His being a Chief is strange enough, but Montana won't even wear No. 16

April 21, 1993|By Mark Kreidler | Mark Kreidler,McClatchy News Service

In Kansas City, Joe Montana won't even be No. 16 any more. Understand, the strangest part is yet to come. Until now we have dealt strictly in the hypothetical, the could-be's and the maybe's and the why-not's of the Life of Joe Montana. Going from the San Francisco 49ers is one thing. Gone, that is quite another.

I had a dream the other night, not about Montana; but when I awoke I suddenly saw his name, for the first time, stitched on the back of a Kansas City jersey. It was -- how best to put this? -- repulsive.

Objectionable.

Actionable?

And strange. Yes. Yes. Strange days, indeed.

Are we all waking up thinking about Joe Montana lately, or is it merely the sick and addled few, the ones who have spent the past year in open debate over the man's future? No answer; but know this: When a local television station interrupts its Rodney King verdict coverage for a Joe Update, then something has gone way 'round the bend.

But that's us, all over.

By the time he and the Chiefs finally and officially decided to go steady, Montana had become something more, or less, than a man. He had become a Thing: A number. Sixteen was the number. You rewound the tape of the mind, scanning Candlestick Park in any November, and the number was only 16. Roger Craig? He was a face, maybe a pair of high-pumping knees hitting a hole. Ronnie Lott? Darth Vader standing over a fallen opponent, staring. Jerry Rice? Two arms spread wide as he crossed the goal line.

Montana was a number. Sixteen.

And even that is over now; the Chiefs hung No. 16 up on their Arrowhead Stadium wall of fame a few years ago in tribute to Len Dawson. Unless Lenny comes out of the broadcast booth to give it back, a horrible idea, then Montana will have to make do with something else.

Another number. . . Another city. . . Joe Montana.

You wonder about the George Blanda alternative, about why Montana is so hell-bent on burning out rather than fading away. Blanda had his glory years with the Raiders and then found a way to make it all work at the end, remaining with the team, a player with a single identity. He swallowed some pride, tutored some kids, called some plays, sent in some signals.

It was not necessarily heroic. What it was, was seamless.

Perhaps the 49ers, in their infinite naivete about the nature of a man who has lived in their house for nearly 15 years, believed that Montana could be quietly slipped to the sideline. Perhaps they believed that they could have it all, never really make the awful decision, allow Joe to bring himself to the conclusion that being always and forever a 49er was worth a year or two of donning the elder statesman's sash.

It was never going to happen. Even Paul Hackett, the Chiefs' offensive coordinator, former San Francisco quarterbacks coach and longtime Montana friend/advocate, knows this.

"One thing that Joe will never be," Hackett said earlier this month, "is a coach. He just can't do it. He's seen what I do, my work. It isn't him."

Not all competitors make good stand-arounds. In fact, most of the great athletes of my lifetime would be perfectly rotten in coaching or sharing positions. It is the self-absorption of the supremely skilled that overwhelms the generous impulse, time and again.

Larry Bird. Michael Jordan. Remember what Pete Rose's biggest problem was, managing the Cincinnati Reds? He could not comprehend men with more talent than he ever had failing to apply Charlie-caliber Hustle. It drove him mad. Still does.

Competitiveness: When Steve Young was Montana's understudy, Young was neither a particularly generous nor a happy man; he desperately wanted to play. With the roles reversed, it was damned near mutinous out there.

Now, says Young's agent, Leigh Steinberg, "You are going to see the real Steve Young come out." The real Montana, too, one suspects; and give the man credit: He knew that sticking around on the flimsy premise of an 11th-hour concession by George Seifert was a disaster waiting to be hiked. Ultimately, the only staying with the 49ers would be on their terms.

That is the equation. That is all.

So Montana goes. He will finish out a glorious career on artificial turf, snow and sleet falling around him, this weird foreign helmet on his head, in the conference of Elway and Marino rather than Aikman and Cunningham. He goes to play, and it really is that simple; Montana never was a complicated man or a sentimental one, not even when he became a Thing, a number.

He goes to play: A new beginning, maybe. For the rest of us, it is only the longest, strangest goodbye.

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