His hair is silver now, the color of four Vince Lombardi Trophies, and on this sunny San Francisco afternoon, Joe Montana is clutching a Sharpie in each hand. It isn’t just another autograph show. This one is kicking off Super Bowl 50 Week in a town where he continues to be iconized like no one else, in a sport extraordinarily fortunate to have him as its greatest living ambassador.
Hyperbole? Think about it. Four months short of his 60th birthday, he is a beaming picture of prosperity and good health, showing none of the debilitating neurological effects that have crippled, mentally weakened or killed so many of his football contemporaries. He has avoided even a hint of scandal, almost a miracle given the magnitude of his popularity, and he’s going on 31 years of marriage with wife Jennifer and their four adult children. He’s a successful tech investor, currently raising a $25 million venture capital fund. Every time you turn on the TV, there’s Joe with Peyton Manning on a Papa John’s commercial, or Joe having an awkward time shaking Steve Young’s hand on an AT&T ad — a joke from their No. 1 vs. No. 2 days — or Joe bopping along in his Skechers.
In the same week that Tom Brady lost another big one, Montana was named as the quarterback on the Super Bowl 50 Golden team, reminding us that he continues to be the predominant player of all time at the most influential position in team sports. A recent Harris Poll of almost 2,400 Americans ranked him as the greatest football player ever, and behind only Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali and Serena Williams in the overall order. When so many legends fade or flicker out later in life, his continues to grow, and it’s vital to note that at 1:17 p.m. Saturday, 17 minutes after his signing period was scheduled to end, he still was at his table in the NFL Shop at Moscone Center West, not once looking at his watch or signaling to a public relations staffer for an escape hatch.
“Thank you,” he says politely, looking at each awestruck fan in the eye after scribbling his name on a photo, his 49ers jersey, a football, a helmet, a poster or an old seat frame from Candlestick Park.
Later, when he finally gets up to leave, he says, “That was fun.” The fun, evidently, never can stop for Montana at the Super Bowl. His flawlessness has been astounding — 4-0 record, 11 touchdown passes, zero interceptions, 127.8 passer rating — in an event he has singularly defined, from his five TDs in a 55-10 rout of Denver that represents the most dominant individual performance in the game’s history to the 92-yard, trophy-winning drive against Cincinnati that started when Montana said in the huddle, “There in the stands, standing near the exit ramp, isn’t that John Candy?”
It should surprise no one that Montana, known as Joe Cool, has remained cool in his advancing age among all demographics. The long, winding line of autograph-seekers featured both genders and a complete range of ages, many snapping away with their phones as he reached for another photo from a stack. “Best quarterback who ever played the game,” a father said to his son. Of all the sports tributes that could be placed on a gravestone, G.Q.A.T. is near the top.
Nor can it be disputed. If Brady had returned this week to his native Bay Area with the New England Patriots, trying to one-up Montana with a fifth Lombardi Trophy and second in a row, then, sure, the familiar tavern argument would have been hotter than ever. But Brady has lost two Super Bowls and, while showing no signs of slippage at 38, this defeat seemed to seal reality that he’ll never top his boyhood idol. Quarterbacks are judged by their biggest moments, and in his, Montana is 4-for-4 with three Most Valuable Player awards. He’s also one of only two QBs, with Joe Namath, to win a Super Bowl and a college football national championship, a group that Carolina’s Cam Newton can join next Sunday at Levi’s Stadium.
Montana continues to distance himself from the debate, of course, refusing to consider himself the best while saying, “Tom is one of the greatest quarterbacks to play the game.” Nor will he downgrade Brady for his role in the Deflategate episode. A year after pointing out that deflated footballs only served to benefit Brady — “It’s pretty simple. If it was done, it was done for a reason. Nobody else cares what the ball feels like,” he said then — Montana now finds comedy in it all.
“They always say, ‘If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.’ So they’re trying hard,” he says.
For sale a few feet from his table are the jerseys of Newton and Manning, Super Bowl edition. As the ultimate quarterbacking expert, Montana is voicing views on this antithetical matchup between the dual-threat rocket and creaky-boned relic. On his most recent Channel 5 appearance, he picked Carolina while showing proper deference to Manning in what might be his final football game. Why not go with the old man?
“I’ll say it like this: If this is Peyton’s last game, yeah, it would be nice to see him win going out,” Montana says. “But Carolina is on one of those rolls right now that it’s just going to be tough.
“Once [Newton] gets to the game, he will be fine. It’s just the distractions that lead up to it that really get the guys who are going there for a first time. But they look like a pretty loose team and I don’t think they’ll have an issue.”
What’s curious about Manning is that he has thrown for 71,940 yards, about 31,000 more than Montana, and that he has won five league MVP awards, three more than Montana. Such is the gravitas of a Super Bowl, which Manning has won only once in three attempts — including a 43-8 nightmare loss two years ago against Seattle. Even if he and the Broncos win this time, he’ll always be regarded as merely the best regular-season QB ever, a backhanded compliment amid Montana’s postseason reign.
“I know he appears to be healthy, but what I saw in the lack of strength were really his throws to the sideline, more so on ‘go’ routes down the sideline,” Montana says of Manning. “Most of the balls were a little underthrown. Typically, that doesn’t happen with him. But he’s still savvy. He’s got to keep the ball in their possession and not turn the ball over.”
In the ’80s, Montana was living, breathing proof that accuracy and guile, not pure arm strength, wins Super Bowls. As pointed out by his longtime teammate, Randy Cross, “There have been, and will be, much better arms and legs and much better bodies on quarterbacks in the NFL. But if you have to win a game or score a touchdown or win a championship, the only guy to get is Joe Montana.” Even in an era when prolific passers are protected by rules and enabled by a league that wants huge numbers — even when we’ve seen that opportunity seized by everyone from Brady and Manning and Drew Brees to Aaron Rodgers and, now, Newton — the same name remains above the pack, three decades later.
“You’re the greatest, Joe!” a fan yells in the NFL Shop.
Still smiling, still the model of savvy and elegance, Joe Montana may or may not hear the praise as he wades through the crowd, finds his wife and grasps her hand. They walk out the back door together, into their kingdom, for a week in which two teams will struggle to achieve what he always mastered with unruffled ease.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.