Early last Thursday morning, as the sun began to scorch the Sierra foothills in northern California, 36-year-old Joe Montana got ready for work. For 40 minutes he stretched and twisted and contorted his body to loosen his back, which six years ago required surgery for removal of a disk and widening of the spinal canal. Then for 30 minutes two trainers provided ultrasound and massage therapy for his throwing elbow, in which holes were drilled and a tendon was reattached nine months ago. Finally, at 8:45 a.m., Montana ran onto the field at the San Francisco 49ers' training camp in Rocklin to throw the first pass of the rest of his NFL life.
Montanaphiles can exult—for now, anyway. Handled with the care befitting a family heirloom, which to the Niners he is, Montana looked surprisingly smooth as he worked to overcome an injury of one kind or another for the zillionth time in his 14 years as a pro. He threw the touch pass to backs just soft enough and the sideline pass in traffic just hard enough and the deep pass to wideouts just far enough. On Friday he completed four passes of at least 40 yards. On Saturday he completed 33 of 37 throws, two of which were clearly dropped.
San Francisco's season opener, on Sept. 6 against the New York Giants, was seven weeks away, and there was notable caution in the voices of all who were watching last weekend, but the early reviews on the state of Montana bordered on boffo. Offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan said Montana would be the starter if the 49ers had a game that day. And coach George Seifert said, "It's the magic of Joe Montana. My sense from watching him out there, from his throwing and his reaction and his movement, is that he looks like he's always looked."
"If the elbow heals," said Montana, "I can easily play three more years."
Even his opponents expect no less. "He's like Lazarus," said Atlanta Falcon cornerback Tim McKyer, who was a 49er teammate of Montana's from 1986 to '89. "You roll back the stone, Joe limps out, throws off the bandages—and then he throws for 300 yards."
But Montana was only one of a staggering number of NFL quarterbacks who reported to training camps last week, or who are checking in this week, in various stages of recovery from injuries that sidelined them for all or part of last season. (Capsule updates on the quarterbacks whose rehabilitations bear most watching begin on page 34.) Among the most seriously injured were the Philadelphia Eagles' Randall Cunningham and the Phoenix Cardinals' Timm Rosenbach, both of whom are coming back from major knee surgery. However, the career status of Montana is the most tenuous of all because of the half-moon-shaped, 2½-inch scar on the inside of his right elbow.
Before he left for camp on July 15, he asked his wife, Jennifer, "What if it doesn't work out?" Will the elbow fail him in August? Will it stand up to the weekly strain of the regular season? Not even his doctors can answer him, because no other football player is believed to have had this type of elbow surgery.
On Aug. 13,1991, as he lofted a 40-yard pass in a training-camp drill, Montana felt something tear in his elbow. He'd had elbow pain sporadically during his career—Montana has taken more than 30 painkilling injections in the joint, according to one former teammate's estimate—but nothing like this. Eight weeks later, after extended periods of rest had failed to eliminate the pain, a three-surgeon team led by 49er physician Michael Dillingham operated and found the common flexor tendon completely torn from the elbow bone. Holes were drilled in the bone, and the tendon was sewn into place. Montana, who underwent a minor arthroscopic procedure in mid-May to clean out debris, says the tendon has grafted back onto the bone nicely, although the joint still feels a little tight after practicing.
"This is the most difficult rehab I've been through," he said last week. "It affects my ability to throw the ball unlike any other injury I've ever had. When I hurt my back, my arm was still strong and I could throw, and it was just a matter of working through the back injury. Here, they had to go back and reattach the tendon, and they just don't do that to people who have to use the arm as much as I do.
"Progress is difficult to judge. A player is so used to dealing with pain: You go through rehab, you have pain; eventually it goes away, and then something else hurts. That's the way this game goes. The tough part for me is knowing what pain is good and what pain is bad. I don't want to set the elbow back, but I don't want to be not working it hard enough to get ready."
