His timing, as always, was exquisite. Joe Montana was still
reeling in February 1991 from one of his most devastating
defeats, yet he sensed that Ronnie Lott, his friend and San
Francisco 49ers teammate, was even more distressed. In the
aftermath of a 15-13 loss to the New York Giants in the 1990 NFC
Championship Game, which ended the Niners' quest for an
unprecedented third consecutive Super Bowl crown, the
franchise's front office ordered a bloodletting, with the
veteran safety Lott at the forefront of the carnage. Left
unprotected in Plan B free agency, Lott felt scapegoated,
unwanted and alone. For 10 years he had been the 49ers'
passionate and obstreperous defensive leader, but now his team
didn't want him and his teammates had stopped calling.
At the depth of Lott's depression, the phone rang. It was
Montana, owner of the magical right arm that had been
instrumental in four Super Bowl victories, this time offering a
hand to an old teammate. "Come to dinner," Montana said. Three
words, and Lott felt whole again. When he and his wife, Karen,
showed up at Joe and Jennifer Montana's Redwood City, Calif.,
home, the red wine flowed, and the emotion soon followed. Lott
broke down while detailing the explanations he'd heard from
various team insiders--People can't handle me.... I've become
bigger than the coaches.... I'm taking the team down--and
Montana assured him that all such talk was garbage. "They'll
screw me, too, before all is said and done," Montana told Lott,
and by the end of the night the two were laughing about the
cruelty of the business. "I'm sure Joe was just trying to be a
friend, but I don't think he and Jennifer realize how valuable
it made me feel as a person," Lott says now. "To have the guy
who was the heart of our team assure me I wasn't a cancer, I
can't even express what that meant."
It was a defining moment in a remarkable friendship that, like
the California Cabernet the Montanas uncorked on their oversized
kitchen counter that night, becomes more precious over time.
Transcending every barrier in the book--offense versus defense,
white versus black, country boy versus city kid, Notre Dame
versus USC, prankster versus patrolman--the two warriors have
become confidants in their postplaying days. They have
vacationed together in Italy and Hawaii, helped launch a
children's television show and cared for each other's kids, one
of whom, eight-year-old Nicholas Montana, has as his godfather a
certain former defensive back who had part of his left pinky
removed rather than miss eight weeks of off-season workouts. On
July 29, Montana, 44, and Lott, 41, will be together again on a
podium in Canton, Ohio, as each man is inducted into the Pro
Football Hall of Fame.
For Niners fans it's a special confluence of first-ballot karma,
a chance to see the two men most responsible for the team's
dominance in the '80s honored in tandem. For Montana and Lott
the magnitude of the moment goes far beyond football. "Going in
with Ronnie makes it so much sweeter," Montana says. "He's
honest, up-front and genuine, and there's nothing phony about
our relationship. What began as a competitive relationship
founded on mutual respect blossomed into a friendship, and it'll
last a lifetime."
Money can't buy love, but it can make fantasies come true.
Consider Don Valentine, a giant in the venture-capital sector of
Silicon Valley's instant aristocracy, who on a late-June morning
is part of a foursome at the Bay Area's Lake Merced Country
Club. The other three players are Harris Barton, a standout
lineman for the 49ers from 1987 through '98, Lott and Montana.
Officially it's a business meeting--Montana has joined Champion
Ventures, a firm cofounded by Barton and Lott and designed to
help athletes use their money to get into high-tech investments,
and the three hope to bolster their relationship with
Valentine's company--but the Hall of Famers are at their casual,
Out here they go by Junior and Bobo, nicknames left over from
their playing days. "Hey, Bo," Montana says as the foursome
approaches the fourth green, "you recognize that guy playing
alone behind us?" It's Cheech Marin, acting more like the
playful caddy from Tin Cup than the man whose comedy sparked a
million doobies in the '70s. The group lets Marin play through,
and when he sees Lott, he recognizes him instantly. "I
practically grew up at the Coliseum," Marin says to the former
USC star. They spend the next couple of minutes talking about
L.A. before Marin smacks a ball down the 5th fairway. "Hit 'em
straight, guys," Cheech says, disappearing into the mid-morning
The L.A. Coliseum is where Lott and Montana had their first
encounter, on Nov. 25, 1978. Lott was a sophomore safety for
USC, and his Trojans led Montana's Irish 24-6. The Notre Dame
senior to that point had been, in his words,
"oh-for-stinkhundred." Then, recalls Lott, "you know how a great
basketball player can thread a bounce pass through a bunch of
defenders and they're helpless to stop it? That's what Joe did
to us. We had one of the greatest college secondaries ever, and
nothing like that had ever happened to us."
The Trojans held on for a 27-25 victory, but Lott didn't see
many more Montana comebacks fall short. Montana, a third-round
draft choice in 1979, became the Niners' starter the next
season, and in '81 San Francisco selected Lott with the eighth
pick in the draft. Burdened by the legacy of exciting teams that
could never win the big one, the 49ers, after sinking to the
bottom of the league in the late '70s, turned it all around
during their magical '81 season. "It all happened at once, and
those two were responsible for the competitive fire that made
the transformation possible," says former Niners owner Eddie
DeBartolo, whom Montana has chosen to make his Hall of Fame
induction speech. "Everybody thinks Ronnie Lott is the killer
and Joe's the cool one, but on the field they're the same guy."
