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Here's the thing about scouting college football players for the NFL draft. It's based on fear. Scouts cover their tracks. They hedge their bets. Their evaluations all read, "Yes..., but...." Yes, he can move the team down the field, but he doesn't have an NFL arm. If the player makes it, the scout will say, "Well, I told you he had potential," or if he's a bust, the scout will shake his head and say, "See, the arm didn't hold up, just like I said."

There are more negatives than positives in most scouting reports. It's a wonder the teams can find enough people to play. Intangibles, the look scouts see in a player's eye or a certain feeling about him, are for late-night, third-drink talk at the hotel bar. Unless a scout feels very secure in his employment, he won't load up his reports with intangibles. It's too easy to be wrong. And that's what terrorizes the scouts—the fear of being wrong all by themselves, the big error, the No. 1 pick that was a total bust. And on draft day 1979, a lot of scouts were wrong about Joe Montana.

Eighty-one choices were made before the San Francisco 49ers took him near the end of the third round. A lot of teams made a mistake. Thinking back, what were the negatives on Montana when he was coming out of college? Strength of arm? Sure, he couldn't knock down buildings. So what? The Hall of Fame is filled with quarterbacks who didn't have a cannon. But there was something else, an undercurrent. He had trouble with his coach at Notre Dame. Uh-oh, look out. A warning light went off.

"Trouble, what trouble?" Montana says. "I mean, I was unhappy that I didn't start when I thought I should have, and I was pretty upset when I opened my junior year as third string, but I never openly challenged Dan Devine, or missed practices or stuff like that."

"It's always bothered me that people felt we didn't get along," says Devine, who's now out of football and living in Arizona. "At the time, I did things I had to do, and I tried to explain them to him, and I know it must have been hard for a kid to understand that."

If the scouts had talked to some of the Notre Dame players about Montana—teammates like Ken MacAfee, Dave Huffman and Dave Waymer—they might have gotten a different picture of the quarterback, not so much by what the players said but by the way they said it. There was a belief, almost mystical, among Montana's teammates that as long as Joe was on the field things would turn out right, no matter what the score was. Didn't he bring them back from 20 points down in the fourth quarter at Air Force, and from 22 down against Houston with 7:37 to play in the Cotton Bowl? Cool, unshakable, treats a bowl game the same as a practice. "The guys on the team knew who wouldn't overheat," was the way Waymer put it.

Look at the little decisions that might have changed the course of history. What if, for instance, the Pittsburgh Steelers had decided that neither Mike Kruczek nor Cliff Stoudt were the eventual successors to then 30-year-old Terry Bradshaw, and the team had drafted Montana? Instead of four Super Bowl victories by 1980, would the Steelers have gone on to win five? Six? Seven? Who knows?

Actually, there was a solid corps of quarterbacks in the NFL at the time of the '79 draft; only three teams had a crying need for one. In the first round, the New York Giants selected Phil Simms of Morehead State, which was not much of a surprise; Giants coach Ray Perkins had worked out Simms himself. Later in the first round, the Kansas City Chiefs took Clemson's Steve Fuller, whom Montana had outdueled as a junior in one of his six classic come-from-behind victories at Notre Dame. Fuller was 6'4", with a mighty arm; a safe pick. As for the Chicago Bears, they knew they weren't going to a Super Bowl with Bob Avellini or Mike Phipps at quarterback, and Vince Evans was a long shot. For a while the Bears were very close to drafting Montana.

"Notre Dame is right down the road, and my wife and children loved Joe Montana," Bears player personnel director Bill Tobin says. "When I left the house, I told them, 'If he's there on the third round, he's ours.' "

But while Tobin was in the draft room, things changed. Montana was there when the Bears picked in the third round, but the team took Willie McClendon, a running back out of Georgia. "I had a lot of explaining to do to three young kids and my wife," Tobin says. "But who knows, if he came here, that he would have had the career that he's had in San Francisco? That's true of any player."

