Joe Montana is a professional talker now, but you probably never hear him. He works the corporate circuit, giving 30-minute speeches to companies or trade associations, followed by questions. The first part is easy, but the Q&As, and the mingling afterward, can be a challenge.
This is an article from the July 8, 2013 issue
Part of Montana's appeal is that he makes people feel relaxed around him, but after two hours they can get a little too relaxed. They start asking silly questions. That would put most people in an awkward position, but the reason you hire Joe Montana—the reason he is a legend—is that for him, no position is awkward. "I don't think I've ever seen him embarrassed about anything," his daughter Elizabeth says.
What kind of player does a company get for the $65,000 to $100,000 fee Montana commands? Well, in 15 NFL seasons he threw for 40,551 yards. But 12 quarterbacks (including Kerry Collins!) have thrown for more. He had 273 touchdown passes, but that's only 11th all time (behind Vinny Testaverde!). Montana's 92.3 passer rating is excellent, but nine players (including Tony Romo!) have a better career mark.
He keeps dropping lower on these lists. What does it do to his legacy? Nothing, that's what. The Montana aura is not about numbers. It is about a feeling.
Two minutes left, and you need to score: Who is your quarterback? Joe Cool, man. No doubt. The game evolves, rules get tweaked, records fall. But the feeling lingers. When Montana goes out, people flock to him, and it's not the usual hey-I-see-a-celebrity flocking.
"You may not vote for him for class president, but you certainly would get on your knees to have him as your best friend," former 49ers president Carmen Policy says. "If you had a chance to go out with anybody, anytime, and really feel good about yourself, it's Joe Montana you want to be with."
Montana retired in April 1995. That week SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's cover featured him, his wife, Jennifer, and their four children, with the billing DADDY'S HOME! Today Jennifer says, "We didn't really have a plan," except to raise the kids. They are all out of the house now. Montana fills his time with the speeches, real estate ventures—"a bunch of stuff," he says over lunch at Boulevard, an upscale restaurant near his apartment in San Francisco's financial district. He sounds content. But maybe that is just how we want to see him. His friend and former 49ers teammate Keena Turner says, "I wouldn't say content."
What does Joe Montana mean to you? He quarterbacked the 49ers to four Super Bowl victories. He won three Super Bowl MVP awards. Then he retired and ... well, he didn't quite disappear, but he isn't in your face, either. In 21st-century America that is an achievement.
Look at his best quarterbacking comps for starters. You won't have to look far. Terry Bradshaw, the only other QB to win four Super Bowls, has been goofing around on the Fox NFL Sunday set for nearly 20 years, dropping trou on the occasional movie set in his free time. Ask a football fan what he thinks of Bradshaw and you will probably hear something about his on-air personality, not his Hall of Fame playing career.
Troy Aikman, the only other retired quarterback to win three Super Bowls, is Fox's No. 1 color commentator; next February he will broadcast his fourth Super Bowl, surpassing the number in which he played.
Dan Marino is on CBS. Steve Young is on ESPN. John Elway, who played in five Super Bowls, is now the Broncos' president, the man who brought Peyton Manning to Denver.
Montana's contemporaries in other sports have had public second lives too. Larry Bird coached in an NBA Finals and built the current Pacers powerhouse from his front-office desk. Michael Jordan runs the Bobcats, albeit much less successfully. Three athletes appeared on the cover of the Dec. 18, 1989, SI under the billing THEY DOMINATED THE '80s. One was Wayne Gretzky, who went on to own and coach the Coyotes and assemble the gold-medal-winning 2002 Canadian Olympic hockey team. Another was Magic Johnson, who went on to become an AIDS activist, part-owner of the Dodgers, part-owner of the Lakers, coach of the Lakers for 16 games, well-known entrepreneur and an ESPN commentator.
The third athlete on that cover was Montana. To the public (though certainly not to himself) he remains frozen in time. Other than the occasional Skechers commercial, we still see him the way we always did: back to pass, impervious to pressure, on the verge of winning the game.
"It's amazing how popular he is," says close friend Steve Bono, who backed up Montana in San Francisco, then succeeded him in Kansas City. "I think a lot of that is because he's been so private."
Montana could have stayed in sports, but he never considered coaching because "the time commitment is ridiculous," and being a general manager would have taken him away from his family too. He tried doing television for one year, in 1995, after he retired. He was on NBC's NFL studio show on Sundays. He hated it. He had to be in New York from Friday to Monday, while his family remained in San Francisco. He wasn't comfortable talking into a camera.
Mostly, though, he could not stand being a pundit.
"Why did he throw that ball behind the guy?" Montana says. "Well, I don't know. Maybe the guy is supposed to run an out and he didn't. Maybe he read something else. That's the thing I didn't like about the announcing part: They want you to be loud, argumentative and definitive. You didn't have to be right. They want someone to say, Oh, what an idiot.... I have a hard time doing that to other players because I know how difficult it is. Yeah, you should be able to do it a certain way, but the other guys get paid too."
