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Defining moments 2: No ordinary Joe

An occasional series looking at the defining moments which explain why sport captivates us so much …

The image is as clear in my mind today as it was 20 years ago. On a field of giants stands a comparatively slight figure in red and gold, his arms held aloft in simple celebration, as if he was just an ordinary Joe celebrating a touchdown in a pick-up game of football in the park.

But this was no ordinary game; no ordinary touchdown. And it was certainly no ordinary Joe.

Super Bowl XXIII – Joe Robbie Stadium, Miami, January 1989

The NFL’s annual showpiece between the San Francisco 49ers and the Cincinnati Bengals kicks off in the sunny warmth of a late Miami afternoon. Like many other Super Bowls before and since, it takes a while to get going. A lethargic first half finishes 3-3, punctuated by two lengthy delays while Cincinnati’s Tim Krumrie and San Francisco’s Steve Wallace are stretchered off with broken legs. It’s not until the closing moments of the third quarter that the game suddenly explodes into life, the Bengals’ Stanford Jennings returning a kickoff for the game’s first touchdown to put Cincinnati ahead 13-6. The 49ers are stung into action, quickly restoring parity as 49ers’ quarterback Joe Montana tosses a touchdown pass to Jerry Rice.

But then the tempo drops again. A feint; a parry. Rice catches a long pass, but Mike Cofer misses the subsequent field goal attempt. Cincinnati then embark on a laborious drive that seems to encapsulate the mood of the entire match: slow, tentative, slightly fearful. It’s like watching a boxer who refuses to open up and go for the knockout blow. After five and a half minutes of cautious jabbing, Jim Breech’s field goal makes it 16-13.

The game is now finishing under floodlights, and the spotlight is very much on Joe Montana. It’s the point of no return – down by three, just over three minutes remaining – and the task is clear: orchestrate a touchdown to win, or at least a field goal to force overtime. As if this isn’t a big enough ask, the Niners must start from under the shadow of their own goalposts: on their own eight-yard line, with 92 yards to go.

No problem.

The San Francisco offense huddles in the endzone waiting to start their drive, with the eyes of a 75,000 crowd and a global television audience upon them. The pressure is almost unbearable. They know a critical moment will come at some point; they’re not sure they can handle it.

This is a time when you look to a team’s leader to deliver passionate and motivational words, something in a Churchillian vein perhaps. Not Joe Montana. He takes in the surroundings and points out a familiar face in the stands – “Hey, check it out, that’s John Candy” – to break the tension. He’s not nicknamed ‘Joe Cool’ for nothing. Then it’s down to business, the full extent of his final pep talk being, “Let’s go, be tough.”

The 49ers go to work. With the calmness of a surgeon, Montana starts to dissect the Bengals’ defense with precise cuts into its underbelly. A mix of runs and short passes moves the 49ers to the Cincinnati 35 with nearly a minute and a half left. It all seems so calm, so inevitable. Montana is the man at the eye of the hurricane, making the near impossible appear simply routine. But behind the façade, the stress and pressure are troubling even Montana. He’s hyperventilating as he shouts out the play to his teammates over the noise of the crowd, and as he drops back he feels wobbly, his vision blurring, so he deliberately throws his pass away high over the sideline. No harm done, but it’s a wasted play, and a penalty immediately afterwards leaves the 49ers in a nasty situation: second-and-20, the equivalent of being stuck in a green-side bunker.

This, then, is the singular moment everyone’s been waiting for. Do or die. Roll those dice, Joe.

Montana dismisses the crisis casually. With the team around him functioning smoothly – and, more importantly, believing – he waves his magic wand, conjures up a long range completion to Rice and, hey presto, secures another first down.

Now victory is within touching distance. Another pass moves the 49ers to the Cincinnati 10, and with 39 ticks remaining on the clock they call a timeout. One final pause, as much a chance for the crowd to catch their breath as it is for the players.

Montana makes the call, and the eleven offensive players break the huddle and line up opposite their defensive counterparts: lineman against lineman; cornerback on wide receiver; man to man. A moment’s stillness, and then the ball is snapped, initiating the customary violent ballet.

Tick. A series of crunching thuds as linemen’s shoulder pads and helmets crash against each other, the perpetual battle in the trenches between irresistible force and immovable object.

Tick. A blur of speeding motion around the fringes, as defensive flashes of white track the choreographed movements of red and gold: the languid, flowing grace of Jerry Rice, the slashing, high-stepping strides of Roger Craig, the bullish power of Tom Rathman.