"What if a Tampa Bay or a New Orleans would have taken him?" says Chuck Abramski, who was Montana's coach at Ringgold High in Monongahela, Pa. "What if, instead of having Bill Walsh to work with all those years in San Francisco, he had been in a system where he had to drop back seven steps and throw 50 yards downfield?"

Montana has reflected on that many times himself. "There's no coach I could have played for who would have been better for my career," he says. "Absolutely none."

There's one more what if. What if, when Walsh went to Los Angeles to work out UCLA wide receiver James Owens in the spring of '79, Montana hadn't dropped over to throw Owens some passes? Or so the legend goes.

"Now, that's not true," Walsh says. "We were coming off a 2-14 year. We were in dire straits everywhere. I investigated every viable college quarterback. I first became aware of Montana the previous year, my second year coaching at Stanford. We were so proud of our 25-22 comeback win over Georgia in the Bluebonnet Bowl, and then I looked in the paper and read about Notre Dame and Joe's even more spectacular comeback in the Cotton Bowl—under impossible conditions. That was just so impressive.

"Joe was the last quarterback we looked at. [Montana had graduated from Notre Dame in December and was living in Manhattan Beach, Calif.] I went down there specifically to look at him, and he worked out with Owens and Theotis Brown, the UCLA fullback who played for Seattle. Joe threw for an hour. The minute I saw him drop back—his quick movement, those quick, nimble, Joe Namath-type feet—I got very serious. As much as I wanted Steve Dils, who'd been my quarterback at Stanford, who knew my system, I knew I had to forgo that for Joe. Joe was bigger and quicker, and he threw better."

The 49ers, who had given up their first- and third-round choices in trades, used their second-round pick to take Owens, and they used a late third-round pick, acquired from Dallas, to select Montana. He signed a three-year contract that paid him a $50,000 signing bonus and a base salary of $50,000, $70,000 and $85,000 for the three years.

The first thing people noticed about Montana when he reported to 49er training camp was how skinny he was. The team's media guide listed him as 6'3", 200 pounds. (The guide has since dropped an inch off his height and five pounds from his weight.) Actually, he stood 6'2" and weighed barely 185.

"I was sitting next to him at the counter in Howard Johnson's," says Dwight Clark, a 10th-round pick who would become Montana's favorite receiver. "Long blond hair, Fu Manchu mustache, skinny legs. I thought, This guy must be a kicker. Then he introduced himself, and I couldn't believe this was the guy who brought Notre Dame back to beat us in the fourth quarter when I was at Clemson.

"Lord, we were so homesick. I thought it was only a matter of time until I got cut. Joe acted that way, too. Maybe he was just trying to make me feel better—he was a third-round pick—but we used to sneak in the back door at breakfast. The guy who did the cutting, the guy who told you, 'Coach wants to see you,' used to be in front—Max McCartney, Max the Axe."

Montana started one game in his rookie year, saw brief action in two games and made spot appearances in the other 13 games. Walsh, who had developed quarterbacks Ken Anderson at Cincinnati and Dan Fouts at San Diego, was in no hurry to push Montana. But Walsh closely monitored his progress.

"There were those in our organization who didn't think Joe would be an NFL starter," Walsh says. "That was never even a consideration his first year. I knew the stage he was going through. He was a little in awe of everything, like all first-year quarterbacks. If he hadn't broken out of it, it would have been a different story, but he did break out of it.

"When we looked at films of him in college, I said I also wanted to see his worst game. At his worst he played desperate. He'd throw late and beyond the receiver; never early, always late. It's as if he was waiting until the last moment to make something happen. At his best, and that's true today, when he was in sync, he had an intuitive, instinctive nature rarely equaled by any athlete in any sport. Magic Johnson has it.

"When he was first breaking in with us, whenever the thrust of what he was doing was by instinct, he played very well. Even watching Joe warm up, there was something hypnotic about him. That look when he was dropping back; he was poetic in his movements, almost sensuous, everything so fluid, so much under control. But you couldn't lose sight of the fact that he was still a young player, and in game situations every play is almost crisislike to a young player."