Montana still doesn't understand the embrace of debate. Talking heads can shout that current quarterbacks are not as good as Joe Montana, but Montana himself says, "I like watching a lot of the guys: Rodgers, Brees, Brady, Peyton, Eli.... It's fun to watch because they're all so different. Some of them may seem the same, but they're not really." When he goes to 49ers games, he prefers to sit behind one of the end zones because that gives him the best view of plays developing. He says he never wonders what he would do if he were the quarterback. He just appreciates. That's a lost art, isn't it?
When people pay to hear Joe Montana speak, they usually want to hear two stories. One is the story of the Catch. The other is the John Candy story.
The Catch is one of the most famous plays in NFL history. Yet it is remarkably simple. Like a John Wayne movie, the Catch is famous because of who starred in it. It was one of the first instances of Montana giving America that feeling.
In the final minute of the NFC Championship Game at Candlestick Park in January 1982, the 49ers trailed the Cowboys 27--21. San Francisco had the ball on the Dallas six-yard line, third-and-three with 58 seconds left. Montana rolled right. He stayed calm in the face of the Cowboys' pass rush and lofted a pass to receiver Dwight Clark that was just high enough to fly over the defense but not too high for Clark to catch. The play covered only six yards, but that was enough. Touchdown.
That is the story everybody wants to hear. But that is not the story Montana tells. Instead, he tells audiences that the 49ers ran the ball—six of the 14 plays, in fact—for much of that drive. As for the Catch, "I missed Freddie Solomon wide open [two plays] before."
He also says, "Everybody talks about the Catch. But it really wasn't the Catch. It was Eric Wright." The Cowboys still had 51 seconds left. On the Dallas drive Wright, a 49ers cornerback, made a huge tackle on receiver Drew Pearson to save the game.
Montana does not offer this to be humble or because he is tired of talking about the Catch. He says it because it is true. He did miss Freddie Solomon. Wright's tackle was a game saver. When Montana was competing against Steve Young to be the 49ers' quarterback, and he said his job was to keep Young on the bench, he didn't mean he disliked Young. He meant his job was to keep Young on the bench. Montana does not calculate. He just does.
And this brings us to the John Candy story. Surely you have heard it: Late in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XXIII, in 1989, Montana and the 49ers trailed by three points and were on their own eight-yard line. Before the first play of the drive Montana told 49ers lineman Harris Barton that he spied actor John Candy in the stands. Montana then led San Francisco on a 92-yard, Super Bowl--winning touchdown drive.
In most tellings, Montana is the savvy leader, Joe Cool pointing out Candy as a tactic to get his teammates to relax.
"No, no," he explains. "I always tried to be myself. I wasn't even talking to the guys in the huddle. I was only talking to Harris. Harris was a people watcher. When he went out to dinner, he would tell you all the people he saw, all the celebrities. I had met John Candy a number of years ago. He just happened to be framed between two shoulders in the huddle. We were standing there. TV timeouts took so long. I just pointed him out. [Harris] looked at me like I was crazy."
He also tells people the 49ers were not even trying to score a touchdown on that drive. They were on their own eight-yard line, trailing 16--13. They just wanted to get in field goal range and force overtime. Montana completed passes for eight, seven and seven yards, and then running back Roger Craig carried it twice. It was only when Jerry Rice pulled in a 27-yard sideline pass, down to Cincinnati's 48-yard line, that the plan shifted and San Francisco went for the touchdown. Nobody wants to hear this, though. We are not a country that celebrates playing for overtime.
Montana can't control the feeling he gives people when they see him. He turned millions into believers many years ago; they won't stop believing now. And this makes you wonder how many people who hear him speak are really listening. They want to hear about that Montana magic. He doesn't know anything about magic.
His genius as a player was not in embracing pressure but in ignoring it. Millions of people watching, legacies on the line—so what? Read the defense. Complete the pass. The mythology does not connect with his real life. Elizabeth, a 26-year-old aspiring actress, works at Pedro's Cantina, a bar near San Francisco's AT&T Park, and her boss there wanted to make T-shirts that read: HEY, LOOK, IT'S JOHN CANDY. She didn't understand what he meant. Montana's other daughter, Alexandra, 27, says of the Candy story, "I don't know if I could recall it without maybe a little bit of a hint."
For Super Bowl XL in 2006 the NFL wanted to fly every former Super Bowl MVP to Detroit for a ceremony. Montana declined. There were reports that he demanded an enormous fee. Montana angrily denied the reports, saying he wanted to watch one of his sons play basketball. To people who do not know him this sounds like an excuse; to those who do, it sounds perfectly reasonable. Flying across the country just to hear another round of cheers—that would be ego. Montana has been cheered enough. Daddy's home!