Seifert met with what he calls "the Holy Trinity"—Dillingham, 49er trainer Lindsy McLean and Montana—before camp opened to plan Montana's preseason regimen. Dillingham and McLean decided that Montana should alternate throwing 40 passes one day and 60 the next, and that he should throw in only one practice a day, the morning session. Offensive assistant coach Brian Pariani was assigned to monitor Montana's pitch count, whose limits were strictly adhered to in the first few days of camp: Montana threw 40 passes on Thursday, 59 on Friday, 37 on Saturday and 55 on Sunday.
Before the 49ers return to the field in the afternoon, Montana devotes another hour to back and elbow exercises. He even works with rice—long grain, not Jerry, who's a holdout while his agent negotiates a new contract. For 15 minutes Montana plunges his hand into a plastic bucket containing 30 pounds of uncooked rice, turning his hand and bending his wrist in an exercise that strengthens the forearm and elbow. Then, in the afternoon practice, he simulates his role in the offense without throwing.
The return of Montana leaves San Francisco enviably deep at quarterback, what with the playing time Steve Young and then Steve Bono received last season before each of them was sidelined with strained knee ligaments. Niner vice-president John McVay resisted an off-season urge to trade Young or Bono, and he says both will be kept as backups. Young, who led the league in passing last year with a 101.8 rating, leads the NFL in diplomacy this summer. "It's a unique situation," he says of playing behind Montana. "I'll probably go to my grave saying, 'It was a unique situation.' "
But the backup role truly is eating at Young, who, nearing 31, is in the prime of his quarterbacking life. If indeed he sits through most of the 1992 season, he may feel as he did last May, when he said he couldn't accept being a substitute. "My situation," he said then, "is like running in the Kentucky Derby and then going back and running with the trotters at Yonkers. Forget it."
And don't forget Bono, 30, who went 5-1 as a starter in 1991. Neither Young nor Bono required knee surgery, and both reported to camp healthy. Though the three quarterbacks are competitive enough to cause a ripple of strife among teammates who choose sides, the trio is chummy enough to play golf together. They played last Saturday, and all shot below the temperature, which was 97°.
Odds are that between shots Montana pondered his future. "The question's in everyone's mind, and so they put it in my mind," he says. "Maybe I'm kidding myself. If it doesn't work out, hey, I've had a great career. I know I'm near the end. I just hope it can last a little longer."
Randall Cunningham, Eagles
THE DAMAGE: He tore the medial collateral and posterior cruciate ligaments in his left knee when Green Bay Packer linebacker Bryce Paup hit him on the first play of the second quarter in last year's season opener. Dr. Clarence Shields repaired the medial collateral ligament and transplanted an Achilles tendon from a cadaver to replace the posterior cruciate. The injury sidelined Cunningham, who had started 62 straight games, for the remainder of the season.
REHAB: He began a light running and conditioning program within a few days of the operation. Four to five hours a day of work on various leg-exercising machines now enable him to run without a limp. He's expected to play with an 18-inch knee brace that he is still getting used to. "What I like about it," Cunningham says of the brace, "is it's bulletproof."
PROGRESS REPORT: Cunningham, 29, ran without pain at minicamp in May, and last week he completed two weeks of voluntary precamp drills, during which he looked very much like his old self. "It's amazing, watching him work," coach Rich Kotite says. "If you didn't see the brace, you wouldn't know he'd been hurt so badly." The only worry is that when Cunningham accelerates, he still feels a burning sensation in the knee. But if Philadelphia had a game today, Cunningham definitely would start.
PROGNOSIS: "People think, somehow, that I'm going to be slow now," said Cunningham while relaxing in his locker stall after a recent workout. He smiled. "That's good." It would be natural for him to feel gun-shy in six weeks, when he's facing ferocious New Orleans Saints pass rushers in the season opener. Cunningham, however, isn't concerned. "I won't change," he said. "I can't change."
