Once the NFL's Bust by the Bay, the 49ers Strike Gold with Quarterback Joe Montana
For years stoical fans of the San Francisco 49ers have had to put up with wind, fog and incontinent seagulls at Candlestick Park. Even worse, they've had to put up with the 49ers themselves, a ragtag football team that compiled a sorry record of 10 wins and 38 losses in the last three NFL seasons. Then last December the gloom lifted momentarily. Playing against New Orleans, that other notable cellar dweller, second-year quarterback Joe Montana led the 49ers to a thrilling overtime win by completing an astonishing 24 of 26 passes. The victory was a happy harbinger. This year, with Montana running the team full-time, the rejuvenated 49ers have parlayed a series of come-from-behind victories into their first divisional championship since 1972. Three weeks ago they became the first team in the league to qualify for the playoffs leading to the Super Bowl next month in Detroit.
For the soft-spoken Montana, 25, the 49ers' success is a vindication of the team's decision to trade away Steve DeBerg, his friend and rival for the quarterback job. "It was tough," says Joe. "Steve and I roomed together on the road, and after we checked into a hotel we'd head right down to the game room. We'd try to beat each other at anything. Being a quarterback means you want to be on top." Obviously Montana belongs there. "He has the qualities that make a champion," says 49er coach Bill Walsh. "He has poise, command on the field and an uncommon instinct for making the right decision at the right time."
A natural athlete who started playing football at the age of 8, Montana grew up in Monongahela, Pa., near Pittsburgh. His father is manager of a finance company, his mother a secretary there. By Joe's senior year at Ringgold High School dozens of top football colleges were recruiting him, but he had his heart set on Notre Dame. He led the team to a national championship in 1977, and a breathtaking last-minute win in the Cotton Bowl the following year. Yet he wasn't chosen until the third round of the 1979 pro football draft. "That didn't bother me," Montana says. "I know some first-and second-round choices who never made it. I had confidence in myself."
Montana admits that it was a jolt coming from a team with an unrivaled winning tradition to one that had lost 14 of 16 games the previous year. Coach Walsh, however, who was as new to the 49ers as Joe, demanded nothing less than perfection. "He tries to keep things at ease, but he is very, very picky," says Montana. "If a play calls for me to take seven steps and throw, and I do five, he'll stop the whole practice and make everyone run the play again. That's one of the keys to our success" (and to Joe's record of completing nearly two out of every three passes this season).
Another is his unassuming manner. "Joe is not a person who needs a star identity," says Walsh, and Montana would never be confused with a drill sergeant. "The coaches have been yelling and screaming all week," Joe explains. "The last thing a player wants to hear is a teammate—a friend—yelling at him during a game." Montana prefers to lead by getting things done. "I think that has something to do with playing at Notre Dame," he says. "There was a lot of pressure there to handle tight situations."
Nothing, however, could have prepared him for the wave of publicity. Married last summer to Cass Castillo, a stewardess he had been living with since 1979, he is getting the kind of attention that winners must endure. "I've considered cutting off the phone," says Cass. "This year people have started coming out of the woodwork. You don't know who your friends are anymore, and you get very, very cautious. Joe says he's used to this from college, but don't let him fool you. This is not what it used to be like at Notre Dame. This is big time." Despite Joe's success and the promise of big money to come, Cass continues to fly for United and to resist the changes that come with celebrity. The Montanas' ranch-style home has a spectacular ocean view and is only 20 minutes from the stadium. "We try to do ordinary husband-and-wife things," says Cass. "Here he's just Joe Family Man with his dogs and the two Arabian horses we keep next door. We live very basically and we like it." In one respect, though, even Cass has to admit she's unique. "I'm probably the only person in the world," she says, "who has ever hoped for a honeymoon in Detroit in January."
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