One late afternoon, back in the 1980s, my friend and colleague Ellen and I were interviewing a prospective employee. The two of us worked for a political think tank and book publisher called the Institute for Contemporary Studies. Both of us were drinking beer. It was a wild time to be working in San Francisco. Workdays were short on hours and long on cocktails.
For some reason, even though I was a copy editor, I had been handed the human resources responsibilities when the real HR person had left, even though I had no experience in that field whatsoever.
So we were interviewing John, a cheerful, curly-haired young man with a linebacker’s sturdiness. The position was low-level and I believe it had something to do with the mail room. The sole reason we had chosen John’s résumé from among the others is that it contained the following item:
Winner of Chili Cook-Off, 1983
This skill set was, to us, extremely appealing.
Then he sealed the deal by saying something that I have not forgotten, all these years later.
“Joe Montana is God.”
He was hired.
For those of you who aren’t sports fans, the two teams in the Super Bowl yesterday were the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots. The Falcons have been a professional football team since 1966 and have been to only two Super Bowls, both of which they lost. The New England Patriots started out in 1960 as the Boston Patriots but changed their name when they moved about 20 miles outside of Boston in 1971. They’ve been to nine Super Bowls. Seven of those appearances have come during the era of coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. They’ve won five.
It’s really quite astonishing. Belichick and Brady have won more Super Bowls than any other coach and any other quarterback.
I hate them both.
I’m not normally a fan of any team from Atlanta. It all goes back to 1993. The San Francisco Giants and the Atlanta Braves were locked in the last true pennant race of all time – before the “wild card” scenario was instituted. The Giants were phenomenal and won 103 games, but the Braves won 104. The Giants needed to win their last game to force a tie-breaker, but they were massacred by the &^%$#@ Dodgers. During that entire season, my stomach ground itself to bits, night after night, and to make me seethe even more I had to endure the Atlanta fans’ odious “tomahawk chop” and war chant whenever the two teams met. I got an ulcer that season. No lie.
So I’ve continued my loathing for all teams Atlanta.
But this year I was all in for them. Anything to put Brady and Belichick in their respective places.
Bill Bellicose, as I like to call him, has to be the world’s surliest man. His hostile unwillingness to ever utter more than a two-word mumble at press conferences – even after he has won a Super Bowl – makes me sick. The least he can do, before he runs home with his $7.5 million annual salary, is offer his fans a smile and some insight. Instead, he wears a perpetual frown and a perpetual gross sweatshirt, glares at everyone in the room, and acts as if it would be far too much of an imposition for him to answer a simple question.
Here’s a tiny compilation of Bellicose’s upbeat cooperation at press conferences:
I’d say he was generally a sore loser, but truth be told, it’s hard to tell because all of his press conferences are exercises in moroseness, whether he wins or loses. I do know that in 2008, when his Patriots were upset in the Super Bowl by Eli Manning and the New York Giants, the classless Bellicose actually left the field before the last play of the game. I imagine it might have killed him to shake the hand of winning coach Tom Coughlin, or to congratulate him.
“They made some plays. We made some plays,” he said magnanimously after the game.
During his reign, Bellicose has presided over both “Spygate” and “Deflategate.” His role in the 2007 Spygate mess (in which the Patriots were caught videotaping an opposing team’s signals from the sideline) personally cost him half a million dollars, the largest fine ever exacted on an NFL coach (and the maximum allowable amount).
For his role in Deflategate, quarterback Tom Brady may have taken some flimflam tips from his coach. In 2015 he was accused of using purposely underinflated footballs to his advantage during the AFC championship game. The Patriots would have won the game anyway, but the point is that Brady cheated, then contorted himself into a pretzel trying to deny the hefty accumulation of (admittedly circumstantial) evidence, then destroyed his own cell phone immediately before he met with NFL investigators! (In the end, he was given a four-game suspension to take effect the next season.)
I don’t know Brady personally, but word around the NFL is that he is a whining crybaby. Players say he looks at the referee nearly every time he gets hit, hoping for a penalty flag.
One of my favorite gems about him: he left his girlfriend when she was three months’ pregnant to take up with his now-wife Gisele Bündchen. I just love his family values. Oh, and Gisele herself is a paragon of sportsmanship as well. After her husband’s team lost in the 2012 Super Bowl, she said, blaming Brady’s receivers, “My husband cannot f—ing throw the ball and catch the ball at the same time.” So lovely.
There’s no doubt that Tom Brady is one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to have played the game, and he is now the winningest Super Bowl quarterback as well. Someday soon he will be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
I wrote much of this blog post just before yesterday’s game. I wrote from the perspective that, regardless of who won the Super Bowl, Joe Montana would still be the greatest quarterback of all time. But this morning, as I savor the memory of cocktails, “Betty’s Shrimp Dip Divine,” wings, bruschetta, nachos, sliders, and Derby pie, I have to concede that Brady now shares the podium with Joe.
In my heart, though, Joe stands alone. He might have four Super Bowl rings to Brady’s five, but Joe is the guy I’d want to be helming my all-time fantasy team. He never lost a Super Bowl and in his four championship games he threw for 11 touchdowns with no interceptions. NO interceptions. Brady can’t say that.
But greatness is not necessarily measured by stats. Joe was a consummate leader who could see the entire field, coolly call a game, complete a miraculous pass, and carry out a comeback with steely calm. He was smart and never sloppy. He also played, let’s remember, during an era when football players – especially quarterbacks – were not protected the way they are now. If Brady had to take the hits today that Joe took during his career, he’d be full-out bawling on the turf.
