The history of football is filled with many legendary quarterbacks, each with an impressive career resume. But when if you had to pick one of these quarterbacks to win a big game, one name stands out among the rest: Joe Montana.
Over the course of his storied sixteen season NFL career, Joe has gotten the job done again and again—and he has done so in virtually every imaginable situation on a football field, having accumulated major victories with injury, with illness, in freezing cold weather, in scorching hot weather, against seemingly insurmountable fourth quarter deficits, in pressure packed situations, against elite defenses, and under the spotlight of millions and millions of live and television viewers.
With career accolades that include four Super Bowl wins in as many Super Bowl appearances, three Super Bowl MVP awards, and thirty-one fourth quarter come-from-behind NFL wins, Joe has established himself as one of the premier winners and clutch players in professional sports history.
And throughout Joe’s football career, his teammates, opponents, and fans learned that as long as he was on the field, you could never count his team out—making it no wonder that his thrilling late-game heroics were dubbed “Montana Magic.” Audiences who viewed a demonstration of that magic witnessed an occurrence that was nothing short of spectacular, as Joe’s grace under pressure led him into becoming the marquee NFL star throughout much of the eighties and early nineties.
Perhaps the most spectacular incidence of Joe’s magic occurred prior to his NFL career, when he was a promising college quarterback. It was during those years that he and his University of Notre Dame team took on the University of Houston in the unforgettable 1979 Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas. In what had to be among the most brutal conditions the sport of football has ever been played in, the teams took the field amidst ice, thirty mile per hour wind, wind chills in the negatives, and a sparse crowd that was minus 39,000 or so ticket holders who decided to stay indoors rather than expose themselves to the torturous weather.
And matters were even worse for Joe, who was battling a severe flu he developed in the days leading up to the game. Nevertheless, he started the game and led his squad to an early 12-0 lead with the aid of wind on his team’s side. However, after the teams switched sides for the second quarter, Houston rallied back and built a 20-12 halftime lead—and Joe went into the locker room shaking uncontrollably with a 96 degree body temperature.
Team doctors, certain that he was done for the day, covered him with blankets and fed him soup. But after the halftime and most of the third quarter over, Joe’s body had warmed enough that he decided to return to the game—now facing a 34-12 deficit, as his team was in dire straights.
At first, Joe’s usual magic seemed nowhere in sight, as he tossed two interceptions and produced no first downs in his team’s first five possessions, resulting in a score that remained at 34-12, with under eight minutes left on the game clock, and a Houston victory that seemed all but certain—so much so that most television viewers had changed the channel.
But then as time ticked down, any remaining viewers witnessed Joe and his team dramatically heat up in the midst of the freezing temperatures, rapidly putting up a slew of unanswered points, and capping an unbelievable comeback with a pinpoint accurate Montana touchdown pass to Kris Haines, and a subsequent extra point that ended the game in a 35-34 Notre Dame victory.
“It couldn’t have been a more perfect pass,” Haines would later say about the final touchdown pass.
The game would later become referred to as the “Chicken Soup Game”—but perhaps a more fitting title would be “The Fourth Quarter Massacre on Ice.”
It was also a fitting ending to Joe’s career at Notre Dame, where he orchestrated many other comebacks and that earned him the nicknames “Cool Joe” and “The Comeback Kid.” He had also solidified himself as consistent winner, leading his team to a high winning percentage, and Cotton Bowl victories in 1978 and the aforementioned 1979 game.
But despite Joe’s solid college career, few scouts were enthusiastic about his pro potential. He was not chosen until the third round of the 1979 NFL draft, and was generally regarded as a good but very flawed player.
The rookie quarterback joined a struggling San Francisco 49ers team that finished 2-14 the previous season, and then again finished 2-14 in Joe’s rookie year—a year that saw him get almost no playing time.
But this was the 49ers “BM”—before Montana as a starter.
By the latter part of Joe’s second season, he had established himself as the team’s starter, and as one of the league’s promising young quarterbacks. Plus, in one of his starts, he lived up to his “Cool Joe” reputation by overcoming a 35-7 halftime deficit to rally the 49ers to a 38-35 overtime victory. Still, with a 6-10 record that year, and with only one winning season over the last eight years, the 49ers hardly seemed to be on the verge of contention for a Super Bowl Championship.
However, in the very next season, Joe took the reigns of a revamped and much improved 49ers team that took the league by storm, finishing with a league best 13-3 regular season record, and an impressive late season finish that made them look like the team to beat that postseason. The 49ers continued their winning ways in the playoffs, with a conference postseason highlighted by a late-game Joe Montana touchdown pass to receiver Dwight Clark that gave the team a one-point win over the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship game, and sent them to Super Bowl XVI against the Cincinnati Bengals. In that game, Joe’s poise and efficient performance led his team to a 26-21 victory, and a Super Bowl MVP award for himself.
