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Montana: The Catch, the drives, the coolness

Joe Montana and four others enter pro football's shrine today. As usual, the spotlight will be on Montana.

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 29, 2000


The moments are frozen in our memories -- his off-the-wrong-foot throw that became The Catch by Dwight Clark, the last-minute John Taylor reception in the end zone in Super Bowl XXIII, the familiar fists-in-the-air celebration of yet another scoring pass.

But if one moment can define Joe Montana, it came at the start of San Francisco's 92-yard drive against Cincinnati on Jan. 22, 1989, the drive that ended with Taylor's touchdown and the 49ers' third Super Bowl victory of the 1980s, the third of Montana's four.

As he gathered his teammates at their 8-yard line, Montana turned to tackle Harris Barton in the huddle.

"Hey, Harris," he said, nodding toward the stands. "Check it out. There's John Candy."

Seventy-five thousand spectators roaring, victory or defeat in his hands, and Montana could spot a celebrity in the crowd and take a moment to point him out.

"I tried to be myself all the time, and I think I tried to relax guys," he said. "I laughed in the huddle. It didn't matter what time of the game. I never raised my voice."

Joe Cool.

Winning a Super Bowl with a last-minute touchdown pass was easy, because "growing up ... I did that so many times in my back yard," Montana said. "You can go out and throw a touchdown pass. You can win the Super Bowl. Those are things you can go out and play and do. (Induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame) is something that I never dreamt of, and then all of a sudden, it's there in front of me. It's hard to get a grasp on."

Today, Montana, a first-ballot selection, enters pro football's shrine in Canton, Ohio, along with longtime 49ers teammate Ronnie Lott, Raiders defensive lineman Howie Long, 49ers linebacker Dave Wilcox and Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney.

Montana selected as his presenter Eddie DeBartolo, the ex-49ers owner who was banned for the 1999 season after pleading guilty to failing to report a felony in a gambling extortion case and then lost the team in the courts to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York.

Under DeBartolo, the 49ers won five Super Bowls. Asking him to participate in today's ceremonies was controversial, Montana acknowledged, but "Mr. D not only affected my life but all of his players. If there was ever a need, he had an answer. He had heart. He had fire, temper and a desire to win.

"I remember one of the first hotels I stayed in as a 49er was on the road at Tampa, and I tell you, a cockroach carried my luggage into the room. He realized we needed better accommodations, bigger planes, a classier style. We got it. When babies were born in our families, and on birthdays, he sent handwritten cards. He has not changed through the ups and downs. He has been there for me, and I have been there to support him."

Montana spent 14 years with San Francisco (he sat out the 1991 season after elbow surgery) and two with the Kansas City Chiefs after the 49ers traded him and anointed Steve Young as his heir.

When Montana left the 49ers, he was the highest-rated passer in NFL history (Young surpassed him). Among quarterbacks, only Pittsburgh's Terry Bradshaw equals Montana's four Super Bowl victories. None but Montana has three Super Bowl MVP awards (Jerry Rice was named MVP in the victory over the Bengals). And it will be hard for anyone to improve on this: In four Super Bowls, Montana completed 68 percent of his passes (83-of-122) and had 11 touchdowns and no interceptions.

He passed for 40,551 yards and 273 touchdowns in his career, and he did it bit by bit, dissecting defenses with a surgeon's skill, just as he had at Notre Dame.

His was a quiet success. He wasn't big, wasn't particularly strong or quick. He lasted until the 1979 draft's third round, the fourth quarterback selected.

Less than four months earlier, Bradshaw had led the Steelers to the third of their four Super Bowl titles. Teams "just weren't looking for 188-pound quarterbacks," said Bill Walsh, Montana's coach with the 49ers. "And (Montana) had just a little bit of a sidearm delivery, and the ball wobbled some as he threw it. They were looking for Bradshaw. Zap! That's what they wanted, and they didn't want to bother with the other kind of quarterback."

What the 49ers got was a quarterback who directed 31 fourth-quarter comeback victories, who could see everything happening on the field in front of him as quickly as it developed and react instantly.

Montana acknowledged that a quarterback too often receives more credit or blame than he deserves because the play begins with him.

"For me to throw four touchdown passes, I've got to have protection," Montana said. "I just had to get it to the right person at the right time. Once I throw the ball, somebody's got to catch it. Now somebody else has to stop the other team.

"Ask Dan Marino what it's like to score 30 points and lose. Football is the ultimate team sport."

- Information from other news organizations is in this report.

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