The morning mist envelops the Napa Valley, floating above the vineyards like a perfect touch pass, and Joe Montana wants to talk about water. You are standing here with the living legend, watching layers of foam float down a mountainside like soapy lava. Montana will own this mountainside, and the rest of this 1,690-acre plot, if he can find a viable water source. Well drillers are injecting the foam into the ground as part of a process to determine if water is present.
As the drill shrieks across the muddy terrain and excess foam flows out of the potential well site, the men who operate the drill seem less awed by Montana's celebrity than he is by their craft. His strict attention is unnerving. In less than a week Montana will announce his retirement, and there are so many memories to relive: the four Super Bowl championships, the 31 fourth-quarter comeback victories, The Catch, The Drive, the trade, the elbow, the knee, the glory. Yet, instead of focusing on any of those topics, all Montana wants to talk about is water. "Maybe we should go up top," he says, gesturing toward the mountain's plateau. "We could get these trucks up there if this stupid rain would give us a break."
This is Montana's life now. Retirement beckons, and for the moment the well-wishers must take a backseat to the well seekers. The search continues deep into the day, and Montana's interest never wanes. Clearly, this is no put-on. This is a man in the midst of a new reality. A 38-year-old who has been playing a little boy's game for three decades is now eager to embrace the most mundane trappings of adulthood.
Because Montana made quarterbacking look so stylish and so natural, it was tempting to assume his life would be empty when he retired. What seems to be happening instead is that Montana, by virtue of his uncomplicated manner, is deriving stimulation from life's basic pleasures: hanging out with the family, stoking the barbecue, working the land and laughing whenever possible.
After 16 NFL seasons, 40,551 passing yards, 273 touchdown passes, three Super Bowl MVP awards, two regular-season MVPs and millions of dollars from football and endorsements, Montana is, in every sense of the term, set for life. He has his family: wife Jennifer; daughters Alexandra, 9, and Elizabeth, 8; and sons Nathaniel, 5, and Nicholas, 3. He has his parents close by, Joe Sr. and Theresa having moved from the western Pennsylvania steel town of Monongahela almost a decade ago to be near their only child. He has his posh house in the Bay Area community of Atherton and a chance to tailor a Napa property to his liking. He has a single-engine airplane and a 14 handicap he would like to bring down into single digits. He has a host of new hobbies, including archery, and a soon-to-be-announced affiliation with a major Indy Car team. He has broadcasting discussions in the works with NBC, Fox, ESPN and Turner. He has long-term endorsement contracts and sound investments. He has his health. And he has his legend.
Why not a gold watch?
"I know there will be some doubts, but I'm at peace with this decision," Montana says. "I've got a lot of new things happening in my life I'm excited about. One thing, and it sounds simple, is just not being on a schedule. To just relax—that's something I've never really been able to do."
One faction of Montana-followers thinks he's nuts to quit football. These people revere his fighting spirit so thoroughly that they are blind to his age and circumstance. In their minds there is no way the perky kid who performed miracles at Notre Dame, who turned the San Francisco 49ers from nonentity to dynasty and who spent the past two years reaffirming his magic for the Kansas City Chiefs, would give up his job by choice. As the news of his retirement spread, these doubters submitted alternative explanations: His knee was shot. He was sick of Kansas City, of the Chiefs' failure to improve in the off-season and of coach Marty Schotten-heimer's long practices. His wife made him do it.
Montana says it's all nonsense, especially the part about his wife. "She actually has tried to make sure I'm not jumping into this prematurely," he says. "People want to make it seem as if she's the one making me quit, but she's the one asking me, 'Are you sure?' "
Tall, blonde, tan, trim and energetic, Jennifer is a former model who is perceived to be the head of her household. It seems ridiculous to surmise that Joe, a man who stood up to 300-pound beasts and led some of the best teams in football with unquestioned authority, would allow his retirement to be railroaded through by anyone. Yet Jennifer has been cast as the dragon lady, something of a Yoko Ono.