By 1980 the 49er offense was beginning to come into focus. The running game was nowhere; it wouldn't get healthy until Wendell Tyler arrived in '83. The short, controlled pass became much of the running game. Clark, who began to emerge as a serious midrange threat, had his own thing going with Montana, who started seven of the last 10 games that year.

"We'd stay out after practice and work on our own stuff," Clark says. "I don't know how much it helped him, but it helped me. I didn't have a clue about reading defenses, about making adjustments. That's the thing about Bill's system. You could do your own adjusting as long as it was in the parameter, the guidelines. A lot of times, say, I'd run a 10-yard hook. If the guy was inside me, I'd kind of push off and run a breakout. Joe could read that. He was good at it.

"Everyone said there was a chemistry between us. Joe once said in an interview, 'I can look all around the field. I can look away and still come back and find Dwight, that big, slow, loping receiver.' He could see me moving across the field. I didn't run out of his sight line. Joe's got a knack of being able to figure out your body English, of knowing by your position on the defensive guy what you're going to do at the end of your route. He had that with me, and he has that now with Jerry Rice.

"I remember one game against the Rams. I was running a clearing route, just clearing my guy out for the tight end underneath. I ran inside and broke it back out, and I thought, Damn, I wish Joe could see me. Next thing I knew, the ball was on its way to me. After the game I asked him, 'How the hell did you ever find me?' He just shrugged."

Steve DeBerg, who had shared the starting job with Montana, was traded before the '81 season. The defense, with three rookie backs and the addition of old pros Fred Dean and Hacksaw Reynolds, had potential. The running game was only a change of pace, maybe a power sweep or two to keep opponents guessing. No one had yet called Walsh a genius. Nothing had been written about Walsh's system, which is now the standard for offensive football. But it was coming into focus. He had had to go slowly with Montana. He couldn't give him the full package at first, but now he felt Montana was ready.

So much has been written about the system, but on the field there is no mystery to it. Anyone can figure out the attack just by studying a lot of film—underneath crossing patterns, flood an area and put pressure on the linebackers, optional reads by the receivers and breakout patterns at the end of the route.

"Three-man patterns to a side off different combinations. Joe knows that in his sleep," says L.A. Raider managing general partner Al Davis.

The thing that makes the system unique is the way it is coached, the subtleties and nuances. The "teaching," as Walsh calls it, is the key, starting at the top and filtering down through the quarterback coach. There never was a title of offensive coordinator under Walsh; quarterback coach Mike Holmgren was awarded the designation under George Seifert last year.

The two predecessors to Holmgren on Walsh's staff had been outstanding quarterbacks. Sam Wyche was a nine-year NFL veteran with four years under Walsh at Cincinnati. Paul Hackett was a record-breaking passer at UC Davis.

"There was a lot of time spent studying," Montana says. "Sam helped me a lot with the little keys, the knowledge of what a defense was or was not capable of in a certain situation—prereads we call it, knowing where not to go before the ball is even snapped. You'd learn to work on individuals. We'd see a film, and Sam would say, 'See, this guy can't cover that far, but he tries to.' Bill's system works only if the guy running routes is able to read. Most of our routes have a lot of options built in, according to zone or man coverage. Everyone has to be on the same page. We never want to be at the point where one defense can cover a route completely."

When Walsh talks about offensive football, he eventually mentions the "quick, slashing strokes" of attack. He'll use analogies with tennis and boxing, even warfare, which was why he was so taken with Montana's nimble feet. A quick, slashing attack needs a quick-footed quarterback. The players Walsh brought in to back up Montana were also mostly guys who could move—Bryan Clark, Matt Cavanaugh, Jeff Kemp, Steve Young. The statuesque quarterback who can throw the ball 60 yards down-field has never been Walsh's type. And when he refined his offense to blend with Montana's skills, Walsh introduced the x factor, which was the great escape talent of his quarterback—elusiveness, body control, the ability to throw while in the grasp of an opponent.