Sometimes Montana can't escape the mythology. He says drily, "I would have liked to have coached the kids, but the problem would have been coaching the kids." If Joe Smith coaches his kids he is a great dad; for Joe Montana it's not so simple. It is difficult enough for his sons Nate (who played quarterback at Notre Dame, Montana and West Virginia Wesleyan) and Nick (who plays quarterback at Tulane) to carry the Montana name into a huddle. If Joe had coached them, it would have created unfair expectations—and, inevitably, whispers that he was too hard on his kids or not hard enough.
He did try it for a little while. He coached their traveling basketball teams, trying to follow the simple principle that has guided him his entire athletic life: Be yourself. Even that wasn't so easy. One player, a boy named Eddie, kept showing up late. Casually showing up late might seem like the Joe Cool thing to do, but Montana knows otherwise. Fundamentals and discipline are the essence of success. Somebody had to tell Eddie the truth.
"Finally I said, 'Everybody stop,' " Montana recalls. " 'Eddie, get on the line. We're all going to watch Eddie run.' "
This was not really Montana's style. As a player he did not scold his teammates; on the rare occasions when he raised his voice, he was mad at himself.
"It's not going to help by my yelling," he says now. "Whatever the mistake is, they don't want to make that mistake."
Once in a while Montana is on a business call, and Jennifer hears his personality change, just a little, and she thinks, There it is, Joe the football player. She can hear the fire crackle inside him.
She says she explains to the kids, "Don't mistake Daddy for just being kind or soft. He has a fierceness in him that you probably never saw." But where does that fierceness go when a man retires? With so many contemporaries involved in the games, as announcers or coaches or executives, how has Montana stayed away? How has he thrived?
"I don't know," he says. "It's hard. I guess at some point you just give up trying to find it."
He looked everywhere. He got into scuba diving. Like a lot of retirees he played golf to fill a void, but after a while he realized he was ... just playing golf. ("You're basically competing with yourself, frustrating yourself—at least when I played," he says.) Late in his playing career he got a pilot's license, and he enjoyed flying. But it scared Jennifer, and she persuaded him to give it up. Anyway, it did not replace the rush from football.
"The only thing I did that even came close was, I had a bunch of cutting horses I used to ride," Montana says. "That was the closest thing to getting your adrenaline going. It was so much fun."
He kept horses at his estate in Northern California and traveled to Texas and Oklahoma to compete in the biggest events. His favorite horse was named That Cool Cat. (Really.) The fact that this was Joe Montana riding those horses did not seem to matter to the other riders. ("That was the best thing about it—they didn't care who you were.") For two and a half minutes he felt as if he was in the fourth quarter again. But the hobby got expensive and logistically difficult. He stopped.
"I miss the horses," he says. "I won't go back to it. It's just too much of a process."
He was involved in Champion Ventures, a venture-capital fund with former teammates Barton, Bono and Ronnie Lott. But after a few years he left the firm. He is developing a fantasy-football app called IMFL, and he will work at a football camp in Italy with his old Notre Dame teammate Kris Haines this summer. Jennifer paints and makes jewelry. They have a wonderful life.
They split time between their luxury high-rise apartment in San Francisco and their Napa Valley estate in Calistoga, Calif. A few years ago Montana put the estate on the market—a Realtor listed it for $49 million, perhaps hoping the number would attract a Niners fan.
"Forty-nine, just because it sounded good," Montana says. "We took it off the market. None of the kids want us to sell it. If we sold it, I'd slow down a lot more."
Instead he flies commercial all over the world and sees so many of the same people in the San Francisco airport that he feels as if he knows them. Then he flies to New Jersey or North Carolina or Mexico or Bahrain, and he gets paid to be people's idea of Joe Montana. It's good work if you can get it. But only one man can.
Five Completely Trivial Things We Learned About Joe Montana
Until recently, former 49ers president Carmen Policy lived in the same apartment building in San Francisco as Montana. Montana lived on a higher floor. He reminded Policy of that almost every time he saw him.
Nate Montana was invited to the 49ers' rookie camp in May and wore two jersey numbers, 6 and 13, but not his dad's 16, which the team retired in 1997.
According to a recent documentary, 49ers coach Bill Walsh considered trading Montana to the Colts for John Elway in 1983. Montana says he was not surprised or hurt when he found out, chalking it up to Walsh "always trying to make [us] a little bit better."
Former 49ers lineman Guy McIntyre says that in film sessions Walsh would point out that Montana sometimes completed a pass to a receiver without even looking at him.
He still cheers for three NFL teams: Along with the 49ers and the Chiefs, for whom he played, Montana pulls for his childhood favorites, the Steelers.
See Joe throw. For a photo gallery of Montana's finest moments, download the digital edition of SI, free for magazine subscribers, at SI.com/activate