A family member brushed shoulders with Joe Montana several years ago. My father had called and asked, “Guess who so and so ran into?” I wasn’t in the mood for any guessing games; there was a heat wave, the kids were going crazy, and I’m sure a million other things were going wrong. “I don’t know, who?” I surrendered. “Come on, guess.” “I don’t know, Arnie?” “Bigger than Arnold.” Oh, great, who was bigger than Arnold here in California? “I have no idea.” “His initials are J.M.” I tried to think of someone and gave up. “I have no idea, I have no brain cells left to even try and guess.”
“Joe Montana.” He whispered.
“No way!” I exclaimed, “no way!” “How? When?” He went on and told me the details of the encounter. I was genuinely impressed and very envious.
Joe Montana. The man who I think is the greatest football player in my lifetime. I couldn’t believe it. This man and his extraordinary ability on the field found their way into our family’s existence. I’ve never met him nor ever will. But the thought of Joe Montana not only conjures up images of great football, but also images of intimate, warm memories of autumns gone by. His ball playing added color and vibrancy to my little life here in Northern California.
Today is the first day of autumn, and it’s hard not to recall the autumns of my youth without Joe there, albeit on the sidelines in the game of my life. See, I love fall, I love Halloween and Thanksgiving. I love oranges, and browns, and forest greens. I love the way the wind changes during Indian Summer with the sweet Santa Anas blowing off the East Bay hills. I loved playing and watching football, so for many years, Joe Montana was a part of those colorful memories.
When I was very young, our family went up to the Russian River for our Thanksgiving holiday. My father had a cabin up there; but we went to my uncle’s cabin for the big meal. That cozy cottage has become a shrine in my memory. The dining room table, enclosed on three sides by three benches where we five kids sat below a shelf lined with Italian wine bottles, was where we had our Thanksgiving dinner; I can still see my little Irish grandmother puttering around in the small kitchen, tasting from one pot or another and even offering us some of her mince meat pie. We gently refused. An intimate fire always warmed the living room and off to one corner was a small twin bed where I slept on my rare overnight visits to Uncle Bill’s cabin. Near the bed was a bookshelf, filled with all sorts of literary treasures, and when I was there, I was in heaven.
You know, when you’re young you’re not conscious of the beauty around you, those moments go by, but somehow they’re stamped somewhere in your mind and when the stresses of the present weigh you down, you look back and those memories have become jewels. I wish I spent more time with my grandmother, I wish I could remember her voice, her face – I wish I could ask her about when my father was little (probably would explain a lot), about my grandfather and about her.
But, where does Joe come into this picture? Well, my father played ball for the Navy and then went on to coach. So football was a big part of our lives. Every Thanksgiving guaranteed two things: that incredible meal and tons of football. Football was the only thing on TV from Thursday morning until Sunday night, and if you didn’t bring a book or something to occupy your time, you were destined to watch it all. One year I tallied how many games I had watched: 11; I guess that doesn’t seem like too many now with cable and ESPN.
The highlight of the weekend was always the Notre Dame game. One year some upstart 3rd string quarterback came in and won the game for the Irish. We didn’t know then a legend was in the making. Watching those games with my dad with the redwood logs crackling in the fire, rain pattering on the roof and my mother baking something delicious in the kitchen all at the time seem so average, so typical, so mundane; now, they are photographs in my mind, colors and flavors of who I am.
When I think of Joe Montana, I am flooded with these beautiful memories. Were they idyllic? Absolutely not, there were darker shades that mar some of these memories, but strange as our memories are, those hues fade a bit to the background.
But Joe Montana, like football, transcends seasons. His presence would reappear in bolder, more spectacular strokes with that catch in 1982. After that unbelievable Super Bowl, I went to the celebration downtown to pass out religious tracts. San Francisco hadn’t been rocked with such a force since April of 1906. That was the place to be on January 24, 1982. And in my own life, I too was rocked, with a divine force, after I had recently embraced a living faith in Christianity.
But, that happiness in January of 1982 was just a deposit of things to come. He took San Francisco to the Super Bowl three more times. He catapulted the 49ers into the league with Green Bay, Miami and Pittsburgh. Time after time after time, with seconds to go and touchdowns to make, Joe, with his cool expertise, would go in and do the job.
Football, as you know, is a manly, messy, bloody sport. The sport that gives men license to beat the hell out of each other and gives us fans an outlet for adulation for our team and hatred for our opponents. With the language of longshoremen and the manners of adolescents, Joe Montana took these elements of the game and, effortlessly, made them beautiful. He is an artist of the utmost ability. After he retired, I pretty much quit watching the game. I caught a few Super Bowls with the kids and that was fun, but no comparison.
But after witnessing who I believe is the greatest to play the game during my lifetime, there is no desire to watch anymore. Thank you, Joe, for the beauty and grace that you created out of pigskin and mud, and gracing our autumns with such spectacular color .