"A lot of our offense was play-action," Walsh says, "and I learned through my experience that on a play-pass you have to expect an unblocked man just when you're trying to throw the ball. Your linemen have blocked aggressively. You can't expect them to hold their guys. Joe had to understand that. You're going to fool somebody downfield, but also you're going to have someone unblocked bearing right down on you. Here he comes. If you can throw and take the hit—TD. If you can avoid him, so much the better. We were on the cutting edge of Joe's ability. He was gifted at avoiding and throwing.

"We practiced the scrambling, off-balance throw. It wasn't accidental when he did it. It was a carefully practiced thing. I'd tell him, 'Timed pattern to the first receiver. If he's covered, move and look for the second. Then scramble and throw off balance, and jerk it to the third. By the time you're reading the third receiver, someone's got hold of you.' And that's what we'd practice. I'd tell him, 'I never want you to throw to the third receiver on balance.' "

Finally it all came into focus in the '81 postseason, in one momentous play, the last-minute touchdown pass to Clark that buried Dallas in the NFC championship. The play will always be known as The Catch—Montana scrambling to his right, with three Cowboys clutching at him; the off-balance throw; and finally Clark, on a breakoff route, ducking inside, then cutting back—just the way he and Joe had practiced on their own so many times in camp.

"On the touchdown play my concentration level was never so high," Montana says. "I remember pump-faking to get those guys chasing me off the ground, just like when I was playing basketball with my dad. I remember trying to get the ball to Dwight high, so no one else could get it. I never saw the catch. I heard the crowd roar."

The Super Bowl was an anticlimax. Montana was facing the consensus All-Pro quarterback, Ken Anderson of the Bengals, and one pregame angle explored by the media was that Walsh had coached both of them. Montana was asked how he felt he would play against Anderson, and he gave the traditional answer that you don't play against a quarterback, you go against the defense. The 49ers beat the Bengals 26-21, with Montana taking MVP honors. In each of the 49ers' next two Super Bowls, he again was matched with a consensus All-Pro, Dan Marino of Miami in '85 and Boomer Esiason of Cincinnati in '89. Montana had gone in as the second-best quarterback each time and won. By the time of the 49ers' fourth Super Bowl, in '90, everyone had learned, and the question was only how badly would Montana and the 49ers beat John Elway and the Denver Broncos?

The first talk of Montana being the greatest of all came in Bay Area circles after the '82 Super Bowl, as put forth by a couple of old 49er quarterbacks. John Brodie said it, flat out, and people laughed. Frankie Albert said, "At 25, he's ahead of Unitas, Van Brocklin, Waterfield...all the immortals." That was a little more modest. People didn't bother to look up the records of those three quarterbacks at age 25. If they had, they would have discovered that each of them also had won a championship at 25. So did Joe Namath, Otto Graham and Sid Luckman. Twenty-five, it seems, is a magical age for quarterbacks.

Montana was rewarded with a four-year contract worth more than $1.7 million, and he was flooded with endorsements in the off-season. The demand on his time became a sore point with some people, who saw it as one of the reasons for the 49ers' collapse in '82, the strike year. Montana said it was a bum rap, because most of the commercials and appearances were one-shot deals. He would leave town on Monday night, spend the off-day Tuesday making the commercial and be back at practice Wednesday morning. What was the big deal? Nevertheless, he cut down on his appearances the following season.

The '83 season was a good year statistically for Montana, even though the 49ers lost to the Washington Redskins in the NFC Championship Game, but '84 was his best up to that point. In that season he received his highest NFL quarterback rating (102.9), his second Pro Bowl selection and the MVP award for leading San Francisco to a crushing 38-16 victory over the Miami Dolphins in the Super Bowl. Only one thing was better. It was also the year he met Jennifer Wallace, whom he would marry in February 1985.

Montana had been through two marriages. He was gun-shy. Then, in the off-season, he went to New York to do a Schick razor commercial. Jennifer was the Schick Sheriff, who always gets her man. Joe was, well, the shtick in Schick. By the next summer, he was sweating out how to propose. He finally hit on the idea of hiring a plane with a streamer reading: JEN WILL YOU MARRY ME? JOE. It cost him $600. He took her to their favorite park in San Francisco, the Marina Green. Finally, the plane flew overhead.

