Football’s golden boy discusses life on the field and off.
Not Your Average Joe
In the wine world, in which he is now dabbling, they speak of terroir-how the wine is an expression of the soil from which it springs.
And it can be as true of people and their roots as it is of grape vines.
So it is that on autumn Sundays, storied San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana cheers for … the Pittsburgh Steelers? “It’s like anything, as a kid you pick your teams. You grow up in a certain area, it’s hard to lose that,” says the native of New Eagle, Pa., south of Pittsburgh. “The Steelers were my favorite team … I still root for the Steelers.”
And while he and his wife of 28 years, Jennifer, are now living in a luxury condo in San Francisco, he continues to express the terroir of both western Pennsylvania, and being the grandson of Italian immigrants.
“I think it was natural in the area,” he says when asked about the work ethic he learned growing up.
“It was a hardworking area. Steel mills, coal mines-we had both right on our river and in our town. It was a hard-working, blue-collar area, and I think a lot of people saw sports as a way to get their kids out. People worked hard to get their kids out.”
He pauses, offers a wry smile.
“It’s the only place I’ve ever seen a river catch on fire.”
So it was that a few hours after speaking to thousands of people at the Hawai’i Convention Center-and to me in a private suite for this feature-he was on a red-eye to Chicago with a short hop to Indianapolis for Super Bowl week, where his days would be filled with paid corporate gigs leading up to the game he played in-and won-four times. It’s not like he needs the money. But you get the sense he likes to work.
He spoke of work ethic during his 25-minute motivational talk, using an example from his playing days:
“Work ethic is contagious-for good or bad.
“Bill Walsh (the 49ers’ legendary coach) had been talking about what an amazing receiver this rookie named Jerry Rice was going to be, but the first day at training camp balls were bouncing off his hands, off his chest, and I’m thinking ‘uh-oh.’
But then he caught a pass, and even though it was practice, he ran it 90 yards for a touchdown. Everybody’s wondering, hey, what are you doing? See, our practices weren’t timed-we did a play until we got it right and then moved on. So every time Jerry caught a pass and ran into the end zone, it made the practices longer. But he did it every single time. And you know what? Pretty soon John Taylor and Roger Craig were doing the same thing.
“So we’re playing the Rams on Monday night, and we’re backed up on our own 4-yard line. I did a three-step drop and threw a short pass to John Taylor, and he went 96 yards for a touchdown, with a key block from Rice. Next time we get the ball, we’re on our 6. Almost the same play, short pass to Taylor and he goes 94 yards for a score. Which makes me look pretty good-two short passes that go for 190 yards and two touchdowns … So was that just coincidence, or an example of work ethic being contagious?”
Walsh-Montana is arguably the greatest coach-quarterback tandem in football history.
“That’s where I learned about perfection, the pursuit of perfection,” Montana says. “He told me, ‘I want you to complete 100 percent of your passes in practice, every day.’ I said that’s impossible! He said, ‘If you try for 100 percent, but you complete 70, that’s not bad. But if you aim for 70 and you complete 50, you’re not going to be around here very long.'”
“On a crossing route, he said the ball has to be exactly 12 inches in front of the receiver-not 18, not 24 and not 12 behind.”
In his talk, Montana also emphasized preparation:
“At training camp in 1981,” he says, “Walsh puts in this play where I throw long and high, and Dwight Clark has to go get the ball. We both thought it was crazy; it didn’t go with anything we were doing on offense.”
Turns out it was that same play, four months later in the NFC Championship game against the Dallas Cowboys, that became famously known as “The Catch,” propelling the Niners into their first Super Bowl, and Montana to the first of his three Super Bowl MVPs.
“Preparation,” Montana says. “Little things become big things.”
Joseph Clifford Montana Jr. grew up an only child, but one of several cousins who lived in the same neighborhood and played together. The competitiveness that helped him lead 31 fourth-quarter comeback wins in his NFL career seems to have come from an early age-though he quips, “I was probably the reason we got behind in the first place, so I had to go for it …
“I have a fear of failure-I’m not so concerned with winning, I just hate losing. Winning is what you’re supposed to do. If you lose, you failed.”
His dad, manager of a financial services company (with his mom working in the same office for 26 years), helped stoke that competitive fire.
“Basketball was my favorite sport when I was growing up, and when he got off work and on weekends, we’d play oneon-one. My dad was pretty competitive. But as I got a little older and bigger, I could blow past him and make an easy lay-in. Next time I tried that same move, he tripped me. When I’d go to jump for a rebound, he’d step on my foot. I’d say, ‘You can’t do that!’ He’d say, ‘I just did, didn’t I? Those things will happen in a game. Get used to to it.’ He had an ego too.”
Montana, by the way, was such an accomplished basketball player that he was offered a scholarship to play both basketball and football at several schools including North Carolina State, and played basketball his freshman year at Notre Dame.
Asked how his life might be different if he’d gone with hoops over football, he says, “I’d probably working in an advertising office somewhere.”
