It transcended won-lost records and the fact that this was a meeting of two unbeaten teams. It was historic, emotional. It was big. "Our championship in September," Kansas City Chief owner Lamar Hunt called it.
Joe Montana vs. Steve Young in the Vindication Bowl. Montana's magical right arm had deposited four Super Bowl trophies in the San Francisco 49ers" display case. He was a god in the Bay Area, but a god who left in a cold fury last year when he was first told that he would not be allowed to compete for the starting quarterback job and then, in a last-minute effort to save face for everyone involved, was guaranteed the position. Take your guarantee and shove it, he said, and off he went to Kansas City in a trade the Niners felt obliged to make.
He was replaced by Steve Young, the NFL's highest-rated passer for the last two years, but with no Super Bowl win to his credit. And that's what cut deepest around the Bay. You've gotten rid of our Joe and given us what'? A terrific athlete, a fine passer, but where are the championships? A harsh measurement to be sure, and unfair of course, but there it is. Joe vs. Steve, on Sunday in Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Game 2 of the season, with both guys fresh and healthy. Now we'll find out.
During the week before the game, the two quarterbacks said all the right things in an attempt to defuse the frenzy. It's a long season. Young said, and we'll have 14 games after this one, and we can't lose focus. Montana did his talking in a Monday conference call that was widely quoted during the week. Here and there you could detect an edge to his remarks. "All I wanted was fair competition for the job," he said, "I didn't want to be given the job. That's where people were misled: 'Oh, here he is complaining. Give it to him. Keep him quiet.' "
For four years Young had labored as Montana's backup, constantly bugging the coaches for more work in practice, for more snaps. He then ran the show for two seasons while Montana was out with an elbow injury, and what developed between them was...well, hatred might be too strong a word, but on Montana's side, dislike, and for Young, a feeling that he would never get a real chance as long as Montana was there.
"He's a gym rat, that's Steve's problem," says Chief player-personnel boss Lynn Stiles, who was on the 49er coaching staff for five years. "Hungry to compete, wants to beat you in anything. Problem is, the other guy's exactly the same."
And now they were meeting on the field for the first and. unless the teams play each other in a Super Bowl, probably the last time. This was it, a chance for Bay Area fans to say, "See, we told you."
For the Chiefs' p.r. staff it was a nightmare. "The biggest media blitz in the six years I've been here," said Kansas City publicity director Bob Moore. "Two hundred requests for cameras and video credentials—normally we get 30 or 40—so many media applications that we had to go to folding chairs."
Scalpers on the Kansas side of the slate line, where there are no limits on the resale of tickets, were advertising scats for $350 apiece, club level with a parking pass. The Kansas City Star ran an ad: "Two tickets...will meet with the highest bidder...outside city limits."
Desperate 49er fans were calling anybody, even Chiefs. "One guy phoned me for tickets," K.C. noseguard Dan Saleamua said, "and said, 'You know me, we had drinks once.' I told him, 'Yeah, and I paid for them. Get your own tickets.' "
Joe Montana vs. Steve Young, Joe Montana vs. the 49ers. His new teammates let him hear about that one. "I asked him, 'Are you going to play every one of those guys by yourself, Joe?' " defensive end Neil Smith said last Friday afternoon. " 'The way they played against the Raiders Monday night, you can have them all.' "
That game, a 44-14 annihilation by San Francisco, took place the evening after the Chiefs opened their season by beating the New Orleans Saints 30-17, with Montana putting on one of his highlight shows. "The old Joe? Oh, my god, yes," 49er assistant head coach Bill McPherson said' after watching film of Montana's performance. "A machine, putting the ball right on the money, one after another. See, he's healthy now, and that's the difference. He's got his legs under him."
Last year Montana was sharp for the Chiefs—when he was on the field. A sprained wrist, then a recurring hamstring injury and finally a concussion kept him out of action for all or part of 10 games. "I never felt right the whole year." he said at Friday's practice. "It was almost like I felt cheated. So I tried to do more work in the off-season, squeezing for the wrist, more lifting and sprinting for the hamstring. Now I'm strong, the strongest I've ever felt."
At 38. Another old-timer in the Chiefs' locker room, Marcus Allen, 34, a Los Angeles Raider reject, had his own lake on the Montana vs. Young-and-the-49ers angle. "It's deep, deeper than Joe will admit." Allen said during the week, "I went through it last year here. Vindication, poetic justice. I already got mine. His is coming. He feels it even though he won't talk about it publicly."
San Francisco veterans of the Montana Super Bowl years mentioned the odd feeling they would have seeing Joe across the field. "Maybe I'll get him to toss me a pass in the warmups," Jerry Rice said. "We're not supposed to be watching the other team's offense when we're on the bench," said left tackle Steve Wallace, "but I know I'll be sneaking pecks. I hope they have one of those big screens."
"It will be a weird experience," said All-Pro right tackle Harris Barton, one of the Niners' two casualties from the Raider game. Barton suffered a partially torn left triceps, and the guard next to him, Ralph Tamm, would miss the game against the Chiefs with a sprained left arch. Their absence from the offensive line would play a key role in the outcome. "Honestly, I don't know how I'll feel tomorrow," Barton said on Saturday. "I mean, it's Joe, man. When I was in the hospital getting my arm operated on, he was the first guy who called me. He and [Montana's wife] Jennifer sent flowers to my dad when he was in the hospital. He's meant so much, all the money we're making now, all the people in the 49er organization who wouldn't even have jobs if not for Joe."
