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It's a normal minicamp lunch break at the San Francisco 49ers' training facility. The players are unwrapping their sandwiches in the locker room, and Joe Montana is giving an interview upstairs in p.r. director Jerry Walker's office. Well, most of Joe Montana is concentrating on the interview. His right hand is busy with something else, as if it has a life of its own, a mechanized life of autograph production.

A steady stream of objects appears on the table in front of him—hats, jerseys, photos, posters—and Montana's right hand automatically rises, then lowers, producing a large sweeping J and tailing off to an almost illegible ana. Then his hand rises again, and another item is moved into place. Secretaries, p.r. people, coaches, players all come to present offerings at this ritual.

"A book to sign," says Walker. "Two pictures," says tight end Jamie Williams. "A ball," says p.r. assistant Dave Rahn. "Make this one out to 'a Nevada sports fan,' " says defensive coordinator Bill McPherson, sliding in a picture.

Rise and fall, rise and fall; the big J, the scribbled ana. Most of the time Montana doesn't even look at what he's signing. You get the feeling that someone could slip in a small child, a hamburger bun, a fish. It's all the same. At 34, the world's most famous quarterback has turned into an autograph machine.

Secretary Darla Maeda brings a hat. Walker is back with a toy rabbit. Guard Guy McIntyre is next with a jersey.

"Oh, no, not you too," Montana says, rolling his eyes.

"Yeah, me." It's Norb Hecker, the team's senior administrator, and he has a poster showing a glowering Montana. "A beauty, huh?" he says.

"They name animals after him," Rahn says, producing a picture of a German shepherd. "They send in every piece of football equipment you can think of. The office is cluttered with stuff." There is a children's book from a woman in Hillsborough, Calif. "To Joe Montana, for your kids...let me know if you need extra copies," reads the accompanying letter. There are eight mail cartons filled with letters going back four months, letters from France, Ireland, Tokyo.

"He'll come up here once or twice a week to sign stuff," says p.r. assistant Al Barba. We use the real Joe pictures until they run out, then we send the ones with the printed autograph. Everyone will get something—eventually."

Since he blistered the Denver Broncos in last January's Super Bowl, Montana is hot again, just as he was after the 49ers' Super Bowl victory in '82 and the one in '85, having been voted the game's Most Valuable Player each time. The first success represented the thrill of discovery, the potential star who blossomed, and it carried a heathly round of commercial endorsements with it. The second one reestablished him after Miami Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino had captured most of the headlines in '84. But then, in the 1985 season, the adulation for Montana cooled.

There were drug rumors, all unsubstantiated. Montana in his Ferrari reportedly stopped by police, even though the car was in his garage at the time. Montana seen in a bar, when he happened to be in a team meeting. In '86 there was the back operation two weeks into the season. Doctors said Montana might never play again. He was back in 55 days. The '87 season was his best statistically at that time, but the year ended with a disastrous loss to the Vikings in an NFC divisional playoff. When Montana was lifted for Steve Young in that game, it was the first time since he had reached football maturity that San Francisco coach Bill Walsh had given him the hook. The fans cheered when Young entered the game. Trade Joe now, they said, while you can still get something for him.

Walsh started Young a few times in '88, saying he was giving Montana time to get over nagging injuries and "general fatigue." Montana says it was a lack of confidence, tracing back to the end of '87. "It's tearing my guts out," Montana told his wife, Jennifer. But the exclamation point on the '88 season was the terrific 92-yard drive in the final minutes to beat Cincinnati in Super Bowl XXIII, and Montana came into '89 riding the crest. He put together a remarkable season, the best any quarterback has ever had, according to the NFL's rating system. And he was even better in the playoffs and Super Bowl XXIV, reaching a level of brilliance that had never been seen in postseason football. Which leaves only one question to ask about this remarkable 11-year veteran: Is he the greatest quarterback ever to play the game?