Three seasons later, Joe led the team to another Super Bowl win, a dominating 38-16 victory over the Miami Dolphins highlighted by another Joe Montana super powered MVP winning performance. By then, with impressive career stats coupled with two Super Bowl wins and two Super Bowl MVPs, Joe had earned a reputation as not only one of the league’s best players, but also one who came up big in big games.
But after battling injuries in 1985, Joe suffered a ruptured disk early in the 1986 season, and underwent surgery that was supposed to be season-ending and possibly even career-ending. Somehow, Joe defied his doctors’ outlook and came back to play just two months later, after a rigorous step-by-step rehabilitation program. He rejoined a strong 49ers squad—but one that had their championship dreams cut short in a 49-3 playoff loss to the New York Giants.
Towards the end of the following season, Joe suffered a leg injury and was replaced by the team’s backup quarterback Steve Young, a former college and USFL (a pro league that folded after 1985) superstar, and highly touted new acquisition of the team. Joe later recovered from his injury and started in an NFC divisional playoff game, but after a poor start, he was benched in the third quarter in favor of Steve Young. And although the team went on to lose, Young’s play in the game and throughout the season led to off-season controversy over who would be the team’s starter the next season.
It was a choice between the successful but injury-prone 32 year-old Joe Montana, and the ultra-athletic 27 year-old rising-star Steve Young—and the team seemed to be inclining towards Young.
But a resolved Joe Montana would not give up his starting job without a fight; and after splitting time with Young for most of the next season, Joe earned back the starting role going into the playoffs, where his brilliant performances led the 49ers to a 34-9 torching of the Vikings, a 28-3 domination of the Bears, and another Super Bowl appearance. This time, they faced the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII, in what would turn out to be Joe’s most dramatic Super Bowl.
In a game where the 49ers offense struggled for most of the day and the team trailed 13-6 in the fourth quarter, Joe rallied his team back by leading them to a much needed efficient 85 yard touchdown drive in just 91 seconds, which sent the game into a 13-13 tie after the extra point.
But the Bengals refuted with a field goal with just 3:20 remaining, putting them ahead 16-13. And then, after a penalty on the 49ers’s ensuing kickoff return, the team started their next drive on their own 8 yard line, with time a sparse commodity.
A crowd of over 75,000 at Joe Robbie Stadium and the millions and millions of television viewers worldwide eagerly watched to see if Joe Montana could use his “Montana Magic” and engineer an offensive drive to either tie the game with a field goal, or gain the lead with a touchdown.
To break some tension as the drive began, Joe pointed into the stands and said, “Isn’t that John Candy?” After the game however, even “Cool Joe” Montana admitted that he had gotten rather nervous during the dramatic drive, which he began by taking the 49er offense to Cincinnati’s 35-yard line, putting his team in range for a long field goal. However, a holding penalty pushed them back 10 yards and out of field goal range, now facing second and twenty on the Bengals’ 45 yard line.
Joe responded with a miraculous 27 yard completion to a triple covered Jerry Rice on the next play, followed by an eight yard completion to Roger Craig.
By then the crowd was going berserk. The 49ers now stood at the Bengals’ ten yard line with under 40 seconds to go, setting up one the most dramatic moments on sports history. On the next play, despite a misalignment in the 49er backfield prior to the snap, Joe improvised and nailed a razor sharp pass to receiver John Taylor deep in the end zone for the touchdown and the lead, which the 49ers held on to in the games remaining seconds.
And although Super Bowl XXIII turned out to be Joe’s only Super Bowl he was not named MVP op—as that honor went to Jerry Rice—Joe did manage to pass for a Super Bowl record 357 yards that day, with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
And then in an even more successful season the following year, Joe and the 49ers finished with an amazing 14-2 regular season record, and breezed through the playoffs and to a 55-10 routing of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV—a game where Joe had five touchdown passes and won his third Super Bowl MVP award.
Joe and the 49ers went on to have another tremendous regular season in 1990, but just missed making the Super Bowl in an upset playoff loss. For the next two seasons, Joe struggled with injuries and missed almost every game, finally making way for Steve Young to start at quarterback for the 49ers.
In 1993, Joe was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs, where he resurrected his career and led them to two playoff appearances in his two seasons before retiring from football at age 38.
Joe’s uncanny comeback wins and remarkable big game performances created a legacy of achievements that all football fans are sure to admire and revere. Despite playing with numerous injuries throughout much of his career, Joe was the victor in over 70% of the games he started.
And Joe would never give up, as evidenced by the comment of the late great defensive end Reggie White, after a 1989 game where White’s Eagle team was a victim of one of Joe’s comebacks.
“We had him beat up,” White said. “We kept knocking him down. But he just got back up and beat us. It hurts. He doesn’t quit.”