MIAMI — I have a confession to make. Four years ago, when Joe Montana was last playing in a Super Bowl, a certain Florida sports columnist wrote that he was a “wimp.”

It was meant tongue-in-cheek. After all, Montana was the enemy, leading his 49ers against the hometown Dolphins.

Still, Joe didn’t like it. In fact, it really ticked him off. He never actually saw the article or knew who the writer was. But when the Super Bowl was over, and the 49ers had won easily, Montana, the star of the game, charged off the field and, according to Sports Illustrated, which you can usually trust on these things, yelled: “WHERE’S THAT GUY WHO CALLED ME A WIMP? I HOPE HE SAW THIS!”

Ahem.

Uh, Joe?

It was me.

I admit it. It took me four years. Actually, I meant to tell you that afternoon, but you were so busy with everything, and besides, you were standing next to some really big teammates, I mean, really big, they could rip you in half, and then, what, I lost the phone number and well, you know how it is. Anyhow, I confess, I was wrong, it was dumb, it was stupid, I’ll never do it again.

There, I feel much better.

Of course, things were different then. You were a skinny, shy, low-key guy, who threw mostly short passes — going up against a swaggering, heave-ho quarterback named Dan Marino.

But today, in Super Bowl XXIII, well, Joe, hey. You’re a skinny, low-key guy who throws mostly short passes, going up against a swaggering, heave-ho quarterback named Boomer Es —

Um.

Let’s switch gears, shall we?

Let us talk instead about the Joe Montana mystique, because it is in spite of your low-gloss exterior, Mr. Montana, that today you are perched on the lip of history. Believe it or not, you could become the first man to be chosen MVP of three Super Bowls. And your track record is pretty good. You already grabbed that honor in your only two previous opportunities (1982 and 1985, both victories, naturally).

Of course, you probably knew that.

Now, it is true, folks, Mr. Montana does not wear a headband. He rarely says anything controversial. If he must appear off the field, it is probably best in a co-starring role, such as the shaving cream commercial he once did with his wife.

It is also true that he has, in his career, returned from back surgery in less than 10 weeks, returned from the bench when everyone thought he was finished, risen to the top time and time again in the big games, even back at Notre Dame, where his success was so inspirational, they wrote a song titled,
“The Ballad Of Joe Montana.”

You hated that, remember, Joe?

So what? Think of all he has done! He has come to a Super Bowl throwing to Dwight Clark and now he comes throwing to Jerry Rice. He has stood there taking Super Bowl hits from Ross Browner, and now he will take them from Tim Krumrie. He has quarterbacked a Super Bowl opposite Cincinnati’s Ken Anderson, and now he will quarterback against Boomer Esiason.

He still reads defenses like some people read eye charts. He scrambles and finds the third receiver while some quarterbacks are still searching for the first. They keep throwing things at Joe Montana. And he keeps swatting them away.

“What do you think when you look back on all you’ve accomplished?” someone asked him last week.

“When you start looking back, it gets hard to go forward,” he said.

Believe it or not, Joe, that is considered an excellent quote from you. A Lester Hayes, you are not. At age 32, you might want to loosen up a little bit, no? I mean, you did that “Saturday Night Live” guest-host thing a few years back. It wasn’t that funny, but hey, you know, how about the effort?

Well. OK. Maybe not. But in a certain way, let’s face it, that only adds to this guy’s mystery. What, we may wonder, was he really thinking when Bill Walsh benched him earlier in the season? What was he thinking when people in San Francisco started calling him washed up?

He has kind things to say about Walsh now. “Bill has meant everything to me. . . . He’s gotten the best out of us when we were young and now he’s getting the best out of us when we’re old.”

And Walsh speaks highly of him. Says his instincts are great, he is at his peak again. All the hatchets seem to be buried. Of course, getting to the Super Bowl will do that. And remember, Montana threw three touchdown passes in each of the playoff games it took to get here.

No one is taking him for granted.

Here is what his teammate and offensive lineman Bruce Collie had to say:
“Joe’s kind of like that nerdy guy back in high school, the kind you really didn’t notice. He wasn’t the flashiest guy or anything. But all of a sudden, you turn around and he’s president of the United States.”

I guess that’s a compliment. It’s just that Montana does things so differently from other quarterbacks. Take Jim McMahon, who exudes so much bravado, you can smell his ego coming from the other room. Or how about non-quarterbacks? Guys like Brian Bosworth and Ickey Woods? These guys haven’t done half of what Montana has, yet they’re probably already just as famous, and the offers are rolling in.

Oh, well, Joe. Have it your way. That has always worked. More than any other single player out there, you may be the one to swing things this afternoon. And if you march off the field with yet another MVP honor, you will be the player of the decade, no doubt, three Super Bowls, three MVPs. Heck. You can be as bland as you want.

And if you don’t? If they finally steal your thunder? If Boomer and the Bengals ruin your string of wins, dash your record, steal off with the Super Bowl rings — hey. Not to worry.

None of us will use the “w” word.

I promise.

Mitch Albom’s sports-talk show “The Sunday Sports Albom” airs tonight, 9-11, on WLLZ-FM (98.7) with a special Super Bowl post-game show. Guests include Lomas Brown and Tracy Austin. CUTLINE: Quietly, San Francisco quarterback Joe Montana is poised to become the player of the decade: He already has been the Super Bowl MVP twice.

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