Joe Montana is a winner, and maybe we should just leave it at that. The 38-year-old quarterback, with four Super Bowl victories, two NFL MVP awards and three Super Bowl MVP awards simply keeps on winning. It's only when you try to explain why that it gets tough.
Body? Hah! At 6'2", fragile and bird-legged, Montana looks like a five-year-old's stick-figure doodle. Arm? Even at its healthiest, it was never a rifle. When Montana was drafted out of Notre Dame in 1979, pro scouts rated his arm "average." These days it's a wonder that the two halves of his right wing are even connected. In August '91, during his 13th year with the San Francisco 49ers, he tore the common flexor tendon completely off the elbow bone. Holes were drilled into the bone, the tendon was reattached, and after missing almost the entire '92 season, Montana emerged as the old, winning Joe, only this time with a new team, the Kansas City Chiefs.
Personality? Montana's a nice guy, decent, calm as a lagoon—but a yeller, screamer, shaker-upper? Forget it. He describes himself as "quiet and sort of laid-back." The "sort of" is stretching it. Work habits? Montana works hard at the mental game, but as for weightlifting and all that physical stuff, well, isn't that why they invented offensive linemen?
As it is with all geniuses, Montana does things that are inexplicable. How can you figure, for instance, his ability to lead his teams to wins when there simply isn't enough time to do so? Consider just a couple of his fourth-quarter comebacks in college. Down 30-10 with 13 minutes left on the clock against Air Force in 1975, his sophomore year, Montana whipped together a 31-30 Notre Dame victory. As a senior, down 34-12 to Houston in the Cotton Bowl with 7:37 remaining, he engineered a 35-34 comeback win, scoring the last TD on a fourth-down pass with two seconds left, in an ice storm, after suffering hypothermia so bad that at halftime he had to be pumped full of enough bouillon to start a soup kitchen. In his pro career, now in its 16th season, Montana has served up 29 fourth-quarter comeback wins. "He's got this resourcefulness, this something that's hard to put into words," Montana's mentor, former 49er coach Bill Walsh, once said after much thought. "He won't choke. Or rather, if he ever does, you'll know everyone else has come apart first."
September 18, 1994
Back surgery, concussions, a numb left foot, knee problems, the radical elbow repair, age—none of it has kept Montana down. His comebacks on the field are matched only by his comebacks to the field. "He's like Lazarus," former 49er cornerback Tim McKyer once said. "You roll back the stone, Joe limps out—and throws for 300 yards."
The highest-rated quarterback in NFL history—for both career (93.1) and single season (112.4 in 1989)—he flat-out owns the playoffs, with NFL records for completions, yards and touchdowns. And the Super Bowl? If he's there, he wins. Montana has gone to numbers XVI, XIX, XXIII and XXIV and hasn't lost yet. He has completed 68% of his passes in Roman-numeral contests, and his opponents are still waiting for that first interception.
Montana often leads us into thinking that pro football is scripted in storybook fashion, that he is the white-hatted, all-American Comeback Kid for whom the impossible just happens. But his triumphs are forged from very real talent. He is a great athlete—he pitched three Little League perfect games back in Monongahela, Pa., for instance, and turned down a basketball scholarship to North Carolina State—but as a quarterback, it is his vision afield that sets him apart. Where others see chaos and danger after the snap, Montana sees order and opportunity. He has stated baldly that when he is flowing well in a game, and has time to throw, he cannot be stopped. The unflappability that sets him free is almost eerie.
You can't root against Joe Montana, even when he's playing against your team. He is decency rewarded, a guy who has paid his dues. He was once the seventh-string quarterback at Notre Dame. Eighty-one players were taken before him in the 1979 NFL draft. But Montana has never been one to brood. He simply puts it all aside—everything—when he trots onto the field, to the place where he was meant to be, where he's the best there ever was.