Wait, let's back off from that one for a minute. Greatest ever? What about Unitas, Baugh, Luckman, Graham? History's a serious business. Van Brocklin, Bradshaw, Tittle? When, in the long history of the NFL, was a quarterback in his prime called the greatest ever? The man in the most glamorous position in football going against the most famous names of the past? Does anyone point to a surgeon in Houston and say, "Yep, there's the greatest doctor ever"? How about Albert Schweitzer? It's rare ground we're treading on.

Montana's roots are in western Pennsylvania, the cradle of quarterbacks. Soft coal and quarterbacks. Steel mills and quarterbacks. Johnny Lujack from Connellsville, Joe Namath from Beaver Falls, George Blanda from Youngwood, Dan Marino from Pittsburgh, Montana from Monongahela, Tom Clements and Chuck Fusina from McKees Rocks, Arnold Galiffa from Donora, Terry Hanratty from Butler—he was Montana's idol as a kid. Terry Hanratty of Notre Dame, the Golden Domer. Montana would throw footballs through a swinging tire in the backyard, just like Terry did. Why? Why do so many of them come from western Pennsylvania? "Toughness, dedication, hard work and competitiveness; a no-nonsense, blue-collar background," says John Unitas, from Pittsburgh.

But there are a lot of no-nonsense, blue-collar places in the country. Why not Georgia or Texas, where the great running backs come from? Why not Michigan or Ohio, with all those fine linemen? What is it about western Pennsylvania and quarterbacks?

"Maybe it's the Iron City beer," says Montana.

The most logical answer is tradition—and focus. If you're a kid with athletic ability in western Pennsylvania, you've probably got a picture of Montana or Marino on your wall. Montana had the athletic gift. You could see it right away.

"He used to wreck his crib by standing up and rocking," his mother, Theresa, says. "Then he'd climb up on the side and jump to our bed. You'd hear a thump in the middle of the night and know he hit the bed and went on the floor."

And he had the focus, supplied by his father, Joseph Sr., who put a ball in his son's hands when the kid was big enough to walk and said, "Throw it."

"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 a ball to me," says Joe Sr., who moved to California with his wife in '86. "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. And I wanted to make sure he got the right fundamentals. I read books. You watch some quarterbacks, sometimes they need two steps to get away from the line of scrimmage. I felt the first step should be straight back, not to the side. We worked on techniques, sprint out, run right, run left, pivot and throw the ball.

"You know, I've been accused of pushing him. 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."

Joe Jr. was an only child, a pampered child, perhaps, but he didn't see it that way. The family lived in a two-story frame house in a middle-class neighborhood on Park Avenue, a house no better than the neighbors' and no worse. To Montana, his home was his strength, his support system. He was shy with strangers, outgoing at home. He had a few friends, neighborhood kids mostly, but no one was as close to him as his father—and his mother. His fondest childhood memory? Playing ball in the backyard with his dad, then coming into the kitchen, where his mother would have a steaming pot of ravioli on the stove. That was the best.

Montana started playing peewee football when he was eight, one year younger than the legal limit. His father listed his age as nine. His first coach on the Little Wildcats was Carl Crawley, a defensive lineman in college and now an NCAA referee.

"We ran a pro offense, with a lot of the stuff he's doing now, the underneath stuff," Crawley says. "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."

Montana's favorite receiver was Mike Brantley, who caught his passes through junior high and high school. Brantley eventually made it as far as the Pittsburgh Steelers' training camp. "Joe throwing to Mike was like the right hand throwing to the left hand," Crawley says.

Crawley remembers Montana as an "exuberant kid who had stardom written all over him, but nobody ever resented it because it came so naturally. And there was no show-off in him. He wanted to win, and he'd do whatever it took, and that's another thing the kids liked about him. With Joe on the field, they knew they were never out of any game."

In the spring it was baseball, and Montana played all the positions. As a pitcher in Little League, he threw three perfect games. In the winter it was basketball, for which there was no organized program for kids until Joe Sr. started one. The team practiced and played in the local armory, and the kids paid a dollar apiece for a janitor to clean up after them. The practices were five nights a week, and there were always tournaments to play in. "Those were the most fun," Montana says. "The trips. 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."

