Montana doubtful for 49ers opener

August 24, 1991|By San Francisco Chronicle

SEATTLE -- Joe Montana has virtually ruled himself out of the 49ers' season-opening game against the New York Giants, and he could be out longer.

He said Friday night that his inflamed right elbow hurts him even when he performs simple, everyday tasks, and doctors still don't know how soon he will be able to resume passing.

"I'm not looking forward to the Giants game at this point," Montana said in an interview before the 49ers' final exhibition game against the Seattle Seahawks. "I'm still aiming at it -- but in reality, I don't know."

Neither do doctors.

A inflammation on the inside of his passing elbow has kept Montana out of games since Aug. 3 and limited him to one full practice in two weeks. He hoped to speed his recovery this week when he underwent a series of cortisone shots in the elbow, but they apparently had no effect.

"I just don't know how long it's going to last," Montana said. "When I did get some shots to calm it down, they didn't help, and in the past, they did.

"I tried to pin down the doctor the other day about how long it would take, and he said to wait until you feel better -- and, once it starts feeling good, wait another week after that."

The doctor to whom Montana referred was Dr. Michael Dillingham, the 49ers' orthopedic specialist.

Dillingham's advice means that, even if Montana were to wake up today or tomorrow and feel terrific, he would not test his arm for a week. That would rule him out of practice next week and out of the season opener on Sept. 2.

Dillingham is prohibited by the team from discussing Montana's treatment or prognosis, but he described the problem in medical terms.

He said Montana's irritation is largely in the short tendon that attaches the wrist flexor muscle to the medial bone of the right elbow -- the little knob on the inside of the elbow. The medical term is "medial epicondyle," and the muscle that is irritated, which controls the twisting and turning of the hand, is the pronator muscle.

Tennis elbow is the layman's term, but actually that is a misnomer. Tennis players usually have problems on the outside of their elbow; Dillingham said Montana's ailment often is referred to as golfer's elbow.

It isn't just throwing a football that pains Montana. He said routine tasks -- squeezing his hand, shaking hands, turning door knobs, washing his face -- have become difficult.

"It's just like a burning, tearing feeling when I throw or when I do this with my hand," Montana said, making a rolling motion with his right hand.

"Any twisting motion of the hand irritates it. . . . I can do just about anything I want with my arm -- it's the hand and the wrist. I've had this before, in the same area but not as bad."

He described the problem area as the same one that bothered him during the 1981 season, when he received shots of cortisone -- an anti-inflammatory -- 11 times.

In recent weeks, Montana has had cortisone injections three times. To be precise, he has had more than three shots, because each injection is actually a series of shots in the affected area.

"Usually, I just have a couple of days rest and it would go away, or a shot would clear things up in the past," Montana said. "This time, it didn't do it. It did temporarily, but as soon as I threw, it [started hurting again]."

A source in the 49ers' organization suggested that because Montana is so competitive, he tried to come back sooner than he should have. He threw some passes before the exhibition game last Monday night against San Diego, then had the latest injection.

After that episode, Dillingham gave the order that Montana wait until he has felt good for a week before throwing again.

Besides rest, Montana's only other treatment has been one series of acupuncture shots. He said he had planned to take another acupuncture series before leaving the Bay Area yesterday morning but missed connections with the acupuncturist.

The ailment that pains Montana is in the same area as the elbow injury that required surgery on Terry Bradshaw of the Pittsburgh Steelers and ultimately cut short his career. But Montana said he did not feel his problem was career-threatening, and he said doctors have not suggested surgery.

"No, not yet," he said. "He hasn't said anything about surgery. I asked him, and he said, 'No, at this point, no.' "

A medical source, asked to assess the possibility of surgery from the facts of Montana's case, said an operation was not an option at this time, because it likely would force him to miss the entire season.

This source said a minor procedure -- an arthroscopy -- would not clear up the problem, so that if an operation ultimately were required, it would be full surgery.

"You just have to rest it and hope it clears up," concurred former 49ers coach Bill Walsh, a broadcaster at the exhibition game.

Walsh is not a medical expert, but based on his knowledge of football injuries, he said: "An operation won't help him. That would eliminate him for the year. You have to rest it and not be too fast to put stress on it. It could be five days or five weeks."

In Montana's absence, of course, Steve Young would start the opener against the Giants against Jeff Hostetler, another former backup who was elevated to the No. 1 quarterback position this week.

Montana has expressed concern in the past that Young might have an opportunity to take away his job, but asked yesterday if that bothered him, he said: "I'm not worried about that right now."

Walsh, who traded for Young in 1987, said he doubts there will be a noticeable drop-off in the 49ers' offense.

"I think Steve has played very well all along when he's had a chance to play," Walsh said. "He's just a wonderful athlete.

"He's one of the six best quarterbacks in the league."

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