You look at his record, and he has led the Niners to a comeback win every year since he has been a starter. He had four on the way to last season's Super Bowl win. This year, through Dec. 16, he had three. It seemed for a while that he was doing magic tricks every week, two minutes to play, pushing the 49ers down the field. His total now is 26 fourth-quarter comeback wins as a pro. Doesn't that have to be some kind of a record?
"Let me take a chance at this," Joe says when times are hard.
"Is that good enough?" he says when he turns the score upside down.
You look at his life and it has been a series of challenges that he has met and mastered. He wasn't one of those one-sport robot athletes in high school, needing summer camp and year-round practice to get a handle on one particular game. He was a kid. He played football and basketball and baseball in Monongahela, Pa., each sport in its season. The football coach benched him as a junior, and he came back the same season and was the best. He went to Notre Dame. He was listed seventh on the depth chart, and he rose to the top. He was the best. The pros neglected him, the Niners drafting him in the third round, and he met the challenge again. He was the best. He even had back surgery—the doctors doubted he would play again—and he overcame that, too. He is the best.
His story is the traditional athletic parable. Forget any frayed edges that are mentioned in the tabloids. The core of the story is good and true. You can't do it! Yes, I can! Isn't that the heartbeat of sport? Isn't that the best sight to see? This 34-year-old guy has delivered more often than anyone else who's around now, maybe more often than anyone ever. He proves detractors wrong. He makes them shut up.
"Here's how Joe's luck goes," says Jerry Walker, the 49ers' director of public relations. "I help him with his mail. My wife also helps. One day, I was cleaning out the car, and I found a letter to Joe that had somehow fallen behind a seat. The letter was about 10 months old, a request from a girl for an autograph. We sent out a picture, and about a week later I notice another envelope arrive with the same name and handwriting. I somehow remembered. I opened the envelope, and the girl had written a thank-you note. She said she was amazed at how thoughtful Joe had been, waiting 10 months to time the arrival of his picture to the exact date of her birthday. Anyone else.... That's just Joe. Things somehow work out."
The mail arrives in bunches. A nationally televised game brings bigger bunches. A record brings even bigger bunches. A Super Bowl win? There are 10 U.S. Postal Service bins filled with mail, almost a year's worth, still awaiting replies in Walker's office. The bunches form an avalanche that no human can handle. Included in the avalanche are special T-shirts and Christmas ornaments and knitted key chains and just about any personalized gift imaginable. Birthday cards are a separate avalanche.
"It's an amazing phenomenon," Walker says. "My daughter broke her arm two years ago. She came to practice, and Joe saw her and signed her cast: 'To Kelly, my one and only girl. Joe Montana.' At school the next day she received various offers for the cast. One kid offered his entire baseball and football card collection. She didn't make the deal. At the same school, I attended a Halloween parade of costumes. A little grammar school in Palo Alto. I counted 17 kids dressed as Joe Montana in the parade. The number was probably high because this is California, but 17 Joe Montanas?"
You see him up close. Just once. The game is in Dallas on a warm Sunday night this season. The Niners are unbeaten at the time, flying. Joe is flying. You watch him shred the poor Cowboys, 24-6. The game is never a contest. By halftime Joe has completed 15 of 18 passes for 188 yards. The Niners have a 17-6 lead. At each end of Texas Stadium, giant replay screens seem to show Joe's face after every play. A 30-foot face. A 6'2" man. How would that be, looking at your own 30-foot face all the time? Joe docs not seem to notice.
At the end of the game, you have special credentials to go into the locker room. Don't say how you got them. You go to Joe's locker and wait for him to appear, but a man comes in and says Joe will talk to the press in another room. You go to that room, and there he is. He is standing on a bench. Ten microphones are held in front of his face. Four cameras are rolling. He is wearing gray gym shorts and his white-and-red game socks and a T-shirt. The T-shirt presumably once was white, but it has become almost pink because of red dye bleeding from the perspiration-soaked red jersey that he wore during the game. His arms are crossed, and there is a touch of real blood on his right elbow.