Someday, someway, Joe Montana will be a San Francisco 49er again.
"It's something I want very much," Niner owner Eddie DeBartolo said last week. "Whatever happens, even if he wins three straight Super Bowls in Kansas City, there's kind of an unwritten agreement that the Chiefs will permit him to retire as a 49er."
The way Montana's debut as the Big Chief went last Sunday in Tampa, three straight might be a little low. All Montana did was not miss a pass for almost a quarter and a half, connect for three touchdowns, throw the most beautiful bomb your poor eyes ever laid eyes on, dodge nicely out of the way of some very large men with some very bad intentions, fail to throw even one interception, pass for 246 yards, generally carry on like his old immortal self, pile-drive the Tampa Bay (Well Spent) Bucs 27-3 and call it a day before the end of the third quarter.
"On a scale of 10," said Kansas City's blur-footed receiver Willie Davis. "I'd give him a 13."
On a scale of 10, Davis gets a one in history. He caught Montana's first touchdown pass as a Chief, and then he...he...he....
"I spiked the ball," Davis said ruefully afterward. "I don't know what I was thinking. I should have kept it. Do you know what that ball will be worth?"
The better question is, Do you know what Montana will be worth to a team that finished 25th in total offense last year, to a team that hasn't been to a Super Bowl in almost a quarter of a century, to a team that has always had a killer defense and nothing to show for it?
"To me, he looks like the same old Joe," said Marcus Allen, who, come to think of it, looked like the same old Marcus Allen in his debut with the Chiefs, running and catching for nearly 100 yards and a TD. "He hasn't changed a bit."
Actually, Montana has changed a bit. His arm, his judgment, his release seem, if anything, even better than before. "Yeah, he's all right, I guess," said Buc nosetackle Mark Wheeler. "O.K., he's good. He looked like a college kid out there. He looked like he could go 10 more years."
But if he goes 10 more, his 10th will be in San Francisco. If he goes five more, his fifth will be in San Francisco. Three, his third. That much DeBartolo guarantees. In fact friends of DeBartolo say he'll get Montana back in a 49er uniform even if Montana's right arm falls off and he needs to be propped up on the sideline with two-by-fours.
"I'm not speaking for Joe or [Kansas City general manager] Carl Peterson or [Chief owner] Lamar Hunt, but Carmen [Policy, the Niners' president] and Carl have had these discussions, and I think it goes without saying that Joe will finish his career here," said DeBartolo. When asked about retiring back in his old uniform, Montana smiled and said, "That would be nice."
It was a funny week that way. Everywhere Montana went, he must have felt like Jacob Marley. His future, his present and his past all seemed to find their way into his huddle.
Montana's present was wondering how his NFL comeback would go against the young Bucs in a strange new uniform with a strange old number (19, because the Chiefs had retired 16, which was the number Len Dawson wore when he quarter-backed them) on a strange new team in a strange new division after almost two years of sitting on the bench icing an old and sore elbow. But even that number, 19, begged the past. Montana hadn't worn it since he was 11 years old playing peewee, the last year that he wanted to quit football.
"My cousins were all doing other stuff," he says. "I think it was Boy Scouts. And I wanted to do what they were doing." But Montana's father wouldn't let him quit until the end of the season, and by then, Montana didn't want to quit. That was 26 years ago, and in all that time Montana has never wanted to quit. There was some talk this year that he might pack it in, but when the trade to Kansas City came down, suddenly Montana had a football future again.
In K.C., Montana was hailed as a savior even before he had thrown his first spiral. One woman wondered if Montana would be good enough to sign the urn containing her husband's ashes before they were interred. One day Montana got into his car and was about to drive off when some-body screamed for him to stop. It seems a little boy was hiding under the car, waiting for him to come out. One night in a bar Montana drained a few cans of beer with some friends. When he got up to leave, a woman snatched the empties and put them in her purse.
