend, and they would win another one, under Dan Devine, in '77, Montana'sjunior year.
Montana saw novarsity action his first year and got only minimal playing time in the freshmangames. The eye-catching recruit was Gary Forystek, a big, strong, rocket-armedkid from Livonia, Mich. Montana? Well, he had that sleepy look about him. Hemissed home. He would call his dad three, four times a week. Joe Sr. told himto hang in. On a whim Montana once drove home in the middle of the night. JoeSr. occasionally would make the eight-hour drive from Monongahela to watch JoeJr. in an afternoon scrimmage, grab a bite to eat with his son, and then drivehome to be at work the next day.
"His dad wouldsometimes show up in the middle of the night, and we'd all go out at 1 a.m. fora stack of pancakes," says Montana's freshman roommate, Nick DeCicco."It was crazy."
"The fact is,his father was his best friend," says Steve Orsini, Montana's formerteammate at Notre Dame. "The person Joe felt closest to was back inMonongahela."
Parseghianresigned suddenly, for health reasons, on Dec. 15, 1974, and the new coach wasDevine, from the Green Bay Packers. "I asked the coaches about myquarterbacks when I first got there," Devine says. "No one said muchabout Joe. He'd been something like the seventh or eighth quarterback. Then hehad a fine spring practice, really outstanding. I came home and told my wife,'I'm gonna start Joe Montana in the final spring game,' and she said, 'Who'sJoe Montana?' I said, 'He's the guy who's going to feed our family for the nextfew years.' "
It took a while incoming, until Montana came off the bench as a sophomore to pull out two gamesin the fourth quarter, and then did it again as a junior. The players couldn'tfigure out why it was taking the coach so long to grasp something they alreadyknew, that this skinny, sleepy-eyed kid from Monongahela was the man, the guywho could get it done when he had to.
"Whenever hecame on the field," says L.A. Raider noseguard Bob Golic, who played atNotre Dame with Montana, "the players knew they had a friend comingin."
"When thepressure came," says 49er free safety Dave Waymer, who started his NotreDame career as a wideout, "we knew he was the guy who wouldn'toverheat."
Montana startedthe season behind Rick Slager as a sophomore in '75, and behind Rusty Lisch in'77, Joe's year of junior eligibility after he had separated his shoulder andmissed all of '76. The time Montana spent on the bench still bothers him; theresentment of Devine is still there. Waymer says the reason was that Montanawas a Parseghian recruit and Devine favored his own guys, which really doesn'tfigure because Montana went nowhere under Parseghian.
Walsh, the former49er coach, says there's something about Montana when you first see him on thepractice field, "an almost blasè look, although actually he's anything butthat. I could see a college coach being put off by the fact that he's notresponding overtly, so he'd say, 'Well, this guy's not motivated, he's not withthe program.' "
Devine saysMontana simply wasn't ready to start at the beginning of his sophomore year. Hesaid that he got him in "as soon as he had medical clearance to play"as a junior. Montana feels that there was something about him that Devine justdidn't like.
The interestingthing is that Montana, who has been called extremely coachable by whoever hasworked with him, has had three major coaches in his life—Abramski at Ringgold,De-vine at Notre Dame and Walsh with the 49ers—and at one time he has heldbitter feelings toward each one. And for the same reason: Why won't he playme?
"Yeah, I guessit's true.... I never thought of it," Montana says, "although with Billit wasn't a major problem; it only lasted a few games. With Abramski I guess itwas because no player had ever challenged him like I did. The Devine situationwas a mystery to me. I mean I'd been demoted to third string the year after Igot hurt. Other guys had gotten their positions back. I couldn't understand it.It hurt me."
Montana carried aB-over C + average and eventually graduated with a degree in businessadministration and marketing. Dave Huffman, Montana's center at Notre Dame aridcurrently a guard with the Vikings, remembers him as "just a regular guywho wanted to play hoops, go drink a beer. We called him Joe Montanalow becausehe was the spitting image of Barry Manilow. In his senior year he moved into anapartment above a bar. When the bar closed down, we'd go upstairs to Joe'splace. It was our after-hours joint."
There is a statsheet compiled by the Notre Dame sports information department entitled"Joe Montana's Comeback Statistics," which lists six games. The Irishwon five of those games in the fourth quarter, and they almost won thesixth—the 1978 game at Southern Cal in which Montana brought the Irish backfrom a 24-6 deficit to a 25-24 lead before USC pulled it out with a field goalat the end. At the top of the list is a game at North Carolina in his sophomoreseason. The Irish were down 14-6 with 5:11 to play, when Montana came off thebench and pulled out a 21-14 win with 129 yards passing in his minute and twoseconds on the field. That's the kind of list it is, and there probably isn'tanother one like it.
