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Teammates Ronnie Lott and Clark visited Montana a few days after the operation. "Joe had to use a walker to see us to the elevator, and it exhausted him," says Lott. "As soon as the doors closed, Dwight and I looked at each other and both of us were thinking,' It's no way. Ever.' It was scary, and really sad."
After awhile Montana's thinking brightened, and he threw himself into a three-hour-a-day rehabilitation program of weightlifting, partial sit-ups, running and swimming. "I have my schedule, and the doctors have theirs," he said. "Naturally, I will push harder than they want." By early October, he was throwing footballs through a soccer goal in a Foster City park, with his wife, Jennifer, and a cousin working as shaggers. He was way ahead of schedule.
Meanwhile the 49ers were struggling. Jeff Kemp filled in ably at quarterback before being injured, but third-stringer Moroski lacked the arm and experience to run Bill Walsh's offense. When the Saints dominated San Francisco 23-10 on Nov. 2, the 49ers looked on the verge of falling out of the playoff race.
By this time Montana was saying he was ready, and Walsh was ready for him. His big test came in practice on Nov. 3, the Monday before the Cardinals game. White was there to observe. "I felt more under the microscope than I did at the Super Bowls," said Montana. But White declared Montana "healthier than he has been in two or three years." Walsh said he could see no difference in Montana's abilities, and Joe's only question was how he would react to punishment in the game. "I need to get beat around out there," he said.
Whatever reservations he felt, Montana reacted like a player and not a patient against St. Louis. He missed his first pass, an 11-yarder over the middle to Clark, and after the play he chided Rice for running the wrong pattern. "He told me we should have had a touchdown," said Rice. "But he said we'd get it back."
Montana's return had a salutary effect on the whole team. Kicker Ray Wersching ended a slump with three long field goals. Joe Cribbs had his first 100-yard game as a 49er—actually, 105 yards—and the offensive line fired off the ball better than it had all year.
It was easy to forget that St. Louis isn't a power, and that the 49ers may have the toughest homestretch schedule of any NFC team. "We can't think we are going to march right into the playoffs now," said tackle Keith Fahnhorst. "Not having Joe wasn't the only reason we weren't producing." But then Fahnhorst looked across the locker room at Montana and smiled. "He's a superstar, he honestly is," he said. "I remember [guard] John Ayers and I were watching Joe do this incredible stuff on film once, and John looked at me and said, 'You know, maybe he is all we have.' "