"I looked up, and the streamer was backwards," Montana says. "I said, 'Oh God.' We were on the wrong side of it. I started maneuvering her around. She said, 'Joe, what are you doing?' Finally she saw it. She said, 'Yes,' right away. I was ready for her to say no. Then she said, 'What took you so long?' "

For a while everything was fine. The newlyweds settled in Palos Verdes, Calif., but soon they were building a home in Redwood City. Montana was earning $900,000 in the second year of a new six-year contract worth $6.3 million. Jennifer got him off junk foods, shaped up his eating habits. They worked out together, did everything together. Their first baby was on the way when, suddenly, in November 1985, the drug stories hit.

There were rumors spreading around the Bay Area that Montana had been arrested for speeding in his red Ferrari (which happened to be in his garage at the time he was said to have been stopped) and "a controlled substance" was found in the car, but the San Francisco police had let him off. Another rumor placed the incident in Atlanta (he had been in a team meeting preparing for the Falcons when the arrest was supposed to have occurred). Someone called the San Francisco Examiner and said, "We heard that Joe Montana has been admitted to a drug rehab center"—and this was during the season.

The rumors were never substantiated. They weren't even reported in the media until Walsh and Montana issued public denials. But the rumors wouldn't die. "I remember watching the six o'clock news with Joe one night," Jennifer says. "They flashed his face on the screen, and underneath was the word DRUGS. Then they went to a commercial. I can remember Joe's eyes welling up. It was just so untrue, but what could we do?"

"The absolute low point came after a trip to Detroit," Montana says. "We'd lost to the Lions, we were 3-4, and I came back with the flu. Our baby, Alexandra, had caught it, and I was getting in the car to take her to the hospital, holding her in my arms, and I couldn't get out of my driveway. A bus was blocking it, and the driver, a woman, was sitting there making faces at me and turning thumbs down, and all the people on the bus were staring. I just sat there thinking, Please go away. That was the worst."

The 49ers were bruised and banged up when they faced the New York Giants at Giants Stadium in the NFC wild-card game. San Francisco lost 17-3. Montana injured a shoulder on a blind-side hit by Lawrence Taylor after an interception, but he remained in the game. It was a preview of things to come.

In the '86 season opener at Tampa Bay, Montana twisted in the air while throwing a pass, and his back went out. An examination showed a ruptured disk and, worse than that, a congenital narrowing of the spinal cavity. He would need an operation. Doctors told Montana he might play again, but he would be crazy if he tried it.

Crazy? His whole life had been football. He was 30 and at the peak of his game. After two marriages, the first to hometown sweetheart Kim Moses in college and the second to flight attendant Cass Castillo from 1981 to '84, he had found a woman he could be happy with. He was still bugged by a lack of privacy-clumps of fans followed him every time he stepped out of the house—but he viewed that as an occupational hazard. Football had brought him to the absolute crest, and now doctors were telling him to give it up?

"I thought he was finished," his mother, Theresa, says. "I was in his hospital room the day after the operation. They wheeled him in, sat him up, or at least tried to. I could see the pain in his eyes. I wanted to cry, but not in front of him. Ronnie Lott was in the room, Dwight Clark, Wendell Tyler. They couldn't hold the tears back. A day later I asked him, 'What do you want to do?' He said, 'I want to play football again.' The next day he was up doing exercises, the day after that he was working with weights, small stuff mostly, but at least he was doing something."

Montana was out of action for 55 days. The 49ers were 5-3-1 when he returned, but he led them to five victories in the last seven games and into the playoffs. They faced the Giants in Giants Stadium again, and lost again, 49-3. Montana was knocked out in the second quarter when noseguard Jim Burt buried his helmet under Montana's chin. But the back held up.

The 49ers were the sweethearts of the NFL in '87, going 13-2 in the regular season, and Montana had a career high for touchdown passes (31), all of which made it tough for everyone to take when Minnesota beat them 36-24 in an NFC divisional playoff in San Francisco. By the third quarter of that game it was clear that the 49er offense was going nowhere, and Montana was benched for Young. That's all the fans and the media needed to start talk of trading Montana, who would be 32 that June. Young was 26. Now there was the future.