You don't want to play Kansas City when you're shorthanded on the offensive line, not against its pass rushers. Smith was the NFL's sack leader in 1993. Derrick Thomas, a 247-pound speed-rushing linebacker who lined up in a down position against San Francisco, began the season tied for second among NFL sackers during his five-year career, with 66, only 10½ of them on natural grass. This year the Chiefs have replaced the artificial turf at Arrowhead with the real thing, but against the 49ers on Sunday, Thomas had three sacks. On the second, he beat Barton's replacement, Harry Boatswain, and tackled Young for a safety, and on the third, he blew by Boatswain without being touched, forcing a grounding penalty. "And so ends the myth of the grass," Thomas said afterward.
Kansas City lined Thomas up at left end, to the lefthanded Young's blind side, to take advantage of Boatswain. Smith was on the right flank. His mission was to get his hands up, block Young's vision on the short-drop time routes and make him scramble.
The strategy worked. Young was harried and belabored all afternoon. By halftime Niner left guard Jesse Sapolu was lost with a pulled right hamstring. In the third quarter right guard Derrick Deese went to the bench for three downs with a mild concussion, and his place was taken by Brian Bollinger, who had been cut by the Arizona Cardinals. Young's offense was crumbling, but he hung in, scrambling, taking some ferocious hits, including one by Smith that drew a 15-yard penalty and nearly put Young down for keeps.
"I apologized to him after the game," Smith said. "I asked him if he was O.K. I wanted him to know it was an accident. It wasn't easy for him out there. I know one time he should have stayed down but didn't."
The Chiefs took command for good on the Niners' second possession of the second half, the same series in which Deese was sidelined. The 49ers, down 17-14, had a third-and-two on their own 35. Young, under a furious rush, with K.C. end Vaughn Booker hanging on to his leg, threw a quick post to tight end Brent Jones. The ball bounced off Jones's hands, and safety Charles Mincy intercepted it and returned it 31 yards to the San Francisco 17. Four plays later Allen went in, standing up, from four yards out, and the Chiefs had a 24-14 lead.
In the fourth quarter the Niners put together a long drive that ended in a 19-yard field goal when Young, rolling left and trying to score from two yards out, was cut down by strong safety David Whitmore, who came to the Chiefs in the Montana deal. San Francisco had one more shot, but that died when wideout John Taylor was stripped of the ball after catching a short pass, and Kansas City recovered near midfield. Final score: 24-17 Chiefs.
Montana vs. Young? Well, Montana got the win. He also got protection, plenty of it. He was sacked once, Young four times. Montana's game was precise and practically error-free, as he worked the ball to his backs and underneath receivers. He went deep only once with success, on the first play of a fourth-quarter, clock-killing drive, an up pattern to Allen for 38 yards. It was a shocker that caught the Niners by surprise. "He was the fourth guy on the read," Montana said, which gives you some idea of the kind of time he was getting. "I saw him with a step on his man and took a shot at it."
After the game Montana looked fresh and relaxed. He was enjoying himself, enjoying the moment. As usual, he was the last player out of the locker room. Earlier he had made the rounds with a bag of hamburgers, handing one to Smith and anyone else who was still around. "Guys like Neil, these were the guys putting the pressure on." he said, "I wasn't watching Steve all that much out there, but I knew he was under a lot of pressure, and what it meant to me was, Hey, those are the guys who are getting us the ball back.
"Steve came over and said hello during the warmups, just normal chitchat. After the game he came over and wished me luck, and I did the same. I said hello to Jerry Rice and a few other guys until it became a madhouse out there. How do I feel? I'm glad it's all over."
In the back of the room during Joe's postgame press conference, Jennifer was answering questions. "Nervous? I'm always nervous at game time," she said. "But I was so confident last night, and I told him so."
"Why?" someone asked.
"Because it's him," she said. "It means a lot, emotionally. The thing between him and Steve means a lot because it's what you've all been writing all week."
Just like old times. In the locker room Joe Montana Sr. was mentioning the 35 to 40 friends and relatives who had flown in for the game, the barbecue his son had thrown for the whole bunch on Saturday, and, yes, the day's No. 1 angle. "You can pressure Joe," he said. "He handles it better than the other guy. Steve looks to run, Joe's always looking for the receiver."
On the day, Montana completed 19 of 31 passes for 203 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Young was 24 of 34 for 288 yards and a TD. He threw two interceptions—the first on that dropped pass In Jones and the second on a quick up to Rice, with free safety William White swooping over for the pick.
"It was a battle right up to the end," Young said afterward, looking very tired. There were bruises on both shoulders, a nasty scrape down his back. "Right up to the end I thought we could come back and win it. I learned from Joe, from the master. Today the master had a little more to teach the student.
"A banged-up offensive line going against some of the best pass rushers in football, plus the crowd to contend with—that made it awfully rough for Young." Chief left guard Dave Szott said. "Some of those shots he took, I didn't think he was getting up. You see stuff like that, and it gets you foaming at the mouth to protect your guy."
Which, in the purest sense, is what it's all about. Keep Joe healthy and there's no limit to what you can do, even in a September Super Bowl.