Montana has always said that his favorite sport, through Waverly Elementary and Finleyville Junior High and finally Ringgold High, was basketball. He loved the practices. "I could practice basketball all day," he says. Practicing football was work.

He came to Ringgold with a reputation for being something of a wunderkind. When coach Chuck Abramski took his first look at Montana on the football field, he saw an agile, 6-foot, 165-pound sophomore with a nice touch on the ball, but a kid who was too skinny and too immature to stand up to the rigors of western Pennsylvania Class AAA football. Abramski gave Montana a seat on the bench and told him to watch and learn. And to be sure to report to the summer weight program before his junior year. Montana had other ideas.

"For me, competing in sports was a 365-day-a-year thing," he says. "I was playing American Legion baseball, summer basketball. It was hard for Coach Abramski to accept that."

Last January, a week before the Super Bowl, a story appeared in the Baltimore Sun saying that, in Monongahela, Montana was regarded as a lesser god, a fact the rest of the world was dimly aware of. A number of old resentments surfaced in the story, but the worst quotes of all were from Abramski. "A lot of people in Monongahela hate Joe," was one of them. "If I was in a war, I wouldn't want Joe on my side...his dad would have to carry his gun for him," was another, and it was the one that bothered Montana most because it hit him where he lived. No one connected with football had ever questioned his courage.

"I called him about it," Montana says. "Three times now, I've seen those Abramski quotes around Super Bowl time, about why people hate me. I asked him why he kept saying those things, and he said, 'Well, you never sent me a picture, and you sent one to Jeff Petrucci, the quarterback coach.' I said, 'You never asked.' I mean, I don't send my picture around everywhere. We ended up yelling at each other. We had to put our wives on.

"Of course, I know what it was really about... that summer weight program. Chuck was a great coach in a lot of ways. He always tried to get the kids good equipment, he was always helping them get into college. I even wrote a letter of recommendation for him to go to another school after he left Ringgold. He was a fired-up, gung-ho coach, but he never got over the fact that I didn't take part in his summer weight program before my junior year. The man's all football."

Abramski, hard and wiry at 58, still lives in Monongahela, but he's out of football now. He sells real estate, just as Joe Montana Sr. does in the Bay Area. Abramski bounced around the western Pennsylvania high school circuit and held one college coaching job, at California University of Pennsylvania, under his old assistant at Ringgold, Petrucci. The problem was always the same: He was a great guy for developing a program, but school administrators found him impossible to deal with.

"I came from the south side of New Castle, the poor side," Abramski says. "My father was an alcoholic. My mother died of tuberculosis when I was 10. My grandmother raised me. There have been coaches with more brains, but nobody in the world worked harder at football than me. The year before I came to Ringgold, they lost every game and scored two touchdowns. They left me 14 players in uniform. Two years later, we had 100 kids out for football and we dressed 60, home and away. Three years later, Joe's senior year, we had one of the best teams in the eastern United States. We went 8-1 and then lost to Mt. Lebanon in the playoffs on a miserable, sleety night with three starters out. Before the season we scrimmaged South Moreland and scored 19 touchdowns. Nineteen touchdowns!"

The weight program was Abramski's baby, his joy. It was part of the toughening-up process. According to Abramski, Montana and only one other player, a halfback, didn't participate in his summer program. Petrucci says that about 20% to 30% of the squad didn't take part. Some former players say the number was higher. But here was Abramski's junior quarterback, a guy who had superstar written all over him—hell, everyone knew it—and he wasn't there. It ate Abramski up. When the season started, Montana was on the bench. "It's very painful now, when people say I harbored this hatred for Joe," Abramski says. "Hell, I loved the kid. I was doing what I thought was right for my squad."

"It's just an unfortunate thing," says Petrucci. "Here's a kid who never did anything wrong, never smoked or drank or broke curfew, never gave anyone a hard time, just a terrific kid. And on the other side, you've got a good coach who's stubborn."

People who were close to the situation feel that the real source of Abramski's resentment was not Joe but his father, who had worked with Joe for so long and taught him all the right habits. It was a matter of control, the fact that the father, not the coach, had had more to do with making a star out of the boy.