"[Athleticdirector] Moose Krause grabbed my hand in the locker room after the NorthCarolina game," Devine says, "and said, 'Fantastic. Greatest comebackI've ever seen. Better than the Ohio State game in '35.' Then Joe does it againnext week against Air Force; comes off the bench and brings us back from 30-10down in the fourth quarter to a 31-30 win. In the locker room Moose said, 'Thisone's better than last week.' "
The legend wasborn; Montana was the Comeback Kid. Then, kaboom! The big slide. Montana washurt before his junior season, and when he returned a year later it was as thethird-string quarterback, behind Lisch and Forystek.
"When we lostto Mississippi [20-13 in the second game of the season] with Joe on the bench,I thought, 'What a weird deal.' " says Ken MacAfee, an All-America tightend at Notre Dame who went on to play for the 49ers. "I mean we all knew hecould do it, he knew he could do it, but he wasn't playing. He was really down.I remember going to his apartment one night and he said, 'I'm just sick of thiscrap, sick of the whole thing.' "
Devine says,"Joe probably doesn't remember this, but he hadn't been given medicalclearance to play in those first two games." Montana says it's news to him.Devine says that on the following Wednesday he told him to be ready to play atPurdue. Lisch started, then he was yanked for Forystek. When Forystek tried toscramble on one play, Purdue linebacker Fred Arrington met him with a ferociousblow. Forystek went down with a broken vertebra, a broken collarbone and asevere concussion. His football career was over.
Devine came backwith Lisch ("I didn't want to bring Joe in until he had the wind at hisback"), and then finally Montana trotted onto the field. The Notre Dameplayers began waving their fists and cheering. The fans went crazy.
In the press boxPurdue sports information director Tom Shupe turned to Notre Dame's S.I.D.,Roger Valdiserri, and said, "What's everybody yelling for?"
"Because JoeMontana's in the game," Valdiserri said, "and you're introuble."
It became comebackNo. 3 on the list. Down 24-14 with 11 minutes to go, Montana threw for 154yards and a touchdown, and the Irish won 31-24. The following year there werecomebacks against Pitt and Southern Cal ("I have nightmares about Montanain that game," says LA. Ram coach John Robinson, who coached the Trojans."I remember thinking, Isn't this guy ever gonna miss on one?"), and thefamous Cotton Bowl win over Houston on Jan. 1, 1979.
But the gameDevine has special memories of is the one at Clemson in 1977, one that didn'tmake the list. "I remember Joe driving us down the field to win it in thefourth quarter," he says, "and I remember him having something like asecond-and-52 at one point and getting a first down out of it. But best of allI remember him taking off down the sidelines with two linebackers closing in onhim, and I was yelling, 'Go out of bounds, Joe! Go out of bounds!' And therewas this tremendous collision, and they went down in a heap and only one guygot up, and it was Joe. I said, 'My god, he's taking on the whole Clemsonteam.' "
It's strange, andmaybe it's partly because of guilt feelings, but Devine has become one ofMontana's biggest boosters. Montana still resents the fact that Devine didn'tRive him what he feels was his rightfully earned playing time, but theresentment has softened, and they have gotten together socially since theirNotre Dame days. Devine says he handled Montana the best way he knew how, rightor wrong, but he adds that there's no question in his mind that Montana is thegreatest ever to play the game. Devine describes a scene in the 1989 SuperBowl, during which he was in the stands, when Cincinnati kicked a field goal tomake the score 16-13 with 3:20 to go. Devine turned to the man next to him andsaid, "I'd have thought twice about kicking it. They've given Joe ashot."
The 1979 CottonBowl against Houston, the famous Chicken Soup game, was, of course, the onethat put the capper on the Comeback Kid's collegiate career. A freak ice stormhad hit Dallas, and "all you heard as you came in was, bam, bam, bam,people knocking ice off the seats," Waymer says. By the fourth quarter,Montana was in the locker room with hypothermia, his temperature down to 96°,and the medical staff was pumping bouillon into him (no, not chicken soup,bouillon; the team kept it on hand for cold-weather emergencies) to warm himup. Houston was building a 34-12 lead, while Montana lay in the locker roomcovered with blankets. Oh, yes, it's a story, all right.
