In high school in Monongahela, Pa., Montana starred in baseball and was All-America in football and all-state in basketball. Until Notre Dame offered him a scholarship in football, Montana was set to go to North Carolina State on a basketball ride.
If one thing has hindered Montana's athletic career, it is that he has never been a great practice player. At Notre Dame he once calculated that he was the seventh-string quarterback—barely. About the only way he was able to rise above the ordinary was to get himself inserted into desperate game situations and demonstrate a sort of mad composure, something he does exceptionally well. As a sophomore in 1975, for instance, he came off the bench in the third quarter of the Notre Dame-Air Force game with Notre Dame trailing by 20 points, and led the team to a 31-30 win.
Montana's most heroic effort came in the 1979 Cotton Bowl game against Houston, played in the aftermath of an ice storm. Suffering from an acute chill that had lowered his body temperature to 96� and nearly paralyzed him with shivering, he had to stay in the locker room after the half with his body wrapped in blankets while a trainer poured hot fluids into him. Queasy and stiff, he reentered the game late in the third period with Houston leading 34-12. Montana then engineered a crazed offensive assault that didn't end until the last seconds of the game, when his touchdown pass to Split End Kris Haines gave Notre Dame a 35-34 victory.
Montana's wildest pro performance came in last year's second 49ers-Saints game when he completed 16 passes for 258 yards in the second half and rallied San Francisco from a 28-point halftime deficit to an overtime victory. That stands as the greatest second-half comeback in NFL history.
"Joe has greatness within him," says Walsh, who feels Montana is about three years from full flower. "His comprehension and mastery of the system is the key." Montana has cheerfully settled in for the learning process. He lives with his wife and two horses on a small farm he recently purchased on a mountain south of San Francisco. Montana describes himself as "quiet and sort of laid-back" and doesn't anticipate any character changes due to his growing fame. "How can I be cocky?" he asks, dropping the last pretzel bit down his throat. "Every morning I have to get up and shovel horse manure."