They could be recycled, but could Montana? In the last two years he had tried fewer passes than Joey Buttafuoco. How much speed had he lost? How many hits would he be able to take? Was it Jerry Rice who fueled Montana, or Montana who made Rice? "Hey, let's not forget," warned Buccaneer linebacker Broderick Thomas the day before the game. "The man was surrounded by the best fullback in the game, the best wideouts and a line that would hold, kick, scrape, do anything to protect him."
Finally, Montana came to Tampa, where he found himself staring straight into his past. Starting for the Bucs at quarterback was Steve DeBerg, who has had more lives than Shirley MacLaine, including one in 1979 and '80 as Montana's roommate with the 49ers. He started ahead of Montana, no less. Montana eventually beat out DeBerg, just as nearly every American has done to DeBerg at one time or another. (John Elway with the Denver Broncos, Vinny Testaverde with the Bucs and, rumor had it, Craig Erickson in Tampa again.) In fact only two seasons ago it was DeBerg who was quarterbacking in K.C. "The interesting thing is the Chiefs got rid of me to get a quarterback of the future," says DeBerg. "Then they go get two old guys."
Montana may be 37 and his backup, Dave Krieg, may be 34, but DeBerg, at 39, is the oldest creature in the league. In fact the match of Montana and DeBerg looked like a shootout at the Creamed-Corn Saloon, the oldest pairing in the NFL since Fran Tarkenton (then 38) went against Roger Staubach (36) in '78.
There was more. Coaching across the field from Montana was Sam Wyche, the 49ers' former quarterback coach, the one who had scouted Montana before the draft, the one who worked with him in his early years, the one who went on to become head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. In three different games, including Super Bowl XXIII, his Bengals were ahead of Montana's Niners in the last minute and a half and lost.
In the end, as always, it was Montana's present that turned out to be the most fun. He came to his locker to find...his shoes missing. In their place were some size 15's and a note. "Stop trying to follow in my footsteps." DeBerg.
But just as Pipp would never be Gehrig and Best would never be Ringo, DeBerg will never be Montana. He came out flat, and Montana came out hotter than Tampa asphalt. He completed his first nine passes, one of them to Davis for the 19-yard touchdown that gave the Chiefs a 7-3 lead they would never come close to handing back. There were just under 10 minutes left in the second quarter, and Montana still hadn't missed. The way the Chiefs' front row of condominiums was scaling off strangers, it seemed Montana might not miss until November.
O.K., so he did miss his 10th on a technicality (Fred Jones caught it out of bounds), but he set up scores on that possession and the next—one a Nick Lowery field goal and the other a 50-yard touchdown on a postcard-perfect fly pass down the middle to J.J. Birden. "That ball was about as perfect as it gets," said Birden. "I got a great release on my man, and as I was breaking, I thought to myself, I just hope he sees me. Just as I was thinking that, I looked up, and the ball was there. I didn't even have to break stride."
Then Montana hit Allen on a simple flat pass—one of about 10,000 Allen will catch this year—and Allen turned it into a lovely 12-yard touchdown. Montana to Allen. Touchdown. Must be Beethoven to the ears of long-suffering Chief fans.
"I didn't feel like I had anything to prove to anybody today," said Allen, who left the Los Angeles Raiders in a huff after last season and signed with the Chiefs as a free agent. "I didn't think I needed to prove anything to myself either."
But Montana did, and he proved it. Benched at every level—high school, college and pro—he still has an insecurity streak a mile wide. And even though he bruised his right hand and had to leave the game in the third quarter to have X-rays taken (they turned out negative), nothing was going to take away from his debutante party.
"It felt good to be back out there," said Montana in a sweat-box interview room (as fans outside chanted, "We want Joe!"), "It's been a long time."
Outside, DeBerg, who still has never beaten Montana as a starter, was smarting from having been replaced in the third quarter by Erickson, who was seven years old when DeBerg started his pro career. Will you start next week? he was asked. "You tell me," he said with a smile. Ever the Kelly girl, never the full-time.
Across the way, poor Willie Davis was lamenting his misdeed, spiking away a treasure that should have adorned his den shelf, when he struck on another idea. "I know," he said with a wicked grin. "I'll steal his jersey."