You look at the poster on the bedroom wall. You could be Joe Montana. Yes, you could. You throw your official NFL ball into the air, narrowly missing the model airplanes hanging from the ceiling by strings. You catch the ball and dive onto the bed. Montana to Rice! Touchdown! You could do that. You could hear the same noises Joe Montana hears. You could do the same things he does. Yes, you could.
"What's your name, son?"
"Joe Montana. Like the state. Montana."
The possibility is not out of reach. You would not have to be exceptionally fast. You would not have to grow exceedingly tall. You would not have to develop unbelievable strength. Your game would be wits and grace and style and reactions. These are gifts you could have. Cool. You could have cool. The Neanderthals from the defensive line would charge at your face and you would step to the right, step to the left, let them pass with their misguided fury. Cool. The disguises of the defensive backfield would fall away before your eyes. Who is open? How far do I throw? There never would be doubt. You simply would deliver the mail.
December 24, 1990
Quarterback. That is your position. Has to be. Your father spent a lot of time in this same room thinking he could be Johnny Unitas. His father thought he could be Sid Luckman. Isn't that the American boyhood dream? You could be Joe. Those pennants, held down against the floral wallpaper by thumbtacks now, could be waving in the brisk autumn air. Those street noises outside could be 60,000 people, mad for a moment. You could be holding your hands out for quiet. You could be changing the play at the line of scrimmage, the rest of your San Francisco 49er teammates crouched and ready to go. You could be picking the perfect play for the perfect moment, then running it perfectly.
Nothing would be different. You would have that same boyish humility, amazing everyone and then telling the reporters that it was "no big deal." You would drive the red Ferrari and be married to the television personality and have three pretty children for the Christmas card. The contract would be for multimillions for multiyears. The adulation would grow daily. You would be the star of the best team of a decade, winning four Super Bowls and heading for a possible fifth. The experts would say you were "the best ever," or at least a candidate. The success would not go to your head. You would be All-Pro, a starter in the Pro Bowl, a salesman for the latest wicked-awesome fluorescent sneakers. You would be named SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S Sportsman of the Year for 1990, the first pro football player to win the award outright in its 37 years.
How would that feel?
You could handle it. You could be Joe Montana.
The poster costs five bucks. Send the five bucks to a mail-order house in Fenton, Mo., and you can receive a poster of Bo Jackson or Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson. Or the 2-by 3-foot picture can show Joe Montana throwing a football. He is wearing his white jersey with the red No. 16 on the front. White wristbands. A white towel hanging from his belt. The ball coming from behind his gold 49er helmet.
An 11-year-old kid named Justin Rozen from Branford, Conn., bought the poster because he "just likes Joe and his talent." A man named Ken Hall from Clinton, Ind., bought one for his nine-year-old son, Kenny, because "Kenny had all these pictures of Joe, cut out from sports magazines, on his wall already." A 12-year-old named Azriel Chelst from Southfield, Mich., bought one because "Joe can pass, and I love his two-minute drill, and I want to be a quarterback.
"My friend and I are pretty good. I'm always Joe Montana and he's always Jerry Rice. We have a deep pass that always works. Well, mostly always. If my friend catches the ball. Then I say the words at the end of the Super Bowl."
"I'm going to Disney World."
You like to watch him on television. Especially during the hard times. The hard times are best. You know all about him during the hard times. You have read all the stories, read the books, listened to all the commentators. He is at his best when the chips are down. Isn't that what they say? You love to watch him when the chips are down.
He somehow seems to breathe slower when everyone else breathes fast, seems to have a different metabolism. Remember that final drive in the 1989 Super Bowl? You fell off the chair. You rolled on the floor with excitement. Was there ever any doubt that he simply was going to move those Niners 92 yards down the field in the final 3:20 to beat the Cincinnati Bengals? Of course not. He completed one pass, and then another, and another. Eight of nine passes during the drive. Was there ever any better high-pressure bit of football business? Didn't you read what he said at the start of the drive?
"Hey, check it out," he said to tackle Harris Barton.
"Check out what?" Barton asked.
"There, in the stands, standing near the exit ramp," Joe said. "There's John Candy."