Tick. The conductor, Montana, at the centre of it all. Ball in hand, dropping back, surveying everything being played out in front of him. His eye is drawn to wide receiver John Taylor (who has not caught a single pass all day) as he slips unguarded into a soft spot in Cincinnati’s coverage. It’s a small window of opportunity, open for only an instant, but Montana spies it immediately and delivers the perfect pass.

Tick. Taylor makes the catch, and the official at the goalline raises both arms above his head to signal the score. Montana does the same, a simple, routine celebration in circumstances which are neither. The crowd in the stadium is somewhat more demonstrative, however, erupting in a cacophony of pure noise.

Tick. The clock stops at 34 seconds. San Francisco 20, Cincinnati 16.

In what little time remains, the Bengals are unable to mount a response, and the 49ers win Super Bowl XXIII after one of the most exciting finishes ever seen in a championship game.

A miracle? No, it’s just another day at the office for an extraordinary Joe.

The legend of Joe Montana

Super Bowl XXIII was the crowning glory of the Joe Montana legend, but it was hardly the first time he had overcome apparently insurmountable odds.

A late bloomer at both high school (Ringgold High, Pennsylvania) and college (Notre Dame), he gained a reputation for unlikely come-from-behind victories, the most dramatic in his final game as a collegian, the 1979 Cotton Bowl against the University of Houston. It was so cold that Montana – who grew up accustomed to freezing Pennsylvania winters – suffered from hypothermia and had to sit out most of the third quarter while he was fed soup in an effort to raise his temperature. However, he was red hot when he returned, overcoming a 34-12 deficit in the final 7:37 of the game and throwing the winning touchdown as time expired.

And it was no different when Montana graduated to the NFL. In 1980, his second pro season, Montana inspired San Francisco to the biggest regular season comeback in NFL history at the time, overcoming a 35-7 deficit to defeat the New Orleans Saints.

The following year, Montana led the 49ers to their first Super Bowl with a dramatic comeback against the Dallas Cowboys, marching his team from their own 11-yard line late in the game and culminating in a scrambling run and throw to receiver Dwight Clark, who leapt and stretched with every inch of his six-foot-four frame to haul in what 49ers’ fans refer to simply as ‘The Catch’.

Montana didn’t just specialise in on-the-field comebacks either. In 1986, he underwent major surgery after suffering a ruptured disc in his back. The doctors recommended retirement; Montana was back playing – and winning – within eight weeks. And after injuries had forced him to miss nearly two whole years, he returned in the final game of the 1992 season, winning in his final appearance as a 49er and looking like a quarterback who had been out of the game for barely 23 minutes, let alone 23 months.

And even in that triumphant Super Bowl XXIII-winning season, Montana had had to overcome his doubters. In pre-season, experts were declaring him past the peak and suggesting it might be time to hand over to his highly-rated backup, Steve Young. Injuries and inconsistent performances fuelled a quarterback controversy that was not resolved until Montana led a four-game winning streak to clinch the division title. No one ever questioned whether Montana should give way to his Young pretender again.

Joe Montana never understood the concept of “giving up”. That’s the thing about legends: as much as they love the sweet scent of victory, they despise the bitter taste of defeat even more.

How good was Montana as a player? Well, no less an authority than John Madden – former player, Super Bowl-winning coach and long-time television commentator – has said:

“I say with no disclaimers, ‘This guy [Montana] is the greatest quarterback who ever played.’”

Joe Montana could never claim to have the strongest arm, or the quickest feet, or the most durable body; indeed, there are many quarterbacks in the history of the NFL who were quantitatively better athletes than Joe Montana. However, when it came to the vital, intangible qualities that turn a good athlete into a great player – vision, leadership, poise, heart and the ability to galvanise a team and make the impossible happen – these he possessed in abundance. In street clothes, Joe Montana looked no better than any other player in the NFL; once the helmet and pads were on, he was without equal.

And while it is true that there are lies, damned lies and statistics, just consider these two facts. Joe Montana played in four Super Bowls, and won all four. In those four games, in the most pressurised atmosphere in the sport, he threw 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions. Two simple statistics: 4-0 and 11-0. One great man. When the heat was on, the player everyone could rely on was Joe Cool.

Randy Cross, a long-time teammate, encapsulated the essence of Montana perfectly when he said:

“If every game was a Super Bowl, Joe Montana would be undefeated.”

Joe Montana’s career left NFL fans with many great memories; Super Bowl XXIII is the one most will think of as his defining moment.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

One Response to Defining moments 2: No ordinary Joe

  1. Joe Montana is the most clutch qb I have ever seen and I rank him and Brett Favre as the two greatest to ever play the position. The 4 Super Bowls, 3 MVP's, and no int's is ridiculous!

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