A tale of two quarterbacks

I idolized Joe Montana -- then dumped him for Steve Young. A fan comes to terms with the betrayal of his hero.

Topics: Football, Peyton Manning,

The coldest, harshest slap in the face you’re going to get today can be found in the sports section of your newspaper. It’s called “Transactions,” and the items in it read something like this: “The Dallas Cowboys placed cornerback Teddy Toast on waivers today, for the purpose of giving him his unconditional release.”

That’s it — all the mention Teddy Toast’s entire career rates. Mediocre players almost never make it out of the “Transactions” graveyard, and even solid pros don’t do much better. The swan song of, say, a fast outside linebacker who started for four or five years, lasted in the league for a decade, maybe went to a Pro Bowl, will only rate a perfunctory one-column story, even in the hometown paper. Even wonderful players, perennial all-pros, guys who are the heart and soul of the locker room but who are just that one tiny step short of being superstars — players like recently retired 49ers’ strong safety Tim McDonald — do better: They get two-column stories when they hang them up. Then they’re gone as if they’d never existed. You’ll never hear of them again unless they order a hit man to kill their wife.

If you’re a true fan, the sort of person who can remember the jersey numbers of second-string place kickers, you never get used to this. It’s unpleasant to be reminded that we live in a meaningless, absurd universe where the silence of the infinite void mocks our tiny dreams, especially before we’ve had our coffee. And the “Transactions” box takes us into a universe that makes “Waiting for Godot” look like a “Teletubbies” episode.

There’s just too scary a disconnect between the sheer amount of time and passion you’ve invested in Teddy Toast over the years and the casual way he disappears forever into the black hole of “Transactions.” Over the years, you mythologize all of your team’s players, even the lowliest of them; you etch their names in bronze, sing their great feats (and excoriate their screw-ups) with Homeric fervor. A 20-yard out pattern run 15 years ago is planted in your mind like a heritage oak, casting a pleasant green shade upon a permanent patch of mental lawn. And then, when the guy who ran that pattern goes to that great football field in Valhalla to rejoice and chant aloud his mighty deeds with other immortal shades, how does the universe commemorate his legendary feats? In tiny print on page D-14 with the words “Joe Blow was placed on waivers today for the purpose of giving him his unconditional release.”

And there are those who still insist that God exists.

The “Transactions” box is heartless, but maybe it just reflects our own callousness. The all-too-human truth is that even the most rabid fans can switch into D-14 mode with disturbing speed. In my case, I went from golden-calf-style idolatry to total what-was-the-name- of-my-first-wife apostasy in a single season. And the idol I overturned wasn’t just any old idol — he was Joe Montana, king of the pigskin realm, Zeus in the Olympian pantheon. The Master. The Man.

I was reminded of my betrayal last week, as Joe was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Seeing the highlight clips, the memories came back, accompanied by a tinge of shame. I remembered the love affair that unfolded over 10 years, the passion that lit up a small but important part of my life.

Maybe these ceremonies exist simply to force us, in a world where memory slips away, to remember. And seeing No. 16 on the screen, I remembered.

Here’s what I remembered. Montana was a juggler who could keep five balls in the air when all the other guys were scuffling with four. He didn’t have the best arm; he wasn’t the fastest guy, or the biggest, or the strongest. What he did have, more than any other quarterback who has ever played the game, was a special kind of consciousness, which for four seconds at a time would kick in at a higher level than anyone else’s. Call it Pocket Zen.

In the insane midst of the pocket, with linebackers fueled by ‘roid rage flying through the air at the edge of his peripheral vision, fearsome tackles battering through the line toward him 2 feet away, cheetah-like safeties roaming the secondary ready to snatch a pass underthrown by a foot, the whole scene a wildly exploding Expressionist painting that could disintegrate into a bone-crunching, back-fracturing tackle at any moment, Montana would enter his dream.

This was where he came to life. This was where he triumphed.

The sleepy, assassin’s nonchalance of the greats! As calmly as a sailor looking at the sea at dusk, a painter looking at the play of hues on his canvas, Montana would stand in the heart of that violence and see exactly what he needed to see. Montana is a nice but not terribly articulate man, but he once told me something wonderful: He wasn’t always granted the gift during a game, he said, but when he was, it was like having “all the vision that you need.”

Montana’s eyes, as they scanned the field with small precise movements in that four-second span, were like those of a hawk adjusting its flight as it dropped down upon a sparrow. His vision was inexorable, like a clock or a guillotine. If there was a weakness, a slight flaw in the force shield made up of 11 fast, strong men, he would find it.

And when he found it, he would deliver the ball where it needed to go. He wasn’t able to throw the ball into a 12-inch square 40 yards away because he had a great arm — he could do it because if he didn’t do it, he wouldn’t win. His whole physiology was driven by a motor that made it hum like a Ferrari, and that motor was just this: He had to kick your ass. His arm was like Jerry Rice’s speed. Not great — just good enough, when you connected it to his heart, to make him the greatest who ever played his position.

Montana gave me, and every other 49ers fan — hell, every other football fan — so much. But a year after he was gone, traded away to the Kansas City Chiefs, I had forgotten him. I had a new hero: Steve Young.

Young, of course, was incredible, probably even more talented than Montana — although he may not have quite had the transcendental pocket savvy of his predecessor. We’ll never know, because by the time Young came into his own, the rest of the league had finally figured out how to defend the 49ers’ revolutionary short-passing game, with its sophisticated series of options and reads. Young was addictive, unbelievable, impossible not to watch: the wildest quarterback ever, with his amazing combination of sprinter’s speed and laser-like arm. And when he won his one Super Bowl (to Montana’s four), I was as happy for him as I had been for Joe. I always thought Young, who had endured the awkwardness of being understudy to a legend with grace, deserved more — and his retirement, under the Sword of Damocles of becoming a babbling idiot with the next helmet-to-helmet hit, was a bitter pill to swallow.

The fact that it was Young who followed Montana, one sure Hall of Famer succeeding another, made it easier to justify the unseemly haste with which I forgot my hero. But in some part of my mind, I always felt vaguely guilty for having so quickly dumped Joe for the newer, flashier model. It seemed unfair, ungracious, almost a kind of emotional treachery. As if all those years meant nothing.

But as I watched the film clips of Joe, as I felt again that old elation, remembering the shining moments he’d given for so many years, I realized something I had always known, but easily forgotten. Maybe it took seeing Joe again — and knowing that Steve, too, was now gone — to make me see that it had never been only about Joe — or about Steve, either. It was about the team.

Joe would never be replaced. Neither would Steve. Neither, for that matter, would Ronnie Lott — who stood on the podium with Joe — or, when his time comes, Jerry Rice. But I hadn’t committed every Sunday afternoon for 20 years because of Joe, or Steve, or Ronnie, or Jerry. It was to the 49ers, the team that represented my city. It was the 49ers who won and lost, not one man. It was the 49ers who we screamed for, thousands of strangers screaming on those long-vanished golden afternoons, leaning out of windows on Page Street and Prospect Street and Jackson Street, hearing the echoing shouts of jubilation from every corner of a city that suddenly was beating to one jubilant heartbeat. They’d been around before Joe, and they’ll be around when Jerry is gone.

And knowing that they’ll be around, and I’ll be around — even through the dark times that have already descended — made it OK, made me understand that I really hadn’t abandoned my heroes. There was a torch, and I had passed it from Joe to Steve to whoever comes next. And it goes on like that, always.

Yes, the “Transactions” box is cold. But that torch, moving through the years behind and the years ahead, takes away some of the chill.

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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