Joe Montana (born 1956) has earned a reputation as one of the top quarterbacks in professional football, first rising to fame in the 1980s.
Perhaps it was his only moment of indecision in a career devoted to imposing his will on circumstance. As a high-school senior in Monongahela, Pennsylvania, Joe Montana nearly accepted a basketball scholarship at North Carolina State University. But western Pennsylvania is blue-collar football country, the birthplace of legendary quarterbacks Johnny Lujack, George Blanda, John Unitas, and Joe Namath, and such a tradition ultimately swayed Ringgold High's star quarterback to attend Notre Dame on a football scholarship. However, as a homesick freshman Montana may have had lingering doubts about his decision-making skills when he calculated that he was the Fighting Irish's seventh-string quarterback—barely. Early in his college career Montana made the most of his infrequent appearances: as a sophomore he twice led Notre Dame back from fourth-quarter deficits for improbable wins, including a game against Air Force in which he came off the bench with just twelve minutes remaining to erase the Falcons' twenty-point lead. He inspired two more miraculous rallies as a junior and still two more as a senior. These exploits—what Rick Reilly called the "impossible, get-serious, did-you-hear-what-happened-after-we-left come-back"—quickly became Montana's signature. Still, Montana did not become Notre Dame's first-string quarterback until his senior year; in his very last game, the 1979 Cotton Bowl against Houston, he engineered a rescue of operatic proportions. With his team down 34-12 with only 7:37 left on the clock and suffering from hypothermia so disabling that the trainer spent halftime pumping him full of bouillon to raise his body temperature, Montana completed seven of his last eight passes to win the game 35-34. The game's final points came on a touchdown pass on fourth down with two seconds left—in an ice storm. Yet despite his almost supernatural football instincts and his documented savvy under pressure, Montana was not a highly touted prospect when he entered the 1979 NFL draft.
Eighty-one players were selected before the San Francisco 49ers drafted Montana late in the third round. New 49ers coach Bill Walsh ignored the negative scouting reports on his rookie signal caller ("average" arm strength, no touch), and envisioned Montana as the orchestrator of his complex ball-control passing attack: "Joe's ….an excellent spontaneous thinker, a keen-witted athlete with a unique field of vision. And he will not choke. Or rather, if he ever does, you'll know that everyone else has come apart first." Walsh's "system" depended on a nimble quarterback with an accurate arm who could adjust quickly to each defensive sequence as it unfolded. By the 1981 season Montana and the 49ers had become a sophisticated and virtually unstoppable offensive machine, but they met an old nemesis in the National Football Conference championship game, the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys had eliminated the 49ers from their last three playoff appearances, and after six San Francisco turnovers had led to a 6-point Dallas lead, it looked as if history would repeat itself. But Montana drove the 49ers 89 yards in the game's final minutes, and with 51 seconds left connected with flanker Dwight Clark for the winning touchdown on what was one of the most heralded plays of the decade. Known simply as "The Catch," the play began with Montana scrambling desperately to his right with three Cowboys in pursuit. Just before he was about to be thrown for a loss, Montana, throwing off his back foot, lofted a pass that appeared to be uncatchable. He later said he never saw Clark get open but knew his receiver would be sprinting across the back of the endzone as a safety valve on the play. Clark went high to catch the pass, landing just inside the boundary: afterward he marveled at the feat, "It was over my head. I thought, 'Oh, oh, I can't go that high.' Something got me up there. It must have been God or something."
San Francisco went on to win Super Bowl XVI over the Cincinnati Bengals 26-21, and Montana was named the game's Most Valuable Player (MVP). It was to become a familiar scenario during the decade. The 49ers would win four titles by 1990, including consecutive Super Bowls in 1989 and 1990, and Montana was awarded the MVP trophy on three occasions (his favorite receiver, Jerry Rice, won the award in 1989). Not only did Montana complete almost 70 percent of his passes in those four Super Bowl victories— outdueling the likes of Dan Marino, John Elway, and Boomer Esiason in the those title games—but he never threw an interception in 122 attempts. He drove the 49ers 92 yards in the waning moments of Super Bowl XXIII to beat Cincinnati again, 20-16, finishing the Bengals off with a 10-yard touch-down pass to receiver John Taylor with 34 seconds left. After the game Montana described the final drive and hinted that his mythic composure was susceptible to all-too-human frailties: "It's a blur. I hyperventilated to the point of almost blacking out ….I was yelling so loudly in the huddle that I couldn't breathe. Things got blurrier and blurrier." Montana's performance in the clutch nevertheless left teammates grasping for comparisons; "He's like Lazarus," claimed 49er cornerback Tim McKyer. "You roll back the stone, Joe limps out—and throws for 300 yards." In Super Bowl XXIV Montana came back with an even more impressive performance, shredding the Denver Broncos' defense with five touchdown passes in a 55-10 rout. When he retired in 1995 Montana held NFL playoff records for completions, yards, and touchdowns, as well as single-season (1989) and career records for passing efficiency.
But statistics do not adequately measure Joe Montana's worth as a quarterback. Watching a young Montana practice in the early 1980s, coach Bill Walsh commented, "there was something hypnotic about him. That look when he was dropping back; he was poetic in his movements, almost sensuous, everything so fluid, so much under control." At six feet two inches and rather fragile, Montana was never physically imposing, and his career was twice suspended by major surgery (a back operation in 1986 to widen his spinal canal and elbow surgery that forced him to miss all of the 1992 season). He never appeared to be a brash and demonstrative leader, and by his own account he struggled to articulate how he seemed to perform miracles so effortlessly. Joe Montana simply had the ability to impose a quiet order on a raw and disorderly game. With his leadership there was always time enough.
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