Work in Sports
The induction of Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott into the Hall of Fame next week will be a fitting celebration of their superb 49ers teams -- and of their great friendship
Issue date: July 24, 2000
By Michael Silver
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, boyish best.
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 fog.
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 f------ respect.'"
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 us."
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 like Ronnie."
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.
Issue date: July 24, 2000