Joe Montana: Tarnished hero

He was the greatest quarterback ever, but when he had a chance to be a leader in real life, he punked out.

By Allen Barra
Published August 4, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

I woke up Saturday morning feeling great. My hero, Joe Montana, the greatest team-sport athlete -- Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky not excepted -- of the last two decades, was going to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Montana was the greatest big-game athlete of my era; I had come of age with him, followed him through high school and college, and staked my reputation on his when he came to the pros. I set my VCR to tape his induction ceremony and went to see an advance screening of the upcoming football comedy "The Replacements" on a high. By the time I got home, the high had passed. I decided not to watch the tape of Montana's induction.

Last season, everyone made a big deal about the Rams' Kurt Warner being a "regular" guy, a "lunch pail" quarterback. Montana, product of a Pennsylvania mill town, had Warner beat by nearly three decades. Nothing is more blue collar than the small Pennsylvania towns that produce football players like Mike Ditka, Jack Lambert, Joe Namath and Joe Montana, and no one took a tougher route out of the life than Montana, who chose Notre Dame -- a school where a football player had to at least pretend to be a college student -- over numerous sun and surf schools.

At Notre Dame, playing for Dan Devine, a coach whose idea of progressive offense was white guys block, black guys go long, Montana was usually left on his own in a big game to pull the Irish out of the hole the game plan had put them in. Those who mitigate Montana's pro success by stressing Bill Walsh's influence are forgetting his college successes.

In 1978, for instance, he led the second greatest college football comeback I've ever seen: With the team down to arch-rival Southern Cal 24-6 in the fourth quarter, Montana drove the Irish to a 25-24 lead with 37 seconds left against a USC secondary that featured a young hotshot named Ronnie Lott. (The Trojans won on a last-second field goal.) In that season's Cotton Bowl against Houston, he led the greatest comeback I've ever seen, bar none. On an ice-covered field, he rallied the Irish from a 34-12 fourth quarter deficit to a 35-34 victory with three TDs and two two-point conversions. Make that three two-point conversions; one had to be replayed after a penalty.

On paper, Montana is the NFL's all-time second-rated passer, behind only his 49ers successor, Steve Young. But on the field, Young was a disappointing underachiever, winning just one Super Bowl and losing six times in the playoffs, while Montana was the greatest clutch passer in NFL history. Young, John Elway and Dan Marino were better athletes, better passers; Joe Montana was the greatest quarterback of all.

The outstanding image I have of him is not from one of his four Super Bowl victories but from the NFC Championship Game in 1981. In a photo taken from the 49ers end zone, you can see him, arms upraised, signaling "TD" even as Dwight Clark tumbled to the turf with "The Catch," which beat the Dallas Cowboys 28-27 and sent the Niners to their first Super Bowl, against Cincinnati. For years, nothing tarnished that image -- until I saw this crappy movie Saturday.

"The Replacements" isn't just a bad movie, it's an ethical abomination. The text on the poster reads, "Pros on strike. Everyday guys get to play." Sure, everyday guys like Keanu Reeves (who looks like the only sport he played in college was surfing).

The movie is based loosely on the 1987 NFL players strike, the ugliest work stoppage in sports history. In an effort to break the players union, you'll recall, the NFL's brain trust actually stooped to the level of putting bartenders, wrestlers and truck drivers in football uniforms and calling them "replacement players" -- a misnomer, since the real players were still under contract and these new ones weren't "replacing" anybody. What they were, of course, were scabs -- a term even a few brave commentators like Bob Costas had the guts to use on the air until their employers came down on them. (The movie introduces the "s" word only to dismiss it.)

Even the most dense of fans understands that pro football players need a union. Not only are their careers shorter than those in other sports, their lives are shorter -- a fact of which NFL executives admit they are well aware when considering life insurance packages for their employees. In "The Replacements," the union is treated like a joke: "They're on strike to see if they'll get 7 or 8 million a year," says one scab. Since the only players we get to know are arrogant, hotshot quarterbacks, not the linemen who really need union protection, some idiots in the audience might be ready to accept this.

"The Replacements" never really comes to grip with the issue that its wacky heroes are taking jobs and money from guys who have worked hard for their status in the game. I wonder if Reeves, Gene Hackman (who plays the scab coach) and the scores of cameramen, soundmen and other union workers on the film had any qualms about how such a movie might affect the public's perception of their own unions?

But then, as "The Replacements" forced me to admit, my hero, Joe Montana, never had many qualms about the public perception of the football players union. In the 1982 strike, non-union player Montana didn't support the Players Association, a fact he brushed off (in his 1986 biography, "Audibles: My Life in Football") by saying, "The union leadership of the 49ers were confused and felt they had to take a stand whether they agreed with the national leadership's position or not. Hell, why should I support something I don't believe in?" No reason at all, of course, though it might have served the union well to have someone educate Montana as to why he was a millionaire -- that despite the union's obvious blunders, pro football stars became rich not because of their individual talents but through collective bargaining.

But would even that, I wonder, have stirred Montana to do some thinking, take a stand, exercise some real power of leadership and become a real hero? Perhaps to have shown the kind of leadership in life that he showed on the field? I mean, if the quarterback doesn't lead, who is supposed to? Looking ahead to the approaching labor storm in 1987, Montana wrote, "When the time comes I'll weigh the issues and make a decision on how I feel." So what happened? He joined the union. He held out for a while, laid low, and then, when the ranks started to break, he finked and crossed the picket lines.

I still remember the photograph of the greatest quarterback in football history slinking into '49ers camp, afraid to look into the cameras. I had blocked that image from my mind, but now I know that it was better to have it side by side with the one from the '81 Dallas game. Together they would serve as a reminder of how silly it is to confuse the ability to win games with heroism, to pretend sports provide us with lessons on how to live our lives when, really, it's the other way around.

Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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