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It's a normal minicamp lunch break at the San Francisco 49ers' training facility. The players are unwrapping their sandwiches in the locker room, and Joe Montana is giving an interview upstairs in p.r. director Jerry Walker's office. Well, most of Joe Montana is concentrating on the interview. His right hand is busy with something else, as if it has a life of its own, a mechanized life of autograph production.
A steady stream of objects appears on the table in front of him—hats, jerseys, photos, posters—and Montana's right hand automatically rises, then lowers, producing a large sweeping J and tailing off to an almost illegible ana. Then his hand rises again, and another item is moved into place. Secretaries, p.r. people, coaches, players all come to present offerings at this ritual.
"A book to sign," says Walker. "Two pictures," says tight end Jamie Williams. "A ball," says p.r. assistant Dave Rahn. "Make this one out to 'a Nevada sports fan,' " says defensive coordinator Bill McPherson, sliding in a picture.
Rise and fall, rise and fall; the big J, the scribbled ana. Most of the time Montana doesn't even look at what he's signing. You get the feeling that someone could slip in a small child, a hamburger bun, a fish. It's all the same. At 34, the world's most famous quarterback has turned into an autograph machine.
Secretary Darla Maeda brings a hat. Walker is back with a toy rabbit. Guard Guy McIntyre is next with a jersey.
"Oh, no, not you too," Montana says, rolling his eyes.
"Yeah, me." It's Norb Hecker, the team's senior administrator, and he has a poster showing a glowering Montana. "A beauty, huh?" he says.
"They name animals after him," Rahn says, producing a picture of a German shepherd. "They send in every piece of football equipment you can think of. The office is cluttered with stuff." There is a children's book from a woman in Hillsborough, Calif. "To Joe Montana, for your kids...let me know if you need extra copies," reads the accompanying letter. There are eight mail cartons filled with letters going back four months, letters from France, Ireland, Tokyo.
"He'll come up here once or twice a week to sign stuff," says p.r. assistant Al Barba. We use the real Joe pictures until they run out, then we send the ones with the printed autograph. Everyone will get something—eventually."
Since he blistered the Denver Broncos in last January's Super Bowl, Montana is hot again, just as he was after the 49ers' Super Bowl victory in '82 and the one in '85, having been voted the game's Most Valuable Player each time. The first success represented the thrill of discovery, the potential star who blossomed, and it carried a heathly round of commercial endorsements with it. The second one reestablished him after Miami Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino had captured most of the headlines in '84. But then, in the 1985 season, the adulation for Montana cooled.