Joe Montana. When his name is said, sports fans all over the world begin to tremble with excitement. When it is announced over the loudspeaker at football games, fans go wild. He was the greatest quarterback to ever play the game:
Quarterbacks may come and go, but none will ever be as brilliant, nor as exciting as Joe Montana. He was Joe Cool, the quarterback who never quit, the quarterback who could overcome any deficit, any pressure, and injury. Despite horrible injuries, he won more than seventy percent of the games he started during an illustrious sixteen-year career in the National Football League. Not bad for someone who had eighty-one players picked ahead of him in the 1979 draft (Miller).
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I remember the first time that I ever saw Joe play. It was early in the 1988 season, against the New York Giants. Games versus home teams (Giants and Jets) and primetime games are just about the only times the New York audience get chances to watch the 49ers on television during the season. I was lucky because, in the first football game that I ever saw, I got to see the 49ers and Montana’s magical play and greatness. The 49ers were down 17-13 in the fourth quarter with about three minutes remaining and Joe sprung into action by driving the 49ers down the field seventy or so yards and won the game with a touchdown pass to wide receiver Freddie Soloman. The final score was 20-17, another comeback performance for the king of comebacks, Joe Montana.
He instantly became my favourite player and the 49ers became my favourite team. Later that year, during the playoffs, I saw the 49ers (with awesome performances by Joe Montana, Roger Craig, Jerry Rice, John Taylor, Ronnie Lott, Charles Haley, and company) destroy all their opponents by at least twenty points a game and go to Super Bowl XXIII. This was my first Super Bowl, and Joe Montana shone when it was most needed. With less than two minutes remaining, he drove the 49ers ninety-two yards and hit receiver John Taylor for a thirty-four-yard touchdown to win the game. A sterling performance by teammate Jerry Rice kept Joe from winning his third MVP trophy. Ever since the 1988-1989 season, I’ve been an avid fan of Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers.
No one on and off the field was as great a competitor as Joe was. He was the epitome of a great competitor. Just as important as Joe’s unbelievable career is what moulded him into such a great player and competitor. His primary influences were his parents, especially his father, who was his first coach, teaching him a variety of sports, including football, basketball, and baseball. Other major influences on him included Carl Crawley, his first coach (peewee football); Mike Brantley, his good friend and favourite wide receiver from junior high school through high school; Dan Devine, his Coach at Notre Dame; Bill Walsh, his coach at San Francisco; and his teammates in San Francisco, especially Steve DeBerg, O.J. Simpson, and Cedric Hardman.
Joe was born on June 11, 1956, in New Eagle, Pennsylvania. He grew up an only child in a two-story frame house in a middle-class neighborhood in Monongahela, Pennsylvania, about thirty miles outside of Pittsburgh. “To Montana, his home was his strength, his support system. He was shy with strangers, outgoing at home. He had few friends, neighbourhood kids mostly, but no one was as close to him as” his parents- his fondest childhood memory was “playing ball in the backyard with dad, then coming into the kitchen, where his mother would have a steaming pot of ravioli on the stove. That was the best” (Zimmerman 67). Joe, as a kid, was THE natural, great, all-around athlete and competitor. “Sometimes you just look at a kid and know he’s a natural,” says Joe Sr. (Newberger 1).
A great competitor is one who cannot stand to lose, always tries his hardest, and loves everything about competition, which is why Joe is such an incredible competitor:
I’m convinced the only thing that separates chumps from champions is the individual’s competition drive. The people who survive and the flourish-having a long NFL career is an accomplishment in itself- are the ones who love to compete, maybe even live to compete. The American system is built on competition, and no matter what anyone says, winners are rewarded. As long as this is the way the system is structured, then I guess it’s better to operate in it successfully. Also, I’ve been on the bottom looking up and I don’t like the feeling (Montana 54-55).
It was Joe’s parents who instilled his competitive spirit in him. “They would ask me why the team didn’t win. They’d tell me it was good to win. I was brought up disagreeing with that old saying ‘Winning isn’t everything’. I was raised to feel that winning is everything” (Montana 55). Joe’s parents were often accused by others of pushing Joe too hard, but, says Joe Sr., “I don’t think that’s right. It’s just that he loved it so much, and I loved watching him. And I wanted to make sure he learned the right way” (Zimmerman 67). At this age, Joe loved a lot of sports, but like most boys his age, he loved baseball the most. Joe later got into basketball and football.
When he became interested in basketball, his father organized a basketball team because the town did not have one. The kids played and practiced at the armoury and paid a dollar apiece for the janitor to clean up after them. They practiced five nights a week and travelled to other towns for tournaments. “Those trips were the most fun. We’d go anywhere. One night we played in a tournament in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, then drove up to Niagara Falls for another one, then back to Bethel Park for the finals!” (Newberger 2).
