Why Wasn't Montana At the Super Bowl?
The first story, reported by Ira Miller in The Chronicle, said two NFL sources had said Montana had asked for $100,000 in appearance money. This is a common ploy among star athletes and entertainers: Ask for something you know you won’t get, and that gives you an out. Montana clearly did not want to be there.
The next day, Montana was quoted as saying his family came first, and he wanted to see his sons playing in games. From telephone conversations I’ve had with Montana, I know he cares very much for his family. During the football season, his wife took their daughters on a trip to Prague, but Joe stayed home, phoning me in late afternoon one day from a high school practice field. He’s also told me he dropped out of doing a studio show on NFL games because it took him away from his family on weekends.
Yet, I believe the real reason is that he does not want to be in the same celebration with Steve Young.
Last season, the 49ers honored their Hall of Fame players at a halftime ceremony. Montana passed on that one, too. Ronnie Lott, a very close friend, was at the game but he, too, chose not to participate, I’m sure out of deference to Montana’s feelings.
In retirement, Montana has mended a lot of fences. He didn’t talk to Bill Walsh for some time after Walsh retired as coach of the 49ers, the two men divided by the debate over which one was more important to the Niners’ success – and, of course, by what Montana rightly viewed as Walsh’s attempt to move Young into the starting lineup. But since then, the two have been close enough to play golf together, whenever they can fit that into their very busy schedules.
As I noted above, he’s also talking to me – and he made the first move to break the ice in our relationship, at a party at the Robert Mondavi Winery. Since then, we’ve had several telephone conversations, and I did a “Catching Up” piece on him in The Chronicle about a year ago.
The bitterness toward Young remains, though. When a public rally was thrown for Montana after his retirement, a bogus invitation was sent to Young, to be a speaker. Young took it seriously and planned to make very complimentary remarks, as he has on other occasions. When Montana’s people heard about that, Young was told in no uncertain terms that he was not welcome.
MONTANA’S BITTERNESS dates back to 1987, when Walsh traded for Young.
At the time, Walsh made two judgments, both of which proved to be wrong. The first was that Jim Everett, just drafted by the then Los Angeles Rams, would be an outstanding quarterback. So, the 49ers needed a younger, healthier quarterback than Montana to combat their division rivals. Walsh’s opinion about Everett was shared by most coaches and general managers in the NFL at the time, but Everett developed “happy feet” and never became a star.
The second judgment was that Montana’s career would end soon. Again, there was considerable evidence for that. Montana had had back surgery in 1986, he seemed relatively frail and vulnerable to further injuries and his overall play had declined since his – and the team’s – great 1984 season.
Young was a gifted athlete but an undisciplined quarterback when he came to the 49ers, and few in the league thought he’d ever be a successful NFL quarterback. To speed his development, Walsh sometimes gave Young as many “reps” in practice as Montana, though the starter usually gets at least 90 per cent of them. Montana thought that was Young’s idea, though it wasn’t. Montana never complained directly to the media, but Lott would voice his complaints – as his own.
Then, before a 1988 exhibition game in London, Walsh said, “We might have a quarterback controversy.” Though he said it was a slip of the tongue, it was not. Walsh was always very adroit in his press conferences, which he often used to plant ideas. In this case, he was trying to prepare both Montana and his idolizing fans for the unthinkable: that Montana’s time as the starting 49ers quarterback might be near an end.
In midseason, it almost did end. Montana was sidelined for two games, with a combination of back spasms and the flu. Young won the first game, against Minnesota, with that memorable 49-yard touchdown run, and Walsh later said he would have kept Young as the starter if he’d won the next game, against Arizona. He didn’t, and Montana returned to the starting lineup.
For the next 2 ½ years, Montana played at the highest level of his career – and what might well be the highest level for any quarterback in NFL history. One of the reasons is probably the competition from Young, though I’m sure Montana never thought that.
The physical problems that Walsh had feared would end Montana’s career finally hit in 1991, and he missed all but one quarter of one game for the next two seasons. In his absence, Young took over and was MVP of the league in 1992. George Seifert said Montana would be the starter in training camp, but Montana recognized the reality of the situation – that Young was the better quarterback at that stage. Montana’s agent worked out a trade with Kansas City, and he ended his career with the Chiefs.
MONTANA AND Young are both in the Hall of Fame, but there is no doubt that, overall, Montana had the better career. He’s often referred to as the best of all time. He’s certainly the best I’ve seen in nearly 40 years of covering pro football.
He’s also unquestionably first in the hearts of 49er fans. Young won over fans with his play in the ‘90s, especially in the Super Bowl season of 1994, but for many 49er fans, there’s still just one quarterback, Joe Montana.
Had he gone to Detroit, Montana would certainly have been greeted with tumultuous applause. He’s a three-time MVP, and only a record-setting game by Jerry Rice kept him from winning a fourth MVP.
He’s had a successful post-career, too, making speeches, co-author of a book. He has a wonderful family and he’s living the good life in the wine country, even growing grapes himself. But I still wish he’d been able to put that last bit of bitterness behind him and go to Detroit.
NOTE: I have a busy morning tomorrow so I won’t be posting a column until the afternoon.
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