In '88, Young started three times and came off the bench to play in eight other games as Montana was slowed by nagging injuries to his elbow, ribs, back and knees. Montana said he could have played; he was bitter about Walsh's not playing him. "One bad pass, one bad series, and I'm out of there," he said. He and Jennifer started looking around for teams that might want him.

Montana has looked back on the '88 season many times, thinking about what Walsh has meant to his career and about the bad time they went through, and he has a feeling it's time to set things straight. "We played golf the other day," Montana said in May. "I didn't even know Bill knew how to play. I've dropped by his office a few times. I will again. I'm sure we'll talk about all this, but that's for later on. We're just getting used to each other, because I'd never really spoken about my feelings to Bill."

"I had to almost calculate the things I did," says Walsh, who now works as an NBC analyst. "I had to follow my own ethical code in coaching, such as pulling Joe from a game. You struggle with things like sentiment and loyalty. Should I stay with him or not? Then you do what you have to do as a coach. And you have to decide it quickly. There were times when I'd be driving away from the stadium and I'd wonder in my heart, Did I really do my job as coach?"

The '89 Super Bowl, the final drive against the Bengals—92 yards to win it 20-16 with 34 seconds left (actually 102 yards if you count an ineligible receiver penalty)—cured everything. It was the 19th time as a pro that Montana had brought his team from behind and led it to victory in the fourth quarter. There were four more in the '89 season. Has any quarterback had more? Does anyone keep track of those things? Add six as a collegian, one more in the Big 33 Pennsylvania-Ohio high school all-star game, and Montana has a total of 30. Is it a record? Who knows? But it's pretty impressive.

That last drive against the Bengals in the '89 Super Bowl has been well documented. Montana completed eight of nine passes for 97 yards en route to the winning throw.

"I was kind of wild on the sidelines before we took the field for that drive," says right tackle Harris Barton. "I was worried about the penalty on the kickoff that set us back to the eight. I was yelling at somebody, can't remember who. Joe came over to me and said, 'Hey, check it out.'

"I said, 'Check what out?'

"He said, 'There in the stands, standing near the exit ramp, there's John Candy.' I looked. Sure enough, it was him. I grabbed John Frank, our tight end. 'Hey, John,' I said. 'There's John Candy.' Then I got hold of myself. What the hell was I doing? Fifteen seconds later we're in the huddle and Joe's clapping his hands and saying, 'Hey, you guys want it? Let's go.' "

The scariest moment in the drive came with a minute and a half left, first-and-10 on the Bengal 35. Montana had been yelling, calling signals, and he began to hyperventilate. He couldn't catch his breath.

"He signaled to me that he wanted a timeout," Walsh says. "He didn't know if he could go on. I waved it off. I didn't realize what was happening to him. He came up to the line, and the next pass he threw went over Jerry Rice's hand. It was his only incomplete of the drive. Later he said he threw it away because he didn't want to risk an interception.

"He told me that as he was coming to the line he felt himself getting his breath back. He didn't panic. Now you take your strutting quarterback, and he couldn't function like that. But the thing was that Joe functioned in a clearheaded manner, even in distress. He didn't lose it. It's like the soldier taking two in the belly and still finishing in charge."

Based on the NFL quarterback rating system, Montana's '89 season was simply the best anyone has ever had—the highest rating (112.4) and third-highest completion percentage (70.2) in history. But those are just numbers. The 49ers swept through the playoffs and Super Bowl like a broom, trouncing Denver 55-10 to repeat as NFL champions. Their efficiency was frightening, and Montana was the master. If you want to highlight one game during the season, try the game in Philadelphia on Sept. 24. Some people call it the finest Montana has ever played.

For three quarters the 49er offense was falling apart. Montana had been sacked seven times, with one more to come. He had tripped twice while setting up and had fallen down in the end zone for a safety. The Eagles were coming at him like crazy, and the 49ers were down 21-10 with 10 seconds gone in the fourth quarter. Then Montana threw four touchdown passes into the teeth of the Eagle rush to pull out a 38-28 victory. His fourth-quarter stats read 11 completions in 12 pass attempts for 227 yards, and he scrambled for 19 more.