Wasn't that the greatest? There are lists of the comebacks he has quarterbacked in 12 seasons with the Niners and four college seasons at Notre Dame. The lists are so long that they look like the itinerary for a breakout tour by a heavy-metal band. Your father remembers reading about someone named Chip Hilton who did the same things Joe does. Your grandfather mentions someone named Frank Merriwell. You don't know any of that. Weren't those characters from fiction? Joe is real. A real Joe.
One of your favorite comebacks was at the Cotton Bowl in 1979, when he directed the Fighting Irish to 23 points in the final 7:37. They won 35-34 over the University of Houston. The day was cold...and Joe was fighting hypothermia, was filled with bullion to get his temperature back near normal...and he went into the ice and wind and did the job. Did the job? Twenty-three points in 7:37?
You look at his record, and he has led the Niners to a comeback win every year since he has been a starter. He had four on the way to last season's Super Bowl win. This year, through Dec. 16, he had three. It seemed for a while that he was doing magic tricks every week, two minutes to play, pushing the 49ers down the field. His total now is 26 fourth-quarter comeback wins as a pro. Doesn't that have to be some kind of a record?
"Let me take a chance at this," Joe says when times are hard.
"Is that good enough?" he says when he turns the score upside down.
You look at his life and it has been a series of challenges that he has met and mastered. He wasn't one of those one-sport robot athletes in high school, needing summer camp and year-round practice to get a handle on one particular game. He was a kid. He played football and basketball and baseball in Monongahela, Pa., each sport in its season. The football coach benched him as a junior, and he came back the same season and was the best. He went to Notre Dame. He was listed seventh on the depth chart, and he rose to the top. He was the best. The pros neglected him, the Niners drafting him in the third round, and he met the challenge again. He was the best. He even had back surgery—the doctors doubted he would play again—and he overcame that, too. He is the best.
His story is the traditional athletic parable. Forget any frayed edges that are mentioned in the tabloids. The core of the story is good and true. You can't do it! Yes, I can! Isn't that the heartbeat of sport? Isn't that the best sight to see? This 34-year-old guy has delivered more often than anyone else who's around now, maybe more often than anyone ever. He proves detractors wrong. He makes them shut up.
"Here's how Joe's luck goes," says Jerry Walker, the 49ers' director of public relations. "I help him with his mail. My wife also helps. One day, I was cleaning out the car, and I found a letter to Joe that had somehow fallen behind a seat. The letter was about 10 months old, a request from a girl for an autograph. We sent out a picture, and about a week later I notice another envelope arrive with the same name and handwriting. I somehow remembered. I opened the envelope, and the girl had written a thank-you note. She said she was amazed at how thoughtful Joe had been, waiting 10 months to time the arrival of his picture to the exact date of her birthday. Anyone else.... That's just Joe. Things somehow work out."
The mail arrives in bunches. A nationally televised game brings bigger bunches. A record brings even bigger bunches. A Super Bowl win? There are 10 U.S. Postal Service bins filled with mail, almost a year's worth, still awaiting replies in Walker's office. The bunches form an avalanche that no human can handle. Included in the avalanche are special T-shirts and Christmas ornaments and knitted key chains and just about any personalized gift imaginable. Birthday cards are a separate avalanche.
"It's an amazing phenomenon," Walker says. "My daughter broke her arm two years ago. She came to practice, and Joe saw her and signed her cast: 'To Kelly, my one and only girl. Joe Montana.' At school the next day she received various offers for the cast. One kid offered his entire baseball and football card collection. She didn't make the deal. At the same school, I attended a Halloween parade of costumes. A little grammar school in Palo Alto. I counted 17 kids dressed as Joe Montana in the parade. The number was probably high because this is California, but 17 Joe Montanas?"
You see him up close. Just once. The game is in Dallas on a warm Sunday night this season. The Niners are unbeaten at the time, flying. Joe is flying. You watch him shred the poor Cowboys, 24-6. The game is never a contest. By halftime Joe has completed 15 of 18 passes for 188 yards. The Niners have a 17-6 lead. At each end of Texas Stadium, giant replay screens seem to show Joe's face after every play. A 30-foot face. A 6'2" man. How would that be, looking at your own 30-foot face all the time? Joe docs not seem to notice.