And now Abramski had benched that potential star, and his quarterback was 6'3", 215-pound Paul Timko, a big, rough youngster who splattered defenders when he ran the option play but had a throwing arm like a tackle's. In the scrimmages, Timko would line up at defensive end and take dead aim at Montana, the guy who was trying to take his job away. "Every day he just beat the hell out of me," Montana said. "I'd be dead when I came home. Football wasn't much fun at that point."

The Ringgold Rams were blown out by Elizabeth Forward 34-6 in the 1972 opener. They won the next two games by forfeit because of a teachers' strike, but lost the two practice games that were played to fill in the schedule. Timko wasn't the answer, obviously, especially with an away game coming up against mighty Monessen, the favorite to win the Big Ten league title. During the time of the forfeits Montana had moved up to become the starter. Timko was shifted to tight end. "Hell, I wanted to play there anyway," Timko says.

Keith Bassi, who was the Ringgold fullback, says the scene that night at Monessen was like nothing he has ever seen before or since. "You had to be there," he says. "I mean Monessen had some players—Bubba Holmes, who went to Minnesota; Tony Benjamin, who went to Duke. The rumor was that guys there had been held back a year in nursery school so they'd be more mature when they hit high school. We were doing our calisthenics, and there was this big roar, and here they came, 120 of them, in single file from the top of that concrete stadium, biggest stadium in the [Monongahela] Valley. It was like Custer's Last Stand."

The final score was 34-34, Holmes scoring for Monessen in the last moments. "We call it our 34-34 win," Bassi says. Montana's passing numbers read 12 for 22,223 yards and four touchdowns, three of them to Timko, the new tight end.

Last April, Ringgold threw a welcome-home dinner for Montana at the New Eagle Fire Hall. The 1,000 tickets were sold out in three hours. Among the gifts presented to Montana was a set of videotapes of all his high school games. A month later Joe Ravasio, the current football coach at Ringgold, showed me the original game films in a storeroom off the boys' locker room.

The first pass Montana threw against Monessen was on a scramble to his right; he pulled up and hit Brantley, crossing underneath. The second was a sideline completion to Timko, neatly plunked between two defenders. The show was on. "They played a three-deep, where they give you the short stuff," said Frank Lawrence, who had been the offensive line coach. "Joe just killed 'em with timed patterns." It was an eerie feeling, watching Montana drop back from center, set and throw. All his 49er mechanics were there, the quick setup, the nifty glide to the outside, scrambling but under control, buying time, looking for a receiver underneath. It seemed as if he had been doing it all his life, and this was a kid in his first high school start. "Watch Joe now," Lawrence said as Ringgold scored on a one-yard plunge. "See that? He backpedals after the touchdown and throws his hands up. Same mannerisms as now."

There were some amazing athletic plays by Montana—a 10-yard bootleg to the one, having faked everyone; a 35-yard touchdown pass to Timko, a play on which he rolled left, corkscrewed his body, dodged a rusher and laid the ball into the hands of the tight end, who was surrounded by three defenders.

We watched it all, junior year and senior year. The somewhat slender kid was gradually filling out, standing taller in the pocket, almost 6'2" now, up to 180 pounds—the makings of a superstar. In the Laurel Highlands game his senior year (won by Ringgold 44-0), Montana rolled to his right, went up on his toes and pump-faked two defensive players out of position before he hit his receiver on a crossing pattern. But the most interesting thing was that the cameraman wasn't fooled. He kept the camera right on Montana. By then everyone knew what he was capable of.

He was all-everything his senior year—including Parade All-America as a quarterback—a gifted athlete who starred on a league championship basketball team ("He could stand flat-footed and dunk with two hands," says Fran LaMendola, his basketball coach), a baseball player good enough to get invited back to a major league tryout camp, a potential standout in sports in which he merely filled in—a victory in his only tennis match, an informal 6'9" high jump, a junior high record in his only attempt at the discus. He was a B student who could have done better if someone had figured out a way to get him indoors, in front of a book, a little longer. He was popular in school, easy to get to know, hard to get close to. His classmates elected him class vice-president his senior year; the Ringgold yearbook, Flame 74, lists him as a member of the choir as a senior. The photo that appears under "Sports Personalities" in the yearbook shows a thin kid with blond, floppy hair that is almost girlish-looking. He is leaning on the wall next to a trophy case; no waist or hips, string-bean legs in long bell-bottoms. "Joe Banana" was one of Abramski's nicknames for Montana.