"Worried? Oh, hell, yes, we were worried," Barton says of the Eagle assault on Montana. "Joe gets that glazed look in his eyes, and you know he's been shellacked. Then three guys try to help him up. That's the first thing you think of. Let's get him on his feet right away, then maybe everyone will miss what happened.

"It wasn't a good situation to be in. We'd get to the sidelines and Joe would say, 'O.K., let's get this thing settled down.' I was just amazed that he could line up at all after getting smacked in the head by [Eagle end] Reggie White."

If you want to make a case for Montana as the greatest quarterback who ever played the game, there it is. Toughness. The great ones all had it—Unitas, Graham, Baugh, Waterfield, Tittle, Bradshaw. When you add Montana's finesse, the sensuous and fluid qualities that Walsh saw at the beginning, plus his uncanny accuracy—no one has ever thrown the short crossing pattern with a better touch—you've got a special package.

The numbers declare him the best of all time: highest career quarterback rating (94.0), highest career completion percentage (63.9; no one else is above 60), second to Bernie Kosar of the Cleveland Browns in lowest lifetime interception rate. Here are a few more. Among quarterbacks with a minimum of 1,500 passes, Montana is the only one to have thrown twice as many career touchdowns (216) as interceptions (107). In the 150 games in which he has thrown at least one pass, including the playoffs, his completion percentage has been under .500 only five times, and he once went five seasons (1980-84) without having a sub-.500 game. In three playoff games after the '89 season, he threw 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions. Had enough? The best stat of all, of course, is his feat of 23 fourth-quarter, comeback NFL victories.

Teammates and coaches have talked about Montana's almost mystical calmness in the midst of turmoil, when everything's on the line in the fourth quarter. How does he describe it, this ability to elevate his performance? "I don't really know," he says. "It seems like your concentration level goes up and things get a little clearer because of that."

Concentration level? Come on, that's a coach's phrase.

"Well, you think of little things," he says. "You want to make sure you get enough depth in your drops. You want to go through every situation ahead of time. When you're behind, the idea is to do something, but not everything. You want to get a flow going, then you can take a chance."

Montana pauses. He is not interested in self-evaluation. It's almost impossible for him to put himself in a historical context. Football to him is playing the game. You go out and do it. You don't tie it up with a bunch of numbers. Questions about his all-time rating make him nervous; it's too much like an obituary.

"Maybe it's because ever since I was little I was involved in pressure situations, plus winning traditions," he says of his days as an athletic wunderkind growing up in Monongahela and starring at Ringgold High. "You knew you had to win. Those basketball tournaments we played in—Niagara Falls one night, Bethel Park the next night. You learned to deal with it.

"What I want is the chance to play, to compete. When a coach would sit you down, when you knew you'd get yanked if you didn't do well, well, that was real pressure. Once you know you can play no matter what, once you can get in your flow, then the pressure is only what you create for yourself."

Everyone who has come into contact with Montana has tried to figure out the source of his greatness. Wyche said that no quarterback ever reacted as fast to changing situations, no one ever absorbed coaching so readily and immediately put it into execution. "When I'd tell him something," Wyche says, "it was almost like he'd lean in and pull the words out of my mouth."

According to Clark, now a marketing consultant with the team, everyone's performance on the 49ers is elevated because of Montana's presence. "The receivers can go into their patterns with confidence because they know Joe's never going to put them in a bad position," he says. "That's why you see so many of his short passes break for 80 or 90 yards, because the guys are fearless going in there."

"Joe presented all of his linemen with gold Rolex Presidential watches this year," Barton says. "It's us that should be giving him the watch. The success of this organization, how we've been treated, how we travel, how much we make, it's a tribute to Joe, the guy who wears number 16."