By the mid-'80s Montana and Lott reigned supreme in the locker
room. If the upbeat Montana was the 49ers' heart, Lott was their
soul, demanding respect and all-out effort from everyone he
encountered and striving for perfection even in times of
apparent dominance. Their leadership styles were strikingly
different. Montana, while assertive on the field, was a
practical joker who remained low-key in the locker room. "He
blended in as one of the guys," Lott says. "When I went to play
for other teams, I saw the Boomer Esiasons and the Jay
Schroeders of the world--quarterbacks who wanted to stand out
and be the spokesperson of the team. That was never Joe."
Adds Barton, "Joe was the superstar who didn't want to be a
superstar. He was last in line at the lunch buffet and last at
the shoe stand in the equipment room."
Lott, conversely, was like a coach on the field--and he was more
Woody Hayes than Bill Walsh or George Seifert. Former San
Francisco linebacker Mike Walter remembers a day in August 1989
when Lott, who was known to stop practice when he wasn't
satisfied with his teammates' effort, called a meeting at the
Niners' Santa Clara facility. "It was George Seifert's first
year as coach, and Ronnie was mad that our preseason
performances hadn't been good enough," Walter recalls. "After
ranting for a while, he passed out pieces of paper and asked
everybody to write down his name and the reason he played
football. Even George and his coaches had to do it. Then Ronnie
took the stack of papers and started reading them out loud. 'I
play for pride'...'for my family'...'for the money.'...And then
he yelled, 'That's b-------. The only reason you play is for
Like Montana, Lott's legend was secure early in his career,
after he told doctors to remove the portion of his badly mangled
pinky above the first joint so that he would only miss three
weeks of action rather than eight weeks. "I don't know what's
better--Paul Bunyan and his ax, Babe Ruth and his called shot,
or me and my finger," says Lott.
Moved from cornerback to free safety in 1985 to take better
advantage of his ability to deliver bone-rattling hits, Lott
produced more graphic violence than Jerry Bruckheimer has. But
his tough-guy reputation masked a tenderness in his relationship
with Montana. "What really brought us closer together was what
we experienced toward the end of our careers," says Lott, who
will be introduced at the Hall of Fame ceremonies by his father,
Roy. "I'd never had a person I could talk to when I hurt the
most, and maybe he was like the big brother I didn't have. Some
of the best moments I've ever had are conversations when we've
confided in each other and talked about things that hurt both of
As much as Montana and Lott once identified with the 49ers, each
man felt betrayed by the organization in the aftermath of that
1990 NFC title game defeat. Exposed to free agency, Lott signed
with the Los Angeles Raiders, switched to strong safety and had
an All-Pro season in '91 before having solid campaigns with the
Raiders in '92 and the New York Jets in '93 and '94. Montana,
who believed Seifert wanted to phase him out in favor of Steve
Young, missed all but half a game of the '91 and '92 seasons
with elbow injuries before being traded to the Kansas City
Chiefs in April 1993.
"We vacationed together on the Big Island [in Hawaii] during
that time, and Ronnie was telling Joe, 'It's just a business
decision; you have to go,'" Karen Lott recalls. "It sounds
crazy, but Ronnie and Joe really love each other. A lot of
people are intimidated by Ronnie's intensity, but Joe
understands the sincerity behind it. They have a bond that will
never be broken." Montana led the Chiefs into the AFC title game
in his first season and scored an emotional regular-season
victory over the eventual Super Bowl champion Niners in '94
before calling it quits in April 1995.
Montana, whose pursuits include breeding and selling cutting
horses, now spends most of his time with Jennifer and their four
children on the large property they own at the northern end of
the Napa Valley. Lott, a Fox Sports Net analyst who also co-owns
a Toyota dealership, among his other ventures, lives 115 miles
away in Cupertino with Karen and their three kids. Adventures
with Kanga Roddy, the children's TV program the Lotts and the
Montanas helped launch--which costars Karen and Jennifer along
with Pat Morita and several children--is on hiatus, and though
it's more difficult for the couples to find time to hang out,
their friendship gets stronger as the years pass, the time spent
together ever more valuable.
"When you ask someone to stand up for one of your kids, he
pretty much knows how you feel," Montana says. "Of course he and
Karen are the godparents of my wildest kid, the one who's just
Sitting in the clubhouse and staring out at the 18th green at
Lake Merced, Lott seems far removed from the roving madman who
punished receivers that dared come across the middle. "Is Joe my
best friend?" he asks softly. "I don't know. But someone told me
recently that there are only two or three people in your life
who will be your true friends, guys who if you woke up and
everything was taken away would still be there. In my heart of
hearts I feel Joe would be there for me, as I would for him."
Lott's voice trails off as Montana approaches. With the sparkle
in his eyes that calmed 10,000 huddles, Montana points out the
window at a pair of elderly golfers sizing up putts. Eschewing
carts and bags, one golfer has a single club in his possession,
the other a pair of clubs inside a shoulder harness.
"Hey, Bo," Montana says, "look at that." The golfer with the
single club drains an eight-foot putt, and Montana smiles.
"That'll be me and you one day," he says.
Before the sentence is complete, Lott is already nodding.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER STRIKING GOLD Lott and Montana started out as competitive rivals before becoming the heart and soul of the 49ers and, finally, good pals.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO FEARLESS LEADERS Montana's right arm and Lott's bruising tackles led the Niners to four titles before both men left San Francisco.
COLOR PHOTO: MICKEY PFLEGER [See caption above]
"Everybody thinks Ronnie's the killer and Joe's the cool one,"
says DeBartolo, "but on the field they're the same guy."