North Carolina State offered him a basketball scholarship. Notre Dame basketball coach Digger Phelps said he would try to arrange it so Montana could play football and basketball. A few dozen college offers came in. Georgia assistant coach Sam Mrvos stood next to Montana's dad at one practice session, watched Joe throw a bullet while sprinting to his left and told Joe Sr., "We'll give him a scholarship right now." Georgia was one of the schools Montana visited, along with Boston College, Minnesota and Notre Dame. His parents had taken him for a look around Penn State, and he had been to Pitt many times to watch the Panthers play.

It was all window dressing. His mind was already made up. It would be Notre Dame, where his idol, Hanratty, had played.

"In his senior year, the games at Legion Field were a happening," said Bob Osleger, the golf coach at Ringgold. "There was this flat bit of ground above the stadium, and Joe's father would stand there and watch the game, and all these college coaches and scouts would vie for position to stand near him. The whispers would start, about which college coaches were there that night, and I can see it so clearly now. Joe's dad would be standing there with his hands in his pockets and all these guys jockeying for position around him."

Sixteen and a half years later Montana was back, sitting on the dais at the dinner in the New Eagle Fire Hall, facing a roomful of people who had paid the cut rate of $20 a head, same price they paid for his first welcome-home dinner in '79. Earlier in the day he had given four speeches to a few thousand school kids—elementary, middle and high school—and there was a gleeful moment when six-year-old Anthony Vaccaro asked him, "Do you know who's living in your house?"

"No," Montana said.

"I am," Anthony said, "512 Park Avenue."

"Do you sleep in my bedroom?"

"Yes."

But there was also an edge to Montana's return that some kids couldn't quite understand. That day the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a story that dredged up all the old resentments. Some people felt Montana had turned his back on the Mon Valley when he moved to San Francisco, and that his parents had done likewise when they followed him west. There was mention in the Post-Gazette of his infrequent visits home and how his name had been rejected in a newspaper phone-in poll on the naming of Ringgold's new stadium. Once again there was an old Abramski quote about all the people who hated him.

Montana read the piece on his way to Monongahela from the Pittsburgh airport, and his opening remarks to the Ringgold middle school students left a few kids scratching their heads. "What you hear about me, about my feelings, are totally false," he said. "When they say Joe Montana doesn't think of the Mon Valley as his home, well, you can tell whoever's saying it that he's full of it." It was a sentiment he would repeat to the high school kids, and at the dinner. His relatives in town knew only too well what he was talking about.

"My 14-year-old granddaughter, Jamie, was afraid to go to school that day," says Montana's aunt, Elinor Johnson. "She was afraid the kids were going to boo him."

"The kids were telling me he doesn't really care about Monongahela," Jamie says. "There's a picture of Joe on a locker in school that says, 'My Hero—Joke!' They don't know him. They hear what some people say. Sometimes I'll get upset, sometimes I'll walk away."

"You grew up working in a mill or a factory," says Pam Giordenango, Jamie's mother. "Now the mill's closed, the factory's closed. Heavy industry moved out of the Valley. People lost their jobs, lost their homes, lost their families. They're bitter. Whatever they read in the news gives them something to bitch about, other than the fact that they can't make their house payments, can't afford to put food on the table. Now here comes Joe, who's made a lot of money playing football. He's an easy target."

I am standing in front of the armory, the old place where Montana practiced basketball at night. It seems small, much too small to hold a basketball court. A blue Chevy pulls up and stops. "If you want to get inside, you have to get the key from the minister down the street," the woman in the car says. She seems friendly. On an impulse I ask her, "What do you think of Joe Montana?"

"I don't like him," she says.