Perhaps Jeff Petrucci, Montana's high school quarterback coach, has the best answer to the secret of Montana's greatness. "Joe was born to be a quarterback," Petrucci says. "You saw it in the midget leagues, in high school, even in the Big 33 all-star game—the electricity in the huddle when he was in there. How many people are there in the world, three billion? And how many guys are there who can do what he can do? Him, maybe Marino on a good day. Perhaps God had a hand in this thing."

So is he the greatest quarterback of all time or not? A large body of players and coaches, including Walsh, votes yes. The ones who say no point to the new era of football, the freer passing lanes, the bump-and-run restrictions, the elimination of head-slapping by defensive linemen. They say that a Johnny Unitas or a Norm Van Brocklin playing in this era would do the same things Montana does.

"Yeah, I know. I've heard it," Petrucci says. "How would Joe do in the other era? How would he do against the Steelers in that two-deep zone, when they'd roll their corners up and it was over? Well, in my mind, he'd be the greatest in any era because he's the ultimate winner. Somehow he finds a way to get it done."

My opinion? The eras are dissimilar. Quarterbacks like Unitas had to face things that Montana never saw, such as his receivers getting mugged downfield. So I'll give you my two greatest quarterbacks: Unitas of the bump-and-run era, Montana of today. Sorry to cop out, but it's rough, messing with idols.

Perhaps the secret to Montana's great surge while in his early 30's is that his life finally has some harmony. He has severely limited his endorsements and outside speaking engagements, but he is financially secure thanks to his new four-year, $13 million contract. His greatest enjoyment is finding a place to escape to for a vacation with Jennifer, four-year-old Alexandra, three-year-old Elizabeth and 10-month-old Nathaniel. His family has become his strength.

"There are two sides to Joe, the one people see on the field and the one we see at home," says Jennifer. "Dwight Clark once told me, 'You'd never recognize Joe out there.' I've asked Joe, 'What do you feel when you are under all that pressure? How can you stay so calm?' He says, 'I really don't know.'

"What makes him comfortable is his home and his kids and everyday life, not being put on a pedestal, not being called a hero every five minutes."

How long will Montana play? "Forever," says Al Davis. "He'll be able to play until he's 40, like George Blanda did, unless he gets hurt. That's if they use him right, rest him for some games that don't matter, maybe play him in only eight or nine games a year when he's 40 years old."

"What about the other seven?" Montana says with a twinkle in his eye. "Sure, I'd like to play until I'm 40, but I don't think Jennifer would let me."

Well, what would he like to be doing at 40? Coaching? "Maybe," he says, "but not at the professional level. I'd like to work with kids, like my dad did.

"I'll tell you what I'd really like to do. I'd like to go up to the northern California wine country, Napa or Sonoma, and settle down there. Open a little Italian restaurant with seven or eight or 10 tables and a big wine list. I'd like to own some vineyard land, grow my own grapes, make wine."

We are sitting next to the swimming pool at the Meadowood Resort Hotel in St. Helena, Calif. Montana is watching Jennifer and the kids splash around. Three hundred yards away the annual Napa Valley Wine Auction is taking place, and next to the auction tent a display table has been set up with 100 or so of the Valley's finest. Montana says he "wouldn't mind dropping over to taste a few cabernet sauvignons or merlots, but you know, that would be impossible."

He is well known in the wine country. "I remember coming out of the office when one of the regular tours was going on," says Bruce Neyers, vice-president and marketing director of Joseph Phelps Vineyards in St. Helena, "and there were Joe and Jennifer, standing in line at the end of the tour, waiting to pay for a couple of cases of wine.

"I went over to him and said, 'Hey, why didn't you tell us you were here? I'll take you around.' He said, 'Nope, we're in a hurry. The regular tour was fine.' "

"He must have spent an hour with me in my smokehouse," says Michael Chiarello, the young chef at Tra Vigne, the innovative Italian restaurant in St. Helena. "He wanted to know all about how I cured my prosciutto and smoked my meats. The guy really knows food; he has a real interest. I said, 'Hey, Joe, you going to open a restaurant and drive me out of business?' He said, 'You never can tell,' "

"Food and wine," Montana says. "Not a bad life."

Raise your glasses, folks. He's the greatest of our era.