Joe was very close to his parents growing up, especially to his father. They were good friends and Joe Sr. was always his coach and teacher, helping him to develop his skills in athletics, especially in baseball, basketball, and of course, football. Says Joe Sr., “I played all sports in the service, but when I was a kid I never had anyone to take me in the backyard and throw the ball to me. Maybe that’s why I got Joe started in sports.
Once he got started, he was always waiting at the door with a ball when I came home from work. What I really wanted to do was make it fun for him” (Zimmerman 67). Joe Senior read books and watched quarterbacks play and used what he learned to teach his son the right fundamentals. “I felt the first step should be straight back, no to the side. We worked on techniques, sprint out, run right, run left, pivot and throw the ball” (67).
Joe started playing peewee football at eight years old (one year younger than the required age). Joe Sr. told them that his son was nine. Joe Jr.’s first coach on the Little Wildcats was Carl Crawley, a defensive lineman in college and NCAA referee. “Joe would roll out. If the cornerback came off, he’d dump it off; if he stayed back, he’d keep going and pick up five or six yards. He was an amazingly accurate passer for a kid” (Zimmerman 67).
Ever since junior high school, Joe was respected as a great athlete- he was an “exuberant kid who had stardom written all over him. With Joe on the field, they knew they were never out of any game,” said coach Crawley (Zimmerman 67). Throughout junior high school and high school, Joe’s favorite receiver was Mike Brantley, who later made it to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ training camp, but never made it farther. Joe and Mike were like carrots and peas, or better yet, “Joe throwing to Mike was like the right hand throwing to the left hand” (67).
Joe’s coach in Ringgold High School was Chuck Abramski. He practically gave Joe the starting job after seeing him play. Joe took an 0-9 team to an 8-1 team by his senior year there. Said offensive line coach Frank Lawrence, “Joe just killed ’em with timed patterns.” The team “played three-deep, where they give you the short stuff” (Zimmerman 67). Now, when Lawrence watches old films of Joe, he says, “Watch Joe now. See that? He backpedals after the touchdown and throws his hands up. Same mannerisms as now” (67).
By senior year, Joe received the Parade All-America Quarterback honours, was also a top basketball and baseball prospect, and was receiving “recruiting letters from almost every major college in the country, including Notre Dame, where, in the back of my mind, I knew I was going to go. My father wanted me to go there” and Joe did not want to disappoint him (Montana 17). He went to Notre Dame, even with scholarships from great schools such as North Carolina State for both basketball and football; Georgia, Boston College, Minnesota, and Pittsburgh in football. Joe also received offers from major league baseball teams to try out at their camps.
When Joe arrived in South Bend at Notre Dame, life got really tough. He had a heavy load of required courses because he was a freshman. He had to juggle his classes with football. He found out that this was not the type of school where you could take it easy- it was a tough academic school that had a terrific athletic program. Plus, he was blown away when he found out that he was not to come in and “kick some butt on varsity” right away (Montana 18).
In fact, he had to compete with seven other players for the quarterback position. His role as a freshman was to get beat up by other players during practice and be a cheerleader on the sidelines during games. Teammates like Mike Fanning and Greg Collins would knock him around like a tackling dummy. They taught him an important lesson about the game and life- “Don’t ever get smug in this game. Someone is always waiting around to kick your Italian butt” (19).
Joe finally got to play in his sophomore year, in the third game, when starter Rick Slager got injured in the first quarter versus Northwestern. He helped drive the Fightin’ Irish fifty-one yards, nervous as you can get, with Al Hunter running two yards for the touchdown. Joe’s offensive line dominated Northwestern’s defensive line all day and it helped build his confidence. He led Notre Dame to an impressive 31- 7 victory (Montana 25). Joe still wasn’t the starter- Slager was the man. Joe still had a whole lot to prove to coach Devine. During that season, whenever Slager went down to injury or was ineffective, Joe got a few chances. He led the Irish from 14-0 down to a 21-14 comeback victory in the next game. Joe also played against USC and brought the Irish back from a 30-7 deficit to win 31-30. After that, Joe did not get many more important chances to play until his junior year, when he finally got his chance (Montana 28).
In 1977, Joe was a junior and third-string quarterback. In the third game of the season, Joe came in after Rusty Lisch was benched, then the backup, Gary Forystek, suffered a broken neck and clavicle from a hard hit, then Lisch was put back in and was totally ineffective. Joe was finally put in with two minutes left in the third quarter, down 24-14 to Purdue. He took the team down the field three times in the fourth quarter for scoring drives and won the game 31-24. He had finally won the starting job (Montana 32). Notre Dame went undefeated for the rest of the season because of Joe’s great offensive play and leadership. They would eventually win the National Championship in the Cotton Bowl in Texas.
