Profile: Legend with the right stuff: Joe Montana

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The Independent Online
IT IS on days like this that Joe Montana feels the weight of being a legend, that he feels the ache of being 37 years old in a young man's game. On the last day of the National Football League's 74th regular season two weeks ago, Montana, the quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs, took some breathtaking shots from Seattle defensive players, kids who were learning their multiplication tables when Montana broke into professional football in 1979. Showing flashes of the greatness he has made an art form, Montana led Kansas City to a 34-24 victory, ensuring the Chiefs' spot in the play-offs.

Afterwards, munching on a cheeseburger outside the Chiefs' dressing-room, Montana looked tired. His Hollywood blue eyes were drawn, his humble but usually assured voice quieter than normal. The good people of Kansas City expected a Super Bowl championship when Montana was traded here in April after a legendary career in San Francisco, and nothing less would do. The heat - even the heat from the sporting fans and press in a relatively small midwestern city - had burned Montana.

'I started getting caught up in the expectations people had for me,' Montana said. 'I'd never done that before. But people expected me to be perfect. I found myself thinking 'I've got to be perfect.' The pressure got to me.'

Montana, fatigue and all, will lead the Chiefs into the den of the hottest team in American football this afternoon. Kansas City play at Houston, winners of 11 games in a row, in a second-round NFL playoff game. The winner will be one game away from playing in Super Bowl XXVIII in Atlanta on 30 January. The Oilers have the most explosive defense in the entire league with as many as eight of their 11 defensive players sprinting at the quarterback on a given play, trying to dismember him as he tries to throw a forward pass. The other day, Montana, a slight 6ft 1in, 190lb man, a pine about to enter a forest of sequoias, chuckled at the thought of facing Houston. 'They have a way of painting a bull's-eye on a quarterback down there,' he said.

These are the games, and the situations, Joe Montana has grown to love. As a scrawny high-school kid growing up in a steel-mill town outside Pittsburgh, Montana scared off some college coaches because of his size. But by the time he finished at Notre Dame University in Indiana, he'd answered most of those doubters. In his final collegiate game, against the University of Houston, Montana's Notre Dame trailed 34-12 with eight minutes left to play. Boom] Montana, weakened by the flu, passed and ran Notre Dame to 23 points, and the Fighting Irish won 35-34 on the last play of the game. 'With Joe Montana on your team,' the Notre Dame coach Dan Devine said, 'the game is never over.'

Still the professional scouts and coaches doubted him. Montana went unpicked in the first round of the college draft. And the second. Finally, the awful 49ers, with their new coach, Bill Walsh, took a chance on the gritty kid. History has shown Walsh to be one of the most brilliant tacticians in NFL history. 'I needed a smart player, an accurate passer, a tough player, and a winner,' Walsh said. 'Over the years, people have said a lot of different quarterbacks could have won in my system. But Joe had such a great knack for finding the open receiver, unlike any player I've ever seen, and he was so tough. He's truly a remarkable player.'

Montana and Walsh won three Super Bowls together. Their last series of plays together, in Walsh's final game, Super Bowl XXIII on 22 January 1989, is the vintage Montana series of all time. The 49ers trailed Cincinnati 16-13 with three minutes left. They had the ball on their own eight-yard line, 92 yards away from a touchdown and a victory. In Super Bowl history, there probably have been eight or 10 drives for touchdowns that long, but none to win games. And none with the clock ticking off the final 180 seconds of the game. And none, certainly, before 120 million Americans watching on television, and folks in 39 other countries watching via satellite.

'I remember the start of that drive,' the Cincinnati receiver Cris Collinsworth said after the game. 'One of my team-mates was on the bench saying, 'We've got 'em now. No way they'll drive 92 yards on us. No way]' I said to him: 'Hey, do you know who their quarterback is? We stop them, and we've stopped the best quarterback of all time.' '

With the game in a two-minute pause for a television commercial, Montana pointed his team-mates' attention towards the sideline. 'Hey guys,' he shouted. 'Look. It's John Candy]' Sure enough, the fat movie star stood there, transfixed like everyone else. Then Montana went to work. He chipped away, throwing for nine yards to the running back Roger Craig, five yards to the tight end John Frank, eight yards to the wide receiver Jerry Rice. After two running plays netted four yards, Montana went back to the air, hitting Rice for 17 and Craig for 13 and the 49ers were 35 yards away from the winning touchdown now, and . . . and . . .

Suddenly, with America on the edge of its collective easy chair, the moment engulfed Montana. He bent over. Stunned team-mates saw he was hyperventilating; he just couldn't get his breath. Just then, Montana signalled to Walsh on the sideline that he needed time to collect himself. But Walsh, not understanding, waved for him to continue playing. Montana threw a feeble incomplete pass and finally caught his breath.

Later, Walsh would say: 'It was like a soldier taking two in the belly and then finishing the charge.' Finish he did, throwing to Rice twice and Craig once until the 49ers stood at the Cincinnati 10-yard line with 40 seconds left. With two Bengals covering the fleet receiver John Taylor, Montana threaded the needle between them, hitting Taylor for a 10-yard strike. 'We knew Joe would get us to the promised land,' their tackle Bubba Paris said.

It was this 20-16 victory that assured Montana's spot in the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Everything since has been just so many exclamation points on his greatness. He is the only three-time Super Bowl Most Valuable Player. He is the highest-rated quarterback in NFL history. He stays out of the ugly headlines in the tabloids. He lives half the year in Kansas City on a golf course and the other half on an estate filled with Italian marble and art - his wife, Jennifer's, passion - with their four children aged from one to nine. His signature on a football fetches dollars 265 in trendy collectors' stores.

Life is good.

Even in transition, feeling the pressure, life is good. Montana, whose presence in American sport is exceeded only by Michael Jordan, got a bittersweet divorce from the 49ers last spring. The 49ers were unable to count on Montana's physical durability any more, and they had a wunderkind quarterback of their own now, Steve Young. And so Montana took his arm 1,400 miles east to Kansas City. The Chiefs had been a winning team for four years, but they needed a proficient brain centre, and a healthy Montana was seen as the last piece to the team's Super Bowl puzzle.

The fans, immediately, went bonkers for the guy. At the Kansas City training camp, in a small Wisconsin town, Montana and his fellow quarterback Dave Krieg went out for a couple of beers one night, and when they got up to leave, a woman greedily snatched Montana's beer can and stuffed it in his purse. 'I got Joe's beer can]' she yelped.

'When it's over,' Montana said of his career, 'I just hope people remember me as a guy who tried hard and helped his team win.' He will be remembered for a lot more than that.