"Rick Slagerwas in law school then, and he was a graduate assistant coach on the sidelineswith me," Devine says. "His job was to run into the locker room everyfive minutes to see what Joe's temperature was. He'd come back and say, 'It'sup to 97°,' and five minutes later I'd tell him to run in and find outagain."
With 7:37 to go,Montana came running onto the field, and a mighty roar went up. "Uh, no,not exactly a mighty roar," recalls Huffman, the Notre Dame center."More like a feeble, frozen roar, since there were only a few people leftin the stands, and ice was falling out of their mouths. Actually, I didn't evenknow Joe was out there until I felt his hands taking the snap. I thought, Waita minute, these are different hands."
With six secondsleft, the Irish were down by six points. "I told Joe to run a 91, a quickout," Devine says, "and if it wasn't there, to throw it away. KrisHaines, our wideout, slipped, and Joe threw it away. Now there were two secondsleft. I turned my back on the field. That meant Joe could call his own play. Hecalled the 91 again, the noseguard came through, Haines broke to the flag, andwith the noseguard staring him in the face Joe threw a perfect pass, low andoutside, a bullet—under all that pressure, with terrible conditions. He was socalm. I swear to God he was no different than he would have been inpractice."
Final score,35-34, and six months later Notre Dame was marketing a promotional film calledSeven and a Half Minutes to Destiny, "which," Devine says, "wasreally a Joe Montana film."
So you look forhints, for clues to help you understand Montana's ability to bring his teamback from the brink. It would become his trademark in the NFL, too. Montanasays that right until the end of his Notre Dame career he was filled withdoubts about his ability. Even after the Houston game, he says, "I remaineda skeptic, maybe because of the mind games Devine had been playing withme." Did any of his Notre Dame teammates have a feeling that Montana'scareer would take off the way it did, that they were in the presence ofroyalty?
"If I'd haveknown how famous he'd get, I'd have stayed in closer contact with him,"Huffman says. "To us, he was just Joe Montanalow, a regular guy. If hewasn't so skinny, we'd have made him a lineman."
"Well, I knewhe was going to be good, but I never knew he'd be that good," says MacAfee,now a dentist in the Philadelphia area. "The thing is, I don't think theguy ever feels pressure. The people around him feel it more than he does. Idon't think he knows what it is. When he walks onto the field, he could bethrowing to Dwight Clark or Jerry Rice or Kris Haines. He could be playingNavy, or the Jets in September, or Denver in the Super Bowl. I don't thinkthere's any difference in his mind. To him it's just football. He doesn'tchange, it's just the aura that changes. At Notre Dame, I can't remember Joeever missing a read. Even watching him on TV now, he knows the system soperfectly, he knows so well where everything's going to go. He could calleverything himself, call it on the line. I don't even know why they send inplays for him."
When the 1979draft was approaching and the Cotton Bowl glow had worn off, the NFL scouts gottogether and started putting down numbers for Montana. One combine gave him agrade of 6½ with 9 being the top of the scale and 1 the bottom. WashingtonState's Jack Thompson got the highest grade among the quarterbacks—8. Montana'sarm was rated a 6, or average. "He can thread the needle," the reportsaid, "but usually goes with his primary receiver and forces the ball tohim even when he's in a crowd. He's a gutty, gambling, cocky type. Doesn't havegreat tools but could eventually start."
The dumb teamsbelieved the report. The smart one has won four Super Bowls.
[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
NEXT WEEK: IS JOE MONTANA THE GREATEST QUARTERBACK INNFL HISTORY?
GREAT DAYS FOR THE IRISH
While at Notre Dame, Joe Montana was best known forleading these six fourth-quarter comebacks. Here are his statistics for eachrally.
TIME ON FIELD
*Montana's fourth-quarter heroics gave Notre Dame a25-24 lead over Southern Cal, but a controversial call by an official deniedthe Irish possession with 26 seconds left and allowed the Trojans to score thefield goal that won the game, 27-25.
** Cotton Bowl in Dallas.
Note: In a 1977 game at Clemson, Montana rallied NotreDame from a 17-7 deficit with 5:15 left in the third quarter. He scored twiceon one-yard runs, and the Irish won, 21-17. Many consider it among Montana'sgreat comebacks, but it was not included in this list because his passingstatistics were subpar.
Source: Sports Information Department, University ofNotre Dame