And how the Eagles need his athleticism on the field and his leadership in the huddle. A combination of injuries and incompetence made for an embarrassing display at quarterback last year, when Jim McMahon, Brad Goebel, Pat Ryan (laughably) and Jeff Kemp took turns trying to move the Philly offense. McMahon, who was hobbled at various times by knee, shoulder, elbow, ankle and rib injuries, now is holding out for a $1 million base salary. If he returns, he'll be the backup, but the shakiest one in the league. Kemp or World League MVP David Archer is in line to be No. 3. "How things can change," says Kotite. "Entering last season we thought we had the best quarterback situation in the league. After a month we had the worst."
Cunningham relishes the challenge. Kenny Jackson, his buddy and a reserve wideout, walked by Cunningham following the workout to show him his T-shirt. RANDALL'S BACK! it screamed, over a picture of Cunningham sailing through the air. "They forgot to put in the knee brace," said Jackson jokingly. "That's what you'll be wearing."
"Hey!" Cunningham yelled to Jackson. "Who knows what I'll be wearing? I'll be so pumped that first game, I'll probably forget the damn knee brace. I'll probably forget the uniform. I'll probably just run out there naked!"
Yes, Randall's back.
THE DAMAGE: During a noncontact drill in training camp last August, Rosenbach tried to juke a defensive player, planting his right foot to make a cut. No one hit him, but the right knee collapsed, and his anterior cruciate ligament ruptured.
REHAB: Following surgery to repair the ligament, doctors told Rosenbach, 25, it would be a full year before he could play a game. However, aggressive weight therapy put him ahead of schedule, and he was almost fully recovered by minicamp in May. The Cardinals' third preseason game was set as a target date for Rosenbach's return.
PROGRESS REPORT: When Dr. Russell Chick, the surgeon who repaired the knee, examined Rosenbach in early July, he found it to be as strong as the left and to have full range of motion. Last week Chick gave Rosenbach permission to go full speed in camp as long as his bulky knee brace doesn't bug him.
PROGNOSIS: "We have our bandleader back," says coach Joe Bugel. "This is his team—no doubt about it." If Bugel can build an offensive line this summer, look for Rosenbach to return to his form of 1990, when he threw for 3,098 yards, and to become one of the game's few bright young quarterbacks. "There's a little added pressure," Rosenbach says, "because people think I'm the answer."
Comes with the turf, Timm.
Troy Aikman, Cowboys
THE DAMAGE: In a victory over the Washington Redskins on Nov. 24, Aikman was hit high by end Charles Mann and tackled low by end Jumpy Geathers after releasing a pass in the third quarter. He sprained the lateral collateral ligament in his right knee.
REHAB: Through weight therapy and running Aikman built the knee back up without surgery. He missed the Cowboys' final four regular-season games—backup Steve Beuerlein came on and led the Cowboys to a 5-0 finish—was ready but not used in their wild-card playoff win over the Chicago Bears (an irksome point to Aikman) and mopped up the next week in a loss to the Detroit Lions. He even made a brief appearance at quarterback for the NFC in the Pro Bowl on Feb. 2.
PROGRESS REPORT: "By about the end of February, I was O.K.," says Aikman. "I haven't had any pain there since. It's no problem at all."
PROGNOSIS: Aikman, 25, has had crippling injuries in each of his first three NFL seasons—broken finger in 1989, shoulder separation in '90, the knee last year—and this season he might wear a knee brace for the first time as insurance. "But my style," says Aikman, who is known for his fearlessness in the pocket, "will definitely not change." Adds Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson, "Troy's not injury-prone. The position's injury-prone."
Jeff Hostetler, Giants
THE DAMAGE: On a crushing hit by Tampa Bay Buccaneer linebacker Broderick Thomas on Nov. 24, Hostetler suffered three broken transverse processes when he was slammed to the artificial turf after completing a pass. He missed the Giants' final four games.