"Why not?"

"Stillers," she says.

Stillers? A bitter family in town?

"Stillers, Pittsburgh Stillers," she says. "Joe should be a Stiller."

A youngster asked Montana the same question earlier in the day. How come you aren't a Steeler, if you like this town so much?

"The football draft is like the draft in the Army," Montana had said. "When they call you, you go."

"Hey, you're in Steeler country," Elinor Johnson says. "They don't want Joe to beat Terry Bradshaw's record. You can get your man in the street, your man in the bar, he'll tell you that."

There's more, of course, like the fact that Montana's parents worked for Civic Finance—his father was the manager, his mother a secretary—while the area was going through a financial crisis. "One person who defaulted on a loan can spread more bad news around town than 50 people can spread good news," says Carl Crawley. And then the fact that the Montanas left for California, to be with Joe and Jennifer. Joe Jr. had instigated the move in 1986. He had always been close to his parents, but how could you be close when you were 2,500 miles apart? "Joe said, 'Quit and come out here with Jennifer and me,' " his father says. "It's hard, though, when you've lived somewhere all your life, when your roots are there."

There had also been a newspaper story about a financial mix-up, an accusation that Montana had billed a Monongahela group for speaking at a dinner held to honor him for being the '82 Super Bowl MVP. It was a bum rap. Montana was an infrequent public speaker in those days, and the few appearances he made were mostly unpaid charity work. There was no fee for his Monongahela appearance, only a guarantee of airfare, but when he put in an appearance at a second affair, in nearby Washington, Pa., there was a tap dance about who would pick up the expense for Montana's trip home. "I never knew a thing about it until I read all that stuff in the paper," Montana says.

As for the stadium that does not bear his name, the newspaper poll drew on a wide area, feeding on neighborhood rivalries and jealousies. None of the other local heroes was acceptable either, not Stan Musial, not Ken Griffey.

Perhaps the main cause of conflict is that Montana has always guarded his privacy. "We've come back to Monongahela four or five times in the last few years to visit relatives," Jennifer Montana says, "but people don't know that. What is he supposed to do, go down to the corner drugstore and hang out?"

That's probably what the people of Monongahela wanted. They wanted a superstar to act like one. But Montana's public persona had become a nightmare for him. "I love to eat out," he says, "but it's just no fun anymore. There's always a group of people coming by your table, always some guy just pulling up a chair and lighting a cigarette and starting to talk football."

He did what he had to do publicly—sign autographs and give interviews—but his privacy was his, and that included trips back home. In Monongahela, it was hard to understand. He was still Joey, the local kid. It's a complex area, the Mon Valley, fiercely loyal at times, but a place where it's easy to form resentments. And it's the area that Montana left in the fall of 1974 for a strange sojourn at Notre Dame that mirrored his entire athletic career—lows, moments of despair, followed by glorious highs.

He was 18 when he arrived in South Bend, still skinny, still shy with people he didn't know, a bit at sea so far away from his hometown and his parents. He had become engaged to his high school sweetheart, Kim Moses, from Monongahela Valley Catholic High. They would be married in the second semester of his freshman year and divorced less than three years later.

At Notre Dame he found himself amid an incredible collection of talent. He was a high school hotshot who was surrounded by hotshots, a hatchery fish in the deep ocean. Forty-six players who played for Notre Dame during the Montana years would be drafted by the NFL, eight in the first round. The Irish won a national championship under Ara Parseghian the year before Montana arrived in South Bend, and they would win another one, under Dan Devine, in '77, Montana's junior year.

Montana saw no varsity action his first year and got only minimal playing time in the freshman games. The eye-catching recruit was Gary Forystek, a big, strong, rocket-armed kid from Livonia, Mich. Montana? Well, he had that sleepy look about him. He missed home. He would call his dad three, four times a week. Joe Sr. told him to hang in. On a whim Montana once drove home in the middle of the night. Joe Sr. occasionally would make the eight-hour drive from Monongahela to watch Joe Jr. in an afternoon scrimmage, grab a bite to eat with his son, and then drive home to be at work the next day.