Someone once asked me to explain why anyone would be a sports fan. I tried to tell her that in my view it’s all about hope and loyalty. For a variety of reasons, a fan develops an emotional tie to a team or a player, and from then on, season after season, the allegiance perseveres. And hope endures – for the next game, the next season.
On December 7, 1980, I was driving up Highway 280 back to San Francisco from my parents’ house in San Jose. It was Joe’s second year with the 49ers, along with his genius (and 100 percent classy) coach Bill Walsh, and although the team still ended up with a losing season, the Niners had improved over their 2-14 record from the year before. That day, Joe presided over the greatest comeback in NFL regular-season history by erasing a 28-point deficit and beating the New Orleans Saints 38–35. I was listening to sportstalk radio and a young-sounding guy called in, his words cascading over themselves with excitement about the promise of his team and of Joe Montana. It was only the Niners’ sixth (and last) win of a 16-game season, but that young guy’s world was bursting with hope. That’s what sports are all about.
In Joe’s case, he gave us hope during each and every game. There was no deficit that could not be overcome. Joe could see the unseeable, throw the unthrowable, find the unfindable, score the unscoreable.
I remember watching the most famous 49ers play of all time, when Joe completed the touchdown pass to Dwight Clark that won the 1982 NFC championship game against the Dallas Cowboys and opposing quarterback Scramblin’ Roger Staubach. The sporting world refers to that play as “The Catch,” which honors its matchlessness. The entire game had seesawed back and forth, and for me it was four quarters of fierce pain and intense hope. My father, who watched the game with me, kept darting out into the backyard and slamming the screen door behind him. “Dad, why in the world aren’t you staying in here to watch?” I yelled to him. I’d never seen him behave this way before. “I just can’t stand the stress,” he said.
After that game, the Cowboys were no longer a dynasty. And the 49ers went on to win the Super Bowl and to dominate football throughout the 1980s. My friends and I would gather every Sunday, throughout the fall and winter, to watch those games. We stopped talking whenever Joe had the ball, wondering what kind of miracle he would pull off next.
There is no doubt that yesterday’s comeback performance by Brady and his receivers is historic. Before that, though, most sports fans would have pointed to the final drive of the 1989 Super Bowl, culminating in Montana’s touchdown pass to John Taylor, as the most riveting performance ever in a football playoff game. The Niners were on their own 8 yardline, trailing the Cincinnati Bengals 16–13, with only about three minutes left to play. Before starting his legendary 92-yard drive down the field, Joe calmly looked toward the stands and breezily said to his tense teammates in the huddle, “Hey, isn’t that [comedian] John Candy up there?”
Joe threw that winning touchdown to Taylor with only 34 seconds left in the game.
He would have 31 fourth-quarter comebacks in his NFL career.
With Joe, there was never “not enough time.”
A couple of decades later, I have lost some of my love for watching football. Too many sketchy characters seem to be part of the game now. We’re seeing multiple arrests for domestic violence and other criminal behavior, and the NFL has done far too little for far too long. Aaron Hernandez, a New England Patriot (no comment!) now serving a life sentence for murder, already had been involved in violent behavior when he joined the team. There had been a bar incident in which he refused to pay his bill and then punched an employee and ruptured his eardrum, but city officials looked the other way, reportedly because of his athletic talents. He also may have been involved in a double shooting later that year, but no charges were ever filed. Eventually, he learned that he couldn’t get away with out-and-out murder.
Maybe my disappointment with football also has to do with the 49ers and the mess that owner Jed York has made, what with the move out of San Francisco down to Santa Clara and into a poorly designed stadium that caters to the wealthiest ticketholders, and York’s decision to show the door to coach Jim Harbaugh, who might be grating but who led the 49ers to a Super Bowl. And then there’s quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who, I hope, will be moving on to another team any minute now. Good riddance. Joe Montana is the only player to have thrown two touchdown passes of 95 yards or more. Kaepernick is lucky to ever connect with a long bomb. And he can’t see the whole field, in my opinion. He just doesn’t have all the tools. And he surely isn’t a leader.
My friend Kelly once played basketball with Joe Montana. That’s right. He was a terrific basketball player, and she was at her gym one day when he came in and both of them ended up in the same pickup game. She said he was just as cool on the court as he was on the field, and just as inclusive. He didn’t seem to notice that he was a celebrity and everyone else was just a regular person at the gym. He didn’t treat Kelly, a woman, any differently from the respectful way he treated the guys. In fact, he set a tone. That’s what good leaders do.
Joe Montana and his wife of more than 30 years have four children. He spends much of his time now devoted to charities – the bulk of them for kids. “Typically, we don’t do things in public for charity because we feel like if you’re doing it for charity, you shouldn’t get anything back for it,” he once said. And that’s how people of character feel.
Maybe that’s what I miss – character. You never heard about Joe, or Jerry Rice, or Roger Craig getting into any kind of trouble whatsoever, or being anything but dedicated athletes. There weren’t any cheating scandals, and their wives didn’t make statements disparaging the team. It was another era, I guess. People didn’t spike the ball, do the chicken dance, kiss their own biceps, and congratulate themselves every time they made one good play. It wasn’t all about self-promotion. It was about the team.
But enough about that. The world has changed. I don’t want to get stuck in the past. Congratulations to you, Tom Brady.
But my heart will forever be with Joe.