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."