At the end of the game, you have special credentials to go into the locker room. Don't say how you got them. You go to Joe's locker and wait for him to appear, but a man comes in and says Joe will talk to the press in another room. You go to that room, and there he is. He is standing on a bench. Ten microphones are held in front of his face. Four cameras are rolling. He is wearing gray gym shorts and his white-and-red game socks and a T-shirt. The T-shirt presumably once was white, but it has become almost pink because of red dye bleeding from the perspiration-soaked red jersey that he wore during the game. His arms are crossed, and there is a touch of real blood on his right elbow.
"We didn't do some things.... We got away with it this time," he says. "The next time, we might not. I think we played just average. I played just average."
Just average? He scored a touchdown. He threw for a touchdown. He completed 27 of 37 passes for 290 yards. He was touched by the Dallas defense no more than four times. Just average. You study his face. He looks a little like the singer Barry Manilow. He smiles and seems easy with words, but he does not say much. He is not a nightclub comedian or a politician or an evangelist. He is a football player.
The press conference—lasting no longer than seven minutes—is finished when a heavy-set man named Jim Warren tells Joe that he has to get rolling. Warren carries a walkie-talkie and also has a little audio plug in one ear. He's one of the Niners' private security guards on game days, and most of the time he watches out for Joe. On the way out the door, Joe is asked to do an interview with a television crew that has arrived late. Joe says, "It wouldn't be fair to all of those other guys." He smiles. He is off to the trainer's room.
"I've been guarding him since 1981," Warren says. "Everywhere we go, I figure ways to get him out of the stadium. There always are so many people waiting. You have to find different routes. In L.A., I take him right up through the stands and out a side door. In Atlanta, we go way through the back, through this concessions area. Dallas here isn't bad. For the most part, the people are kept away from the buses."
The buses wait in a fenced-off runway on the side of the stadium. There are three of them, all in a row. There also are two equipment trucks and a four-man motorcycle escort. All engines are running, everyone is waiting, when Joe finally emerges from the locker room. He comes out on the run, behind Warren, as people yell his name and try to hand slips of paper to him. Warren directs him to the second bus in the line, and he gets on and walks to the last seat and sits next to safety Ronnie Lott. You can see Lott hand him a beer before the lights go out on the bus. The motorcycles start rolling. The buses and trucks start rolling.
You somehow notice the number on the back of Joe's bus. It's 711. Somehow you think that is perfect.
An 11-year-old named Matthew Hart, from Red Bluff, Calif., had a brain tumor. He was at the University of California at San Francisco Hospital. This was in July. The doctors told his parents he had 48 hours to live. During his radiation treatments, the kid had worn a 49er jersey. His favorite player was Joe Montana.
"We got a call from Matt's mother, Sally, asking if it were possible for Joe to visit Matt," says Ronie Saake of the Sacramento Make-A-Wish Foundation. "We were able to get through to one of Joe's representatives, and she was able to get through to him. Ironically, he was on his way to sign his new contract extension for this season. He said, 'Well, I could be late for the contract' and came to the hospital. He was beautiful. He wasn't some guy who was saying, 'I'm a superstar here to help.' He said he was honored and humbled that Matt had asked for him."
The meeting lasted 45 minutes. Matt was on a morphine drip and would drift in and out of consciousness. He would grab Joe's hand every time he awoke, just to make sure he was seeing real life instead of a dream. Joe left. Matt's crisis passed. Three weeks later, he was strong enough to walk out of the hospital. He is still sick, undergoing treatments, but in September he went to a 49er game. He was Joe's guest.
The attitude never changes. You always are a kid when you see Joe Montana or read about him or simply hear his name and the latest things he has done. You are 11 years old, maybe 12 or 13. The other years do not count, no matter how many have been piled onto the total, no matter what else you might have done. You are wrapped in the blind faith of childhood. Dinner is on the table at the appointed time. Clean clothes always are in the dresser drawers. The afternoon bell at school always signals freedom. A grass field and a game await—a pure time of physical pleasure and active imagination.
What could be better than to be the best quarterback of all, to be in charge, to be famous, to be a picture on everyone else's wall? You could be anything you want to be, but you want most to be this one man. He stands alone on his 100-yard field. He has answered all the questions on all the physical tests, finished where everyone else wanted to finish, the one guy to complete the American boyhood dream.
You could have been...would have been...who knows? You still might be.