Thirty years ago, Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers brought football glory to our town. And if you will humor me, I give you this tribute to whom I believe is the best to have played the game. (Listening to Judy Garland’s version of “You Made Me Love You” is optional.)
“You made me love you/I didn’t want to do it/I didn’t want to do it/You made me want you/And all the time you knew it/I guess you always knew it.”
October 18, 1975. Air Force was flying away with this game while the Irish groveled 20 points behind. There was no luck here, so Dan Devine threw in his lucky charm in sophomore Joe Montana, who stunned the Tar Heels during the previous week with a phenomenal fourth-quarter turnaround. Could he do it again? If I did not witness this myself, I swear it did not happen: Montana took the Irish to the end zone three times in less than 15 minutes to ground Air Force with a score of 31-30.
“You made me happy sometimes/you made me glad.”
January 10, 1982. If it was any other team, Dallas would have ended up in Pontiac that January instead of the 49ers. You couldn’t give Joe Montana half a minute because he would wreak havoc. The play that will live on in the annuls of football lore: third down, 3 yards to go at Dallas’s 6-yard line, 58 seconds on the clock, sprint right option. Solomon, the first receiver, was covered. But, despite the onslaught of the Cowboys' defense, Montana shot off an ill-footed pass over the Dallas tidal wave to where he knew Dwight Clark would be, should be and, wonderfully, was. The sound of the delirious crowd confirmed the incredible catch. The rest is history.
“But there were times, Joe/you made me feel real bad.”
April 18, 1995. Amid a crowd of tens of thousands in Justin Herman Plaza in San Francisco, football great and legend Joe Montana announced his retirement from the gridiron—a day his fans knew was coming but dreaded nonetheless. No more Joe Cool, no more fancy footwork nimbling away from defensive ends, no more antacid-eating, hand-wringing, blood pressure-checking fourth-quarter saves with minutes to go and touchdowns to make. Our delightful dalliance with destiny came to an end.
“I don’t care what happens/let the whole world stop/as far as I’m concerned you’ll always be the top because you know you made me love you.” (The song lyrics are by Joseph McCarthy.)
Growing up with a father who played and coached football, I saw a lot of games—high school, college and pro games. I watched Johnny Unitas and the Colts, barely remember Bart Starr, the Packers and that toothy Lombardi victory grin, secretly loved Don Shula’s Dolphins and, with most of the West Coast, hated the Steelers (but had to admire their ferocity). But, Joe, none could compare to the gift you gave to San Francisco. We witnessed the best to have played, at least in my lifetime. Thank you for the grace and beauty you spun from pigskin and mud.