Before the Irish could go to the Cotton Bowl, the team needed to dispose of one of their bitterest rivals first. When the team ran out of the locker room for the game against the University of Southern California Trojans, they had on new green jerseys and were very psyched, with the crowd chanting “GREEN MACHINE! GREEN MACHINE!” The Fightin’ Irish crushed them 49-12, with a brilliant game from every player wearing green on the field (Montana 32-33).
Next up was the Cotton Bowl in Texas, home of the number one ranked team in the nation, the Texas Longhorns. The Horns weren’t scared a bit by the number two team, the Irish, and with good reason. They had the top player in the country, the Heisman Trophy winner the year before, the unstoppable Earl Campbell, and Brad Shearer, winner of the Outland Trophy- the best defender in the country. They had the top-ranked offence and defence as well. The Irish had a trick up their sleeves though… Super Joe. The Irish came out fired up and Joe was spectacular, shredding the Texas defence to smithereens, blowing away the Longhorns, 38-10. Joe had led the Irish to a National Championship.
In the following year, 1979, the Irish were in the Cotton Bowl yet again. This time it was much different, though. The opponent this time was the Houston Cougars and the whole place was frozen stiff:
There was at least an inch of ice covering the artificial turf. The stadium maintenance guys were scraping it off as best they could. The harder parts were being covered in rock salt. Hell, I wondered how it was going to feel falling on the carpet. Maybe like bouncing off a porcupine! The wind was gusting at thirty miles per hour, making the temperature feel like ten below zero (Montana 37).
This game was known as the famous “chicken soup” game- it was like the North Pole and it made people sick- “players and fans alike, needed some soup!!!” (Newberger 20). By the fourth quarter, the Irish were down 34-12 and Joe was suffering from hypothermia and the medical staff gave him bouillon to warm him up. With 7:37 left in the game, Joe ran onto the field and up went a “feeble, frozen roar, since there were only a few people left in the stands, and ice was falling out of their mouths” (Zimmerman 76). The Irish blocked a punt and set up their incredible comeback.
Joe threw a touchdown pass to make it 34-18 and the two-point conversion made it 34-20 and “as far as I was concerned, we were back in business” (Montana 40). The Irish got the ball back with 5:40 left and drove down the field for another touchdown and two-point conversion to make it 34-28. With twenty seconds left, the defence held and Joe got to work at the Houston twenty-nine yard line. Joe then ran for eleven yards and on the next play, made a ten-yard pass. Then Houston took a timeout to find a way to stop the Irish with six seconds left (40). It was up to Joe to produce a touchdown now. Coach Dan Devine remembers this as his greatest win ever and symbolic of Joe’s greatness:
I told Joe to run a 91, a quick out. And if it wasn’t there, throw it away. Kris Haines, our wideout, slipped, and Joe threw it away. Now there were two seconds left. I turned my back on the field. That meant Joe could call his own play. He called the 91 again, the noseguard came through, Haines broke to the flag, and with the noseguard staring him in the face Joe threw a perfect pass, low and outside, a bullet- under all that pressure, with terrible conditions. He was so calm. I swear to God he was no different than he would have been in practice” (Zimmerman 76).
The Cotton Bowl was won by Joe Montana’s gutsy performance and his Fightin’ Irish won 35-34, in possibly the greatest comeback in college football history, and certainly most memorable- an awesome way to finish a great college career.
That December, Joe graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration. It was now time to prepare for the draft and pre-draft tryouts. One scouting combine gave him a grade of 6.5 out of 9- “He can thread the needle,” they said, “but usually goes with his primary receiver and forces the ball to him even when he’s in a crowd. He’s a gutty, gambling, cocky type. Doesn’t have great tools but could eventually start” (Zimmerman 76).
Gary Santaniello, Senior Editor of Beckett Great Sports Heroes: Joe Montana, says of Joe, “In many ways, he was Your Average Joe: physically unremarkable, self-effacing, deferential. But on NFL Sundays, particularly those denoted by a Roman numeral, he was anything but ordinary” (Miller). This was soon to be realized by those stupid teams that had bought into the scouting reports and had not taken the time to see what type of player Joe really was and what he had done in the past.
When Joe was drafted by the 49ers in the third round, the eighty-second pick in the 1979 draft, he went right to work. It wasn’t easy, but teammates such as Steve DeBerg, O.J. Simpson, and Cedric Hardman really helped him along. Montana thought of Steve DeBerg as a role model because he “is a heck of a competitor and as good an athlete as you’re going to find anywhere” (Montana 54). Steve was a great and intense competitor as Joe and helped him to advance to the next level- from the college level to the professional level.
They quickly became the best of friends on the team as well as each other’s fiercest rival, competing for the same job, which was to be handed over to Joe soon. “He never said anything. He never complained. He had to believe he was better than me but even if he didn’t, he was too much of a competitor to ever admit it,” said Joe of Steve (60). In 1980, after coach Bill Walsh finally felt that Joe was ready, Steve was traded to Tampa Bay and Joe was assured the starting job.
