Montana, 49ers thrill fans one more time
By Garrett Johnston
Published: Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012
Monongahela native Joe Montana was honored, along with other prominent Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers, Tuesday night at San Francisco's Nob Hill Masonic Center. The event was called Legends Live.
Montana, along with Jerry Rice, Roger Craig, Ronnie Lott and Dwight Clark, spoke and answered questions from select fans on the 30th anniversary of the "Catch" from Montana to Clark in the 1981 NFC Championship game that started the 49ers' dynasty of the 1980s.
There was great story-swapping the entire evening as these old teammates and friends reminisced about San Francisco's glory days.
"It was really about trust," Montana said of those 49ers teams. "Whether on offense or defense it's about trusting the guys next to you. We're all gonna make mistakes, it's about how you react to those mistakes."
Montana was insightful about what kept his teams together.
"Rarely did you hear anybody argue in our huddles. It was all about how can we fix what the problem is."
The 49ers teams of the 1980s were remembered for their accomplishments but Montana believes coach Bill Walsh's West Coast Offense was integral to the team's successes.
"I would throw a short pass to Rice in practice and he would always run to the end zone ... every time. The great thing about it was that it's contagious. John Taylor (another 49ers receiver) would do it then Roger (Craig). ... These things come back to you. Throwing blocks for each other. And as a quarterback I'm thinking, (wow) I like this!" Montana said to laughs across the audience.
"I would throw the ball 10 yards (in two plays) and I get 190 yards passing and two touchdowns." he said.
After Montana's retirement following the 1994 playoff game against Dan Marino and the Dolphins, he got into motivational speaking in a number of capacities. Perhaps that motivation could be sensed in his discussion of trust in one's teammates.
"It's that trust that goes between us. You never know where the spark is going to come from, but you have to just trust in each other and never give up."
The 49ers' never give up attitude was born from perhaps the most memorable play in the franchises history. The "catch" Montana threw against the Dallas Cowboys in the 1981 NFC Championship game.
"The catch would have never happened had I hit Freddie Sullivan (another teammate) who was wide open the play before" Montana said to a chorus of laughs. "He was 10 yards away from me and I threw it right over his head."
The unlikelihood of Clark, of all their receivers, making the franchises premiere catch was surprising even today to Montana and his teammates.
"We never threw the ball to Dwight. His job was to go down and set a screen for Freddy (Sullivan). In training camp Coach Walsh made us throw the ball over his head and we both thought he was crazy. We never threw the ball to Dwight because he was great at setting the pick for the others to catch.
"One of the teammates (during the fateful play) fell down and Dwight said, 'Oh, guess I gotta do something now.' "
Clark did, and the result was what gave these five "legends" of San Francisco lore a reason to reminisce 30 years exactly after the moment.
"We practiced it over and over again, and in practice Joe could never get it right" said Clark on the catch.
"He would throw it way over my head. The coaching staff said, 'Don't throw the interception, Joe, because we won't call this on fourth down.' But under duress, with three people on him, off his back foot, the magic of Joe Montana, he put it in the exact spot it needed."
Montana is still reflective that he was not thinking of the big picture ramifications that afternoon in 1981 at Candlestick Park.
"I would have never thought that this (event) would have happened due to that moment."
Montana also had much to compare between the tenacious 49ers teams of yesteryear and the current team that finished the regular season 13-3 for the first time in more than a decade.
"Ronny, Jerry, Roger would say 'It'll be OK (during tough situations) We'll keep it alive.'
"And that's what you see they're doing when you see the team today."
Though Montana was clearly sentimental and reminiscent about the 49ers and his heydays in the NFL, he still points to a simple truth that he's discovered about football.
"It's still just a game. You have the lead-up to Sunday, but once the ball is snapped it's just a game."
Now retired for more than 17 years, Montana admits that it is very hard for one to continue with the steely NFL intensity in their everyday lives.
"It's hard to find the same intensity and motivation for business or whatever you're looking to do after you retire," he said. "It's not the same risk/reward that you get out of football. The excitement is not the same as a Sunday afternoon."
Montana, who played high school football at Ringgold said football and local sports are paramount in his hometown.
"It's pretty typical of Western Pennsylvania, sports is the way of life. It's pretty important out there."
Tim Tebow recently overtook Montana's wild card playoff feat of 314 passing yards from his 1994 playoff loss against Dan Marino's Dolphins. Both quarterbacks had to overcome late fumbles by their running backs. It was also Montana's final game.
When it comes to Tebow, Montana stresses the importance of leading by example.
"It doesn't matter what you say on or off the field," he said. "You need to do it with your actions. Truly lead your team."
49ers Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice echoed Montana's sentiment about leadership and Tebow.
"Tebow has it right here" Rice said, pointing to his heart. "Heart is the most important thing.
"He has such a way of motivating his teammates. And they play for him. He has overcome the traditional thought, and wins with his own style. He knows how to motivate the Denver Broncos."
Rice, the NFL's most prolific and decorated receiver, believes that camaraderie trumps the Super Bowl titles at the end of the day.
"Camaraderie is more important than the trophies. We won as a team. That was special ... the team ... not so much the individual.
"I had great teammates. With all the records, everything I've accomplished on the football field, it was because of my teammates, because football is not an individual sport. That's the reason I worked so hard. I wanted to be the best football player that I could be."
"You are the reason," he said to his teammates on stage.
As the night concluded, Montana and Rice got into a friendly banter.
"He kept his uniform so clean. If it still wasn't perfect at halftime, he'd change," Montana said to laughs all over the room.
Rice, being the wily old veteran, had some quick wit to counter.
"If you go to a CEO to interview for a job would you wear a white-beater• No, you would wear a suit. So that's exactly what I did when I played football. It's all about the way you look, baby!"
Montana had but one response, spoken without missing a beat:
"Hey, JR, I don't care if you went out in your jockstrap! As long as you caught touchdowns, you can wear whatever you want."
The evening ended on the note it started. A fun and jovial event for San Francisco fans and admirers to see their heroes talk about the good old days.
Garrett Johnston is a sportswriter and video producer out of Sacramento, Calif. He has been covering the NBA, PGA Tour and NFL in differing capacities for the last five years.
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