Joe Cool checks out with style

April 19, 1995|By Gil LeBreton | Gil LeBreton,Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Joe Montana, unlike so many sports heroes, did not announce his retirement yesterday at a scheduled news conference.

No. That was a love-in, in the true, San Francisco sense of the words.

The faithful had been gathering for hours in the city's Justin Herman Plaza. The public address system had kept them busy with a medley of Joe's golden-oldie highlight hits. The honored guests, from the Mayor to Madden, proceeded to all lay palms at Joe's humble feet.

L "One more year! One more year!" the audience began to chant.

Montana blushed. The whole throng-inducing, nationally televised, semi-sappy affair -- Joe-stock -- seemed to embarrass him.

And somehow, that seems appropriate. Instead of going out on a stretcher, the way so many of us feared he would, Montana left pro football yesterday with a little wave, a shy smile and carrying one of his young kids.

He was always busting down preconceptions, anyway. Third-round draft pick Montana proved that every team in the league can be wrong at least twice. He wasn't supposed to turn a 2-14 team into a Super Bowl champion in two seasons, but he did.

He wasn't supposed to beat a well-prepared Dallas Cowboys team that Jan. 10, 1982, day, but he did. He wasn't supposed to complete that throw-away pass to Dwight Clark. He wasn't supposed to have back surgery and return after missing only eight games. He wasn't supposed to go on to become the most decorated quarterback in National Football League history.

But he did.

Here in the MTV generation, our images of our heroes are strained. We see them almost without fail every night on cable TV. We see their touchdowns. We see their interceptions. We know what their paycheck says -- and their police record.

Montana, however, was able to confine most of his public utterances to shrugs and soft-spoken sentences. Another Joe named Namath made a pantyhose commercial that screamed to the world that he was an iconoclast.

Montana grinned his way through a razor commercial and found a wife.

At the risk of using a shameless cliche, Joe Montana did his speaking on the football field. And his endings left us breathless.

Some of us are old enough to have seen Jurassic treasures like Johnny Unitas, Sonny Jurgensen and George Blanda play. But Montana is the one who snuffed all their passing records and won all the championships.

A gifted supporting cast? A genius for a head coach?

Well, those helped. But as coach-turned-master of ceremonies Bill Walsh quipped yesterday, "His brilliant performances have exhilarated all of us and have purchased my new home."

"People will say he was a 'product of the system,' " 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo Jr. said. "I say he was the product of a system he was born with."

One by one, they stepped to the podium and tried to condense 16 Hall of Fame-certain seasons into a glib anecdote. Nobody bothered to take any cheap shots. All even seemed to be forgiven for that 1992 mess that led to his trade to the Kansas City Chiefs.

John Madden called Montana, "the greatest quarterback ever," and "I'll say it with no disclaimers."

And then Madden, ever the Greyhound philosopher, spoke for the thousands in attendance and said, "Just think, if all of us could be him for a day. We could all be cool."

Joe Cool is how I will remember Montana, the man who toppled the Tom Landry dynasty. I still say he was throwing the ball away that 1982 day in the Candlestick Park end zone.

But there I go again -- preconceptions.

In our bottom-line world, nobody signed his work quite like Montana. Yesterday, it was a blush and a goodbye.

Cool, Joe -- same as always.

What they were saying about Montana's departure

* "I was afraid of his getting hurt. He's got a long life to live and he's got his children, and if he's in a wheelchair what can he do?" -- Theresa Montana, Joe's mother.

* "Everybody wants to see him play forever, but I know he can't. I always said it would be the hardest day in his life -- and mine, too." -- Joe Montana Sr., the quarterback's father.

* "Joe Montana had a gift for the game of football that made him one of the greatest quarterbacks ever and perhaps the best of all time. He epitomized what it means to be a winner and the best at what you do. He created memories that will live forever in NFL history." -- NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

* "Everybody always thought I was the push behind him. Really, the only push I was was to make sure he's happy. I'm happy for him now, because he seems so sure it's the right thing." -- Jennifer Montana, his wife.

* "It's a time for me to reflect on all those great moments when I was standing on the sidelines with my jaw open, staring at something impossible he'd just done. I'd be completely amazed by the way he could find an open man, or see a crack in the defense, or take the team on some last-minute drive. There was no one who could do that like him time after time." -- Steve Young, who succeeded Montana as 49ers quarterback.

* "He did a great thing. He taught us to treat the world like a `` two-minute drill." -- Dick Olague, 65, who sold hot dogs at Kezar Stadium.

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