Before he got the job, Joe had had his confidence knocked out of him from the way coach Walsh had treated him. Walsh was very strict to Joe in his rookie year and did not give him many chances to play. Joe needed to learn how to become a professional first, and got frustrated a lot about not being able to play (Montana 56). It was “a teaching process, and the lesson was to strive to win; to know what the only way to accomplish anything in sports is to be a winner” (55). Every level of play gets tougher and tougher and Joe needed to learn how to play at that level. Joe got some “much-needed confidence” from veteran teammates O.J. Simpson and Cedrick Hardman.
Said Hardman, “Man, things aren’t going to happen for you here overnight. Let me tell you this: I’ve been around and I can see you have what it takes. One day you are going to run this team. You’ll get the chance, hang in” (Montana 56). O.J. Simpson was the epitome of a great veteran leader. He was a hard worker and treated everyone as equals. All of the players looked up to him, especially Joe. When O.J. would come over to talk to him, Joe would be astonished. “That was just O.J.’s way, and believe me, I really appreciated him” (59).
Joe Montana went on to have one of the greatest careers of any NFL player in history, symbolized by his ability to engineer incredible comebacks- in fact he led the 49ers back from fourth-quarter deficits twenty-six times, including in 1989, when he drove the Forty-Niners ninety-two yards for the game-winning touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII. With the Chiefs, he engineered five fourth-quarter comebacks in his two years playing in Kansas City (Miller). Joe Montana brought greatness back to San Francisco in 1981 when he led the team to the playoffs and to the NFC Championship, where the 49ers defeated a powerful Dallas Cowboys squad when Joe passed to wide receiver Dwight Clark in the back of the end zone and Clark leaped up and made an improbable catch to send the San Francisco 49ers to their first Super Bowl, Super Bowl XVI, where they defeated Cincinnati 26-20 to become NFL champions and Joe won the Most Valuable Player award.
Three more were to come- 1985, the battle of two of the greatest passers ever, Montana versus Marino, in Super Bowl XIX. The 49ers won 38-16 and Joe won his second MVP award. In 1989 and 1990, the 49ers became the first team to win consecutive Super Bowls since the Pittsburgh Steelers did it in 1978 and 1979. He led the 49ers to four Super Bowl victories with no losses- the most, along with the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 70’s. In 1989, Super Bowl XXIII, the 49ers defeated Cincinnati 20-16 in a last-minute comeback led by Montana. In 1990, in Super Bowl XXIV, Joe threw a Super Bowl record six touchdowns to lead the 49ers in the biggest blowout in Super Bowl history over fellow great John Elway and his Denver Broncos, 55-10 and Joe won his third MVP award (Joe Montana Fan Club).
Before the 1988-1989 Super Bowl season, the infamous “quarterback controversy” began (Walsh 231). Eventually, Young got the starting job when Montana was injured severely in the NFC Championship loss to the New York Giants in 1991. Montana missed the entire 1992 season because of the injury and it gave Young a chance to shine, and he shone. In 1993, Montana left for Kansas City, where he had two successful seasons with the Chiefs. In 1994, he announced his retirement.
In Sports Illustrated, the headline boomed “All Hail the King: The Legendary Joe Montana is Finally Ready to Rest On His Laurels” (Silver 16). Joe had the perfect upbringing for his situation. His parents, friends, coaches, teammates- all helped him to become the greatest player ever. Fans, such as I, miss seeing him on the playing field. Gary Santaniello describes Joe:
Joe Montana was as far from ordinary as the Western Pennsylvania roots were from the stubbornly idiosyncratic city by the bay that embraced him like a native son. His unparalleled skill at not merely rising to the occasion but always rising to the occasion marks him as one of the greatest clutch performers in the history of the sport. Other athletes have shone in the spotlight, sure. Some more than once, but every time?
Four times he reached pro football’s ultimate game, and four times he performed impeccably, even heroically. In delivering four world championships to the 49ers, Joe also transformed the franchise from an object of ridicule to an object of envy. Along the way, he captivated NFL fandom with an uncanny ability to engineer comebacks, captured and unified the hearts of a self-doubting city and compiled a record of achievement that is unlikely to be surpassed- ever. What greater legacy can an athlete leave? This outwardly ordinary Joe forever will be remembered as anything but” (Miller).
Joe, between 1979 and 1993, helped the San Francisco 49ers become one of the greatest franchises in sports history, and arguably the greatest franchise in NFL history, through his ability to throw perfect passes, engineer great win and incredible comebacks, bring the best out of his teammates and himself and keep the 49ers consistent in their winning ways as well as being a great leader and huge influence to his protegé, Steve Young. Joe has become the most well-known football player ever and will be forever remembered as the greatest clutch player ever.
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