By Ross Forman
Joe Montana has only asked for one autograph, ever.
At least that’s all he remembers.
Sure, he’s acquired autographs over the years from other star athletes – but after friends, family or fans have given him signed souvenirs of those he’s enjoyed watching from various sports, not just football.
But it was Johnny Unitas who Montana once asked for an autograph, after the two had played a round of golf.
“Johnny was one of the guys who I watched (while) growing up and I always enjoyed watching him,” Montana said.
And who didn’t also enjoy watching the quarterback master Montana, with his Hall of Fame career in San Francisco and Kansas City. He was – to some, to many – the greatest QB in NFL history, still even better than Tom Brady.
Just consider some of Montana’s amazing accomplishments:
• 4-time Super Bowl champion (XVI, XIX, XXIII, XXIV)
• 3-time Super Bowl MVP (XVI, XIX, XXIV)
• 8-time Pro Bowler (1981, 1983-1985, 1987, 1989, 1990, 1993)
• 2-time NFL Most Valuable Player (1989, 1990)
• NFL Offensive Player of the Year (1989)
• Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year (1990)
• 2-time Associated Press Athlete of the Year (1989, 1990)
• NFL 1980s All-Decade Team
• NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team
“The game was fun,” Montana said. “We had great teams, great coaches, great owners, just an overall great organization (in San Francisco). I just wish it didn’t have to end.”
Montana was, believe it or not, a third-round pick (82nd overall) in the 1979 NFL Draft after a Notre Dame career that included the 1977 National Championship. Tom Cousineau, a linebacker from Ohio State, was the No. 1 pick in 1979, drafted by Buffalo (from San Francisco). Jack Thompson (Washington State) was the first quarterback selected in 1979, drafted by Cincinnati – and Montana was the fourth quarterback taken that year, also behind Phil Simms (7th overall) and Steve Fuller (23rd).
Montana appeared in all 16 regular-season games as an NFL rookie, but threw only 23 passes. He spent most of the season as the backup to Steve DeBerg.
Montana didn’t become the San Francisco starting quarterback until midway through the 1980 season.
It was on Dec. 7, 1980, when the world first witnessed the wonderment of Montana. San Francisco was hosting the winless New Orleans Saints, and the Saints built a shocking 35-7 lead at halftime and it was 35-21 at the start of the fourth quarter.
Ultimately, San Francisco won in overtime, 38-35, marking the first fourth-quarter comeback victory in Montana’s NFL career. During his 16 seasons in the NFL, this happened a total of 31 times with Montana at quarterback; 26 of those coming as a 49ers player.
“I don’t remember a lot of game (moments); I don’t live a lot in the past, so I’m not very good (detailing specifics from my career),” Montana said. (Former teammate) Randy Cross remembers every game, every play. I can’t; I forgot a lot of things.”
But fans don’t forget any of the magic that was Montana.
Montana played 192 regular-season games in his NFL career, the final 25 during his two seasons (1993-94) in Kansas City. He threw 5,391 passes, completing 3,409 for a 63.2 passing percentage. He also had 273 regular-season touchdowns.
He completed 83 of 122 passes attempted in his four Super Bowl appearances, with 11 TDs.
The Super Bowl, Montana said, “is just fun, what you play for every year.”
“I was fortunate to be there a number of times (and) every time you go (to the Super Bowl) is better than the last time,” he said. “The Super Bowl is just great, that week before the game, but you can’t wait for Sunday to get there, so you can play the actual game.”
What about nerves before the big game?
“You’re always a little bit nervous, which is good; it tells you that you at least care about what you’re about to do. But once the game starts, (those nerves) disappear,” he said.
Montana’s greatest Super Bowl moment was, arguably, throwing the winning 10-yard touchdown pass to John Taylor in the final seconds of Super Bowl XXIII in 1989.
“That was a pretty big moment,” Montana said of the completion that crushed the hopes and dreams of the city of Cincinnati.
And then there was the pass, and what is now known as “The Catch,” by Dwight Clark.
Clark caught the winning touchdown pass in the NFC Championship Game in January 1982 against the Dallas Cowboys. The play propelled San Francisco to its first Super Bowl championship.
“We had scored on the same play earlier in the game,” Montana said. “We had never thrown to Dwight before that play. Freddie Solomon, the intended receiver, fell down (on the play and ultimately Clark) obviously makes a great catch.
“When I let it go, I thought it was just above his head. I got knocked down (on the play), but then I heard the people screaming, so I thought he caught it. I didn’t know it was that good of a catch.”
Montana’s near-perfect passing arm led to a Hall of Fame career for Jerry Rice, arguably the greatest wide receiver in NFL history.
“Jerry had a real unique talent, and I just don’t think there’s anyone really close to him, to what he accomplished,” Montana said. “When Terrell Owens broke into the league, I thought he might be the next Jerry Rice. But I don’t think he was, though Terrell was a very good player.”
So who is the greatest QB of all time, Montana or Tom Brady? And what about Terry Bradshaw, Johnny Unitas, Dan Marino – and those are just a few of the recent greats. History books will easily add five or 10 more to the debate.
“Tom has had a great career; (he has been) fun to watch,” Montana said. “It’s hard to compare players from different eras. Take, for instance, Sammy Baugh and Otto Graham. They were great quarterbacks, so far ahead of their time. How do you compare them to Tom Brady or anyone else?”
When asked about Super Bowl LI, in which Brady led the New England Patriots to the greatest comeback in history for the title over Atlanta, Montana said, “It was a great game to watch, though unfortunate for Atlanta.”
Montana added, “I don’t like the (overtime) rules. It’s tough when you go all the way to the Super Bowl, and then it comes down to a coin-toss at the end to basically decide if you win or lose.”
Now 60, Montana runs a business in the Bay Area that invests in startups. The company “looks for interesting, coming-up companies,” he said. “It keeps me busy, a lot busier than I thought I would be.”
Montana remains a regular on the card show circuit. He appeared at the Tristar Productions’ Houston show in mid-February, and will be signing autographs at the Tristar show in San Francisco, scheduled for April 28-30.
“I think (sports memorabilia conventions are) great, a great opportunity for fans to see players up close, interact with them. And great for players too, for the same reason,” Montana said.
And Montana did not ask for any autographs at the Tristar show in Houston.u
Ross Forman is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at Rossco814@aol.com.