REHAB: The back injury was nothing compared with the verbal torture he endured after coach Ray Handley selected him as the starter over Phil Simms at the beginning of the season. The processes, which are non-weight-bearing bones, healed naturally. Confident that Hostetler would recover fully, Handley named Hostetler his No. 1 quarterback for 1992 soon after the '91 season had ended.
PROGRESS REPORT: After three months of nearly complete inactivity, Hostetler, 31, began throwing and running in late March. By the minicamp in May, he looked perfectly normal, and team sources say he should rebound with no ill effects.
PROGNOSIS: Offensive coordinator Jim Fassel has told Hostetler that the Giants will throw downfield more in 1992 than they did last fall. That's a sign of two things: One, the Giants, who opened camp on Monday, think Hoss is back; and two, they know their offense was pathetically predictable in '91. Hostetler still has to put a healthy, productive season together to prove Handley made the right decision in relegating Simms to the bench.
Don Majkowski, Packers
THE DAMAGE: After having undergone surgery on his right rotator cuff on Dec. 13, 1990, Majkowski got off to a shaky start last season. He didn't throw as hard or as accurately as he had in his terrific '89 campaign. Majik has since admitted that he came back too soon. A bruised left shoulder sidelined him for one game in midseason, and a hamstring injury forced him to miss six others late in the year.
REHAB: Majkowski, 28, continued an aggressive weight and conditioning program in the off-season.
PROGRESS REPORT: The hamstring has been O.K. since New Year's Day. "My arm is fine," is all Majkowski will say about the shoulder, but the Packers will watch it closely during training camp, which opened on Wednesday. New coach Mike Holmgren needs to find out if Majik can withstand the rigors of an NFL season. Blair Kiel, a former Green Bay reserve QB, questions whether Majkowski will ever be the same. "Last season the guy put two ice bags on his shoulder twice a day," says Kiel, who's now with the Atlanta Falcons.
PROGNOSIS: Orel Hershiser told Dwight Gooden last spring that Gooden's surgically repaired shoulder wouldn't feel right for two years. Hershiser could have been talking to Majkowski, who has lost confidence in his throwing ability. At least Green Bay will run an offense that shouldn't be too strenuous on his tender wing. "We're not throwing the 20-yard routes down the field as often as he was asked to before," says quarterback coach Steve Mariucci. "If the middle's open, we'll take a shot. Otherwise we'll dink, dink, dink."
John Elway, Broncos
THE DAMAGE: A bump on a bone in his right shoulder began causing Elway pain late last season, but it did not cost him any playing time. In an arthroscopic procedure performed in February, Dr. Frank Jobe shaved the bump off the bone so that it no longer rubbed against a tendon when Elway threw a pass.
REHAB: Elway shed his sling two days after surgery, rested the arm and threw lightly until early June. Then, when he tried to unload a few passes, he felt some discomfort and had to back off. "It scared all of us," says Bronco coach Dan Reeves. Elway rested the arm for a few weeks, then he started throwing hard again—without pain, he says. Elway has curtailed his weight training to allow the shoulder to heal, and he says he plans to cut back on the amount of throwing he does in training camp this year.
PROGRESS REPORT: "I haven't felt this good in two years," Elway says. "It's good for me to have confidence in the arm again. I can throw hard now, and I'm not worried about the pain." Denver opened camp on Sunday, with Elway throwing cautiously. Reeves won't be forcing him into many two-a-days. "We'll bring him along slowly," says Reeves, "but I don't see any lasting problems."
PROGNOSIS: Remember the miracle pass down the stretch in the Broncos' AFC divisional playoff win over the Houston Oilers last January—Elway scrambling left and firing downfield for a drive-saving, 44-yard completion to wideout Vance Johnson? That won't be in the preseason playbook, and Reeves doesn't know if he'll put such athletically challenging plays into any game plan this season. Still, look for Elway, at 32, to have some new friskiness.
