Montana, Joseph Clifford, Jr. ("Joe")
MONTANA, Joseph Clifford, Jr. ("Joe")
(b. 11 June 1956 in New Eagle, Pennsylvania), quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers who led the team to four Super Bowl victories; known as one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history.
Montana was born to Theresa Montana, a homemaker, and Joseph C. Montana, Sr., a finance company officer who encouraged their only child to participate in all sports. Montana began playing pee wee football at age eight through his father's efforts, although the minimum age was nine. At Ringgold High School he was a fine all-around athlete—good enough in football to begin receiving recruiting letters from major colleges as a junior; good enough in basketball to seriously consider a scholarship offer from North Carolina State. Early indications were that Montana would go to Notre Dame to play football. However, his father once challenged him by saying, "You'll probably take the easy way out and take the basketball scholarship." Joe responded to the challenge by electing to play the more physically demanding football at the more academically challenging Notre Dame.
When Montana arrived at the South Bend, Indiana, campus, he found he was one of seven highly recruited, prized freshmen quarterbacks. As he did in high school, Montana had to prove himself to skeptical coaches (Notre Dame's Ara Parseghian and Dan Devine) before becoming a starter. Despite leading the Fighting Irish to several comeback victories early in his career, Montana was not a starter until 1977, his junior season, and then only because of injuries to other quarterbacks. When given the chance, Montana showed a penchant for performing late-game heroics, as he led the Irish to a national championship, including a 38–10 victory over the University of Texas at Austin in the Cotton Bowl on 2 January 1978. Firmly entrenched as the starter in 1978, Montana would not lead the Irish to a repeat of the national championship, but he earned a permanent place in Notre Dame gridiron lore with an incredible comeback victory over the University of Houston in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on 1 January 1979.
In miserable weather—an ice storm with thirty-mileper-hour winds, making the windchill minus-ten degrees—and battling the flu (Montana had to be taken out of the game and into the locker room, where he was covered with blankets and fed chicken soup), he led the Irish to victory. Trailing Houston 34–12 with 7:37 to play, Montana hit a 2-point conversion after a blocked-punt touchdown to make the score 34–20. Another quick score and 2-point conversion made it 34–28. As Notre Dame was driving toward a potentially winning touchdown, Montana was stripped of the ball. Houston had only delayed what seemed to be preordained. Notre Dame and Montana got the ball a final time with thirty-five seconds left to play. Two passes by Montana to Kris Haines produced the tying points. Joe Unis kicked the winning extra point, but not until a second try. The first attempt was nullified by an Irish penalty. Montana had led his team to victory in what became a classic game.
Given an extra year of eligibility because he missed 1976 with an injury, Montana graduated in December 1978 with a B.S. in marketing. He moved to Manhattan Beach, California, to await the 1979 NFL player draft. There is credible evidence that Montana was a hard sell to the San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh. Walsh had previously coached at Stanford and was said to prefer Steve Dils, who played quarterback for Walsh there. On the third round, chosen after such nondescript college passers as Jack Thompson and Steve Fuller, the 49ers tapped Montana. He was brought along slowly in Walsh's soon-to-be-famous "West Coast" offense, but responded well in limited action during the 1979 and 1980 seasons. The 49ers were 8–24 during these seasons.
Surprisingly, the next year (1981) Montana led the team to a 26–21 victory over Cincinnati in Super Bowl XVI. To get to the Super Bowl, though, Montana had to connect in the back of the endzone with receiver Dwight Clark in the final minutes of the NFC Championship game on a play simply known as "the catch." The miraculous play defeated Dallas 28–27. Montana again paced the 49ers in Super Bowl XIX over Miami (38–16); in Super Bowl XXIII over Cincinnati (20–16), with Montana leading a comeback that culminated with the winning touchdown to Jerry Rice in the final minute; and in Super Bowl XXIV over Denver (55–10). Montana was voted Most Valuable Player (MVP) in all but Super Bowl XIX.
After the victory in Super Bowl XVI, the mayor of Monongahela, Pennsylvania, was asked if the town was going to name a street after Montana. The mayor said, "A street? He's already got a state named for him." In a similar move in 1993, the hamlet of Ismay, Montana, voted to change its name to Joe for that NFL season.
The rigors of NFL competition caught up with the six-foot, two-inch, 195-pound Montana in the late 1980s. By then a future Super Bowl MVP, Steve Young, had produced well as a replacement for Montana when needed. The 49ers were faced with a dilemma, showing loyalty to the legendary Montana or going with Young, who was five years younger than Montana. In a move that many thought lacked grace, Montana was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs in 1993, where he played two more seasons.
Montana retired after the 1994 season with sure Hall of Fame statistics: a 63.2 career pass-completion percentage; 40,551 yards passing; and 273 touchdowns. But it is as a cool, unflappable leader and last-minute victor that Montana is most remembered. His fourth-quarter, final-moment comebacks numbered in the dozens. His Super Bowl records are many and seemingly unreachable: three MVP awards, highest passer rating (127.8), most completions (85), most consecutive completions (13), most yards gained passing (1,142), most touchdown passes (11), and lowest interception percentage (0).
Montana's former Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer spoke for much of the professional football world, saying, "If I had one game I absolutely had to win, I'd want Joe Montana at quarterback." Bill Walsh, not especially known for sharing the glory, said, "If the 49ers are the team of the decade for the eighties—and they are—then Joe Montana is the player of the decade."
Montana, whose marriage to his high school sweetheart while a freshman at Notre Dame failed, married model Jennifer Wallace in 1985. They have four children and live in Calistoga in Northern California's wine country. After a stint in television broadcasting, Montana is involved in several business ventures, including some with former 49ers teammate Ronnie Lott.
It is generally conceded that if Joe Montana has any competition for "the greatest quarterback ever" it is fellow Western Pennsylvanian Johnny Unitas. Certainly, Montana's consistently high level of accomplishment ranks him among the most elite to have played the game.
Montana wrote an autobiography with Bob Raissman, Audibles (1986). His life and career are also discussed in Michael W. Tuckman and Jeff Schultz, Team of the Decade (1989); Beau Riffenburgh and David Boss, Great Ones (1989); and Dennis Pottenger, Great Expectations (1991).