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It shouldn't have happened this way. Nobody deserved to be treated like this, especially not Joe Montana, the premier quarterback of the '80s. The guy who put four Super Bowl trophies in the case was severely jerked around by his team, the San Francisco 49ers. He got the old switcheroo, the good cop-bad cop treatment. In the end the Niners got stung, and they lost their man.
The Montana saga, which over the last two weeks changed hour by hour, reads like something out of an old J. Edgar Hoover file—you had to keep checking to see what had been added or deleted. It all began on April 7, when the 49ers, who had given Steve Young the starting job, gave Montana permission to shop himself around for a trade. Then last Saturday, San Francisco owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. told Montana, Hey, guess what, you're our starting quarterback. This was six hours after the Niners told the Kansas City Chiefs that they wouldn't trade Montana to them unless the Chiefs softened the terms of their proposal. And it was less than 24 hours after Montana had turned down the Phoenix Cardinals, whose offer the 49ers had accepted pending Montana's approval.
The 49ers figured it was a lock. How could Montana walk away from a chance to compete for his old job, especially going in as the front-runner? They figured wrong. On Monday, having grown weary of the ceaseless, back-and-forth maneuvering, Montana said goodbye to the 49ers and announced that he would play for the Chiefs. "Three days prior to my decision to go with the Kansas City Chiefs. read his terse, one-page statement, "once again the 49ers stated publicly there would be no open competition for the starting job. Although Mr. DeBartolo and I spoke on Saturday about finishing my career with the 49ers, it is not going to be possible based on the commitment I made to the Chiefs on Friday." The bitterness was unmistakable.
This we know for sure: In early February, Niner coach George Seifert said that Young would be the starter. Seifert's position was not unreasonable. Young was coming off an NFL Player of the Year season, and Montana's surgically repaired elbow had sidelined him for two years.
This we heard: San Francisco had tried to peddle Young earlier this month—first for a pair of first-round draft choices and then for a high first-round selection, in particular that of the Seattle Seahawks, who own the second pick in this Sunday's draft. The trade would have positioned the 49ers for a shot at Notre Dame quarterback Rick Mirer (page 73) and would have created an enviable lineup of Montana as the starter, the veteran Steve Bono as the backup and Mirer as the quarterback of the future. Nearly everyone around the league seems to recall hearing something to that effect, but there was no solid confirmation of the Young trade talks. Supposedly the Niners contacted six teams regarding a Young deal but found no takers. Supposedly.
This we know for sure: After the Niners signed Bono to a three-year, $5.1 million contract on April 7, they gave Montana's agent, Peter Johnson, the green light to shop his client. Johnson would find a team willing to pay millions for Montana's services, and then that team would have to work a trade with San Francisco, which has Montana under contract through the '93 season. The Cardinals and the Chiefs were seriously interested.
On Thursday, April 8, Montana worked out for the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. Montana threw for half an hour to equipment men. The Chiefs liked what they saw.
The next day he was in Phoenix, meeting Cardinal people and getting a physical. "Hordes of media were at the airport, fans with flowers, the whole bit," says Phoenix publicist Greg Gladysiewski. "A fan, Susana Chavez, had named her infant after him. Sara Joe Montana Chavez."
"Two news helicopters followed us in from the airport," says Johnson. "The scoreboard at Sun Devil Stadium said WELCOME JOE MONTANA. Senator Dennis DeConcini was there to meet us. It was like Michael Jackson coming to town."
Last week the process was reversed. Montana worked out on Thursday in Phoenix, throwing to the Cardinals' full set of wideouts, including newly acquired Gary Clark, the former Washington Redskin. Montana threw about 30 passes, including five of more than 50 yards. Four were on the money, the other was overthrown by a couple of feet. Afterward Clark got down on his knees and said, "See, I'm begging him to come here."