Rodney Peete, Lions
THE DAMAGE: While planting his right foot to pass against Dallas last Oct. 27, Peete, for the second time in his life, felt his Achilles tendon tear. (As a freshman at Southern Cal, he tore the left Achilles.) Two days later Peete, who would miss the remainder of the season, underwent surgery.
REHAB: Working mostly with USC's trainers during the winter, Peete went through a rehab program that stressed bicycling and swimming. He was jogging by March, running and throwing by June.
PROGRESS REPORT: The Lions' trainers were encouraged that Peete, 26, could run hard at a minicamp in June and practice at three-quarters speed. Coach Wayne Fontes has given Peete the starting job back—even though replacement Erik Kramer took Detroit to the NFC Championship Game—because he lost it through injury. Peete was expected at full strength when the Lions opened camp on Thursday.
PROGNOSIS: In his first three years as a pro, Peete has yet to stay healthy through an entire season. As a rookie in 1989 he won the starting job but hurt his knee and missed the first three games of the season plus five more when he reinjured the knee later in the year. In '90 he was sidelined for two games with a pulled hamstring and for three more games late in the season with a bruised thigh. And last year, even before the Achilles snapped, he pulled a groin muscle and also strained rib muscles to miss virtually the entire schedule of preseason games.
Given that medical history, one has to have serious doubts about his ability to play a full season without interruption in the physical, artificial-turfed world of the NFL. "I was on the right track before I got hurt," Peete says. He was. But they don't play seven-game seasons in this league.
Bubby Brister, Steelers
THE DAMAGE: While he was diving for his own fumble against the Indianapolis Colts last Oct. 6, Brister's right knee hit the artificial turf awkwardly, rupturing the posterior cruciate ligament. He limped through three more games and then, on Feb. 11, had an Achilles tendon from a cadaver transplanted into the knee to replace the posterior cruciate.
REHAB: Brister participated regularly in the Steelers' five-month off-season conditioning program. His surgeon, Dr. Freddie Fu, told him he would be ready to go full tilt in four to six months, which is pretty quick for such a radical procedure.
PROGRESS REPORT: Fu seems to have done a terrific job because Brister, 30 in August, won't even have to wear a knee brace. "Two-a-days will tell," says Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt.
PROGNOSIS: New coach Bill Cowher has declared the quarterback race between Brister and Neil O'Donnell wide open, so Brister had better be in top form by early August. On July 9 the cybex machine showed that his right knee was 90% as strong as his healthy left knee.
RICHARD MACKSON (MONTANA)
That's Montana (left), Hostetler (under a pile of Bucs) and Brister showing the ill effects of their hazardous profession.
THE ALLENS (HOSTETLER)
[See caption above.]
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (BRISTER)
[See caption above.]
PETER READ MILLER
Montana says that the tough part is distinguishing the good pain from the bad pain.
PETER READ MILLER
Forty minutes of back exercises start Montana's day.
Except for the new knee brace, Cunningham looks like his old self in training camp.
GREG JESSEN/JESSEN ASSOCIATES (ROSENBACH)
Without a fully recovered Rosenbach, Phoenix hasn't got a leg to stand on in the NFC East.
ANTHONY NESTE (AIKMAN)
Though Aikman's right leg was gruesomely twisted, he suffered only a sprained knee ligament.
AL O'MEARA/AP (HOSTETLER)
Three fractured transverse processes in his lower back ended Hostetler's season last November.
VERNON J. BIEVER (MAJKOWSKI)
Majkowski's rotator cuff, not his elbow, was what hampered him in '91.
JULIAN H. GONZALES/DETROIT FREE PRESS (PEETE)
When he tore his Achilles, Peete knew what had hit him.
STEPHEN DUNN/ALLSPORT USA (ELWAY)
Acrobatics will be kept to a minimum while Elway's shoulder heals.
Getting his knee in shape is just one concern for Brister, who's in a fight to keep his job.