Joe Montana looks like the happy-go-lucky kid you sat next to in fourth grade. Blue eyes shining, blond hair wild under a tilted baseball cap, he sits in T shirt and jeans in an empty classroom at the 49ers' training complex, breaking up pretzels and toying with them before putting them into his mouth. At 25 he still has fun with food.
But the innocence of Montana (the name is Italian: "My dad says there used to be a 'g' before the last 'n,' " says Joe) only goes so far. Indeed, with the help of a shrewd offensive system, a patient head coach, teammates who routinely play over their heads and a few exceptional personal skills, Montana has become one of the canniest and most efficient quarterbacks in the NFL.
With one game left in the regular season, Montana, who is in his third year out of Notre Dame, is the second-ranked quarterback in the NFC, behind Dallas' Danny White. He has completed 302 out of 477 passes for 3,459 yards and 17 touchdowns, and thrown just 12 interceptions. His interception rate (2.5%) is the lowest in the NFC, and his 63.3 completion rate is the second best in the NFL. But more impressive than his stats—he had the highest completion percentage in the NFL last year—is Montana's knack for doing whatever it takes to win.
"He's got this resourcefulness, this something that's hard to put into words, that enables him to perform well under pressure," says General Manager-Coach Bill Walsh, who disregarded the negative scouting reports on Montana (inaccurate and inconsistent arm, no touch) and drafted him in the third round in 1979. "Joe's not an intellect, but he'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 everyone else has come apart first.
"I like Joe. The real common denominator for us, I think, is humor, which is needed for open communication. Joe has a good sense of humor."
Earlier this season Montana threw a very bad pass at a critical point in a game, and during the following time-out, Walsh dead-panned, "That was a super throw, Joe."
Montana looked perplexed. "I tried to throw it end over end like you taught me," he told the coach.
It is Walsh, with help from 49ers Quarterback Coach Sam Wyche, who is responsible for turning Montana into a class act. By stressing fundamentals and his unique brand of ball control, Walsh has allowed Montana to develop both his skills and his confidence gradually. By trading away Quarterback Steve DeBerg this summer (DeBerg and Montana shared the starting role last year), Walsh has given Montana peace of mind. By calling the plays but allowing Montana to check off if he wishes, Walsh has given his young quarterback an acceptable blend of discipline and freedom.
Because Montana has a good but not overpowering arm—"It's similar to Fouts's," says Walsh, "in the 90th percentile"—the coach has designed plays that keep Montana's throws within modest limits. The comfort of this custom-tailored system has boosted his confidence to the point where he now believes, "If I've got the time, which I usually do, it's impossible to stop this offense."
For a quarterback whose body dresses out punier than it lists (6'2", 195 pounds) and who didn't start a full season in college until his fifth year—he was redshirted as a junior—Montana seems suspect as an NFL star. But beneath the little-kid exterior is a veteran scrapper who hates to lose at anything, as Wide Receiver Dwight Clark says, "From Ping-Pong on up." And inside that gawky body is certified athletic talent.
In high school in Monongahela, Pa., Montana starred in baseball and was All-America in football and all-state in basketball. Until Notre Dame offered him a scholarship in football, Montana was set to go to North Carolina State on a basketball ride.
If one thing has hindered Montana's athletic career, it is that he has never been a great practice player. At Notre Dame he once calculated that he was the seventh-string quarterback—barely. About the only way he was able to rise above the ordinary was to get himself inserted into desperate game situations and demonstrate a sort of mad composure, something he does exceptionally well. As a sophomore in 1975, for instance, he came off the bench in the third quarter of the Notre Dame-Air Force game with Notre Dame trailing by 20 points, and led the team to a 31-30 win.
Montana's most heroic effort came in the 1979 Cotton Bowl game against Houston, played in the aftermath of an ice storm. Suffering from an acute chill that had lowered his body temperature to 96° and nearly paralyzed him with shivering, he had to stay in the locker room after the half with his body wrapped in blankets while a trainer poured hot fluids into him. Queasy and stiff, he reentered the game late in the third period with Houston leading 34-12. Montana then engineered a crazed offensive assault that didn't end until the last seconds of the game, when his touchdown pass to Split End Kris Haines gave Notre Dame a 35-34 victory.
Montana's wildest pro performance came in last year's second 49ers-Saints game when he completed 16 passes for 258 yards in the second half and rallied San Francisco from a 28-point halftime deficit to an overtime victory. That stands as the greatest second-half comeback in NFL history.
"Joe has greatness within him," says Walsh, who feels Montana is about three years from full flower. "His comprehension and mastery of the system is the key." Montana has cheerfully settled in for the learning process. He lives with his wife and two horses on a small farm he recently purchased on a mountain south of San Francisco. Montana describes himself as "quiet and sort of laid-back" and doesn't anticipate any character changes due to his growing fame. "How can I be cocky?" he asks, dropping the last pretzel bit down his throat. "Every morning I have to get up and shovel horse manure."