Telling anecdote 1: “When it came to throwing a football, my dad emphasized accuracy over throwing for distance. When one of our neighbors put up a tire swing hanging from a rope on a tree, my dad had me throwing the ball through the tire as he swung it.
“So one winter day it was snowing, and some of my friends and I were hiding and throwing snowballs at passing cars. A cop came and took me home, and my dad didn’t think that was too funny.
“After I was in the league for a while, I was on Letterman. We went outside to 53rd Street, and they had taxi cabs lined up. Letterman said the trick was to throw a football through the windows of a moving cab-all the way through. He said he’d had two other quarterbacks who tried it, and they failed, guys named (Troy) Aikman and (Steve) Young. So I’m determined to do it. The first taxi, I throw the ball and it hits the divider between the front seat and back seat. Then they tell me the next cabbie asks that I not throw it so hard, he doesn’t want to break anything. And the second one went right through.
“So I asked Letterman, you’re taping this, right, and showing it later? So I called my dad, told him to watch the show. So after he got to see it, I called him back and said, ‘Dad, throwing those snowballs paid off.'”
When he met his wife-to-be, a beauty of Croatian heritage, it was one of those I-don’t-think-we’re-in-western-Pennsylvania-anymore moments. They were taping a Schick razor TV commercial in San Francisco, and their subsequent romance played out in the late, legendary Herb Caen’s column in the San Francisco Chronicle, with frequent sightings and mentions of public canoodling.
Together he and Jennifer have four children-Alexandra, Elizabeth, Nate and Nick. The girls, now grown, were into horses and equestrian competition; the boys are both playing college football.
And despite Joe and Jennifer’s rather glamorous meeting and courtship, this is as normal as families get. He even calls his grandmother Gram.
As parents, Montana says, “we’re total opposites, almost to where I lack, she picks up, and where she lacks, I pick up. She’s a tremendous teacher of the kids. You look at all the things they’ve accomplished, and they were molded mostly by her, because I was working the majority of the time. I didn’t have the same understanding at the time because I was engulfed in staying in the stupid game I played for as long as I could play so I wouldn’t have to worry about anything (financially) afterward. And we’ve kind of carried on that way.
“Sure, I got a few things from my dad, but mostly it was on Jennifer’s shoulders. Now I try to steer them-one of our daughters is studying medicine, the other is working for an Internet startup, both boys playing college ball. We talk-just try to make sure they make good decisions. We both have our roles, but there is a small degree of overlap.”
With the girls living on their own and the boys in college, Joe and Jennifer are emptynesting now, having moved into San Francisco after putting their 500-acre Tuscan-style estate on the market for $35 million (down from $49 million in ’09).
“Jenn’s started painting, took it up out of the blue, and they had an exhibition and she sold a couple of paintings. With her painting now, I’ve actually been cooking a little more. My best dish? Oh god. I’m a recipe guy, so if you give me recipe, I can follow it. I like cooking Italian, I like outdoor stuff, grilling and the pizza oven. I like putting a big roast in the pizza oven or a whole fish, I’ll go crazy with that stuff. Jenn is more creative, the special pasta and lamb shanks. She goes crazy.”
Clearly he is her biggest fan. As he told the Chronicle: “She’s always been creative, but hasn’t had the time-with me playing football and her being supportive of the kids, she didn’t want them to suffer. It’s been amazing what she’s been able to accomplish.”
They’re both involved in a small wine venture, Montagia, a Cabernet-based red, in partnership with Beringer.
“Just a few hundred cases,” he says, “not so much a business as a fun thing to do. We’ll be blending the second vintage when I get back to San Francisco.”
And it appeals to the Italian in him. “As a kid you don’t really understand the position you were in (with three immigrant grandparents). My mom’s parents lived with my mom’s brother, and it’s a shame because she tried to teach us Italian, but at the time I wasn’t interested. Now I kick myself at the opportunity that was lost, to find out more about your heritage, to delve into things more.”
But Italy has become their favorite non-Maui vacation spot. “When we’re in Italy, I always tell Jenn, I’ll find us lunch, I’ll find us dinner, you take care of the rest of it.”
Their love of food carries over to their philanthropic endeavors.
“We got involved with Kraft and the Fight Hunger Bowl (played in San Francisco), which benefits Feeding America (the national network that includes Hawaii Foodbank). I think it’s a wonderful idea. You see things on TV about hunger around the world, but I think we lose sight that there are people going hungry here in the U.S. And that was the idea with Kraft, how many meals can we serve by the end of the year. Both years we’ve overachieved on the goals, something like 25 million meals a year, and want to improve on that.”
Asked about other charitable work, he replies almost bashfully: “Oh, we do some local things, our own little foundation, and we support children’s charities in the Bay Area, kids on scholarship here or there. But it’s one of those things, charity is our charity, and you don’t really talk about it.”
At the end of our interview, I ask Joe if he is aware of how much happiness and joy he has brought to fans (like me).
“It’s amazing how many people still follow you, and I’m amazed at that part of it, especially when there’s nothing really keeping me in the public eye. But it’s fun to know that people still remember those days, as long ago as it was.”
He pauses, smiles. “It was a pretty fun time to be a part of, too.”