Montana: The Biography of Football's Joe Cool

Montana: The Biography of Football's Joe Cool

by Keith Dunnavant


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As long as football is played, Joe Montana will be synonymous with the heart-pounding rally. Seemingly impervious to the pressure of a scoreboard deficit, the quarterback known as Joe Cool brought a steadying calm to every huddle, especially when the situation seemed especially dire. His reputation for miracles began to take root at the University of Notre Dame. In the 1979 Cotton Bowl, he overcame the flu, hypothermia and a 22-point deficit to lead the Fighting Irish to a stunning victory over Houston. This narrative continued in the NFL, as he engineered 31 fourth-quarter comebacks, including victories known in professional football lore as The Catch and The Drive, forever casting his career in a heroic glow.

In MONTANA, acclaimed author Keith Dunnavant sketches the definitive portrait of a man who repeatedly defied the odds, on and off the field.

While leading the San Francisco 49ers to four Super Bowl championships over a nine-year period, establishing a new standard for passing efficiency, and twice earning the league's Most Valuable Player award, Montana became the signature quarterback of the 1980s and one of the greatest ever to play the game. Overcoming his own limitations, which caused him to be underrated coming out of Notre Dame, he quickly mastered Bill Walsh's West Coast Offense, and thereby, helped reinvent offensive football.

But it was rarely easy. Like the rallies he so often produced, his life was filled with the sort of tension that made his journey seem routinely dramatic: The father who pushed him. The high school coach who challenged his commitment. The college coach who very nearly squandered him. The back surgery that almost ended his career. The younger athlete who tried to take his job.

Rich an anecdotal detail, insight and context, MONTANA is a powerful story about a man who was defined by his intense competitiveness, and how this intangibly helped him become one of the ionic figures in football history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250017857
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/01/2016
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 289,518
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Keith Dunnavant is the author of several books, including The Missing Ring and definitive biographies of football icons Paul "Bear" Bryant and Bart Starr. The founder of four magazines and the director of the documentary film Three Days at Foster, Dunnavant was an award-winning writer and editor for The National, Adweek, Sport, and Atlanta. His expertise on football history has been featured on ESPN, CBS, HBO and Showtime. Dunnavant lives near Atlanta.

Read an Excerpt


The Biography of Football's Joe Cool

By Keith Dunnavant

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2015 Keith Dunnavant
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-01786-4


The First Crack

The father was a pusher. It all begins with the father, a Navy veteran who managed a local finance company on Main Street in Monongahela, a thriving blue-collar town near a bend in the big river, in the pulsating steel and coal corridor of western Pennsylvania. It all begins in that volatile cauldron of affection and ambition and vicarious thrill that so often goes terribly wrong. It all begins in a very dangerous place, where love so often turns to hate.

Joe Montana Sr., the descendent of Italian immigrants, played competitive sports in the service and was known around town as a decent backyard athlete who battled for every basket in pickup basketball games with teachers at the local high school. But every man approaches fatherhood in a reactive state, influenced, often unwittingly, by the lingering shadow of his own childhood. "When I was a kid I never had anyone to take me in the backyard and throw a ball to me," he once said. "Maybe that's why I got Joe started in sports." Sometimes it's just that simple: a twinge of regret reverberating across the generations.

"Every guy wants his kid to be a better athlete than he was, and Joe was no different," said family friend Carl Crawley Jr., who became the son's youth league football coach. "Joe pushed and pushed and pushed Joey, because he wanted his son to have what he couldn't have and because he could see the kid wanted it."

The son, Joseph Clifford Montana, was born on a Monday, June 11, 1956, the year of Elvis, the Suez Crisis, and the Hungarian Revolution. His mother, Theresa, the daughter of Italian immigrants who had been lured to the new world by the great industrial expansion of the early twentieth century, eventually divided her time between homemaking chores and her employment at Civic Finance, where she kept the books down the hall from her husband. Joe Sr. had traded a career as an installer for the telephone company for the office job, which allowed him to spend more time with his family. The future Pro Football Hall of Famer was their only child. The Montanas were a tight-knit family, and in the years to come, in those adrenaline-filled days of the late 1960s and early '70s, when Joey was starring in three different sports for local teams, often traveling across Pennsylvania and beyond for youth-league and public school tournaments, she was almost always in attendance — alternately manning the concession stand or cheering her boy on at the top of her lungs.

The son began his life in a modest two-story, wood-frame house on Monongahela's Park Avenue, a working-class street of tight contours and steep lots located just blocks from the central business district. The first hint of athleticism could be seen — and heard — when Montana was still an infant. "He used to wreck his crib by standing up and rocking," his mother, who died in 2004, told Sports Illustrated. "Then he'd climb up on the side and jump to our bed. You'd hear a thump in the middle of the night and know he hit the bed and went on the floor."

Animated by dreams — encouraged by his father — of someday becoming a professional athlete, young Joe began gravitating to the front porch at the end of the workday, ball in hand, waiting for his dad to arrive home so they could continue his athletic education amid the creeping late-afternoon shadows. Even when he was exhausted, the father always made the time. It didn't take him long to see that his son was gifted: fast afoot, able to throw farther and more accurately than other kids his age, capable of sinking a jump shot from long range. It didn't take him long to start investing a measure of his own self-esteem in his son's budding athletic career.

The elder Montana was the first to school him in the fundamentals of football, basketball, and baseball; the first to try to hone his raw talent; and the first to cultivate the competitiveness that would prove central to his success. Sometimes he taught by example, challenging the son to furious games of one-on-one in which he "grabbed ... pushed ... [and] threw his elbows." Sometimes the pushing was tactical, like dangling a tire from a tree limb and making sure the son fired a certain number of tight spirals each day, so he could develop his arm. (Like many other Catholic boys across the land, he imagined himself as Notre Dame great Terry Hanratty, quarterback of the 1966 national champions, leading the Fighting Irish to another victory in the House that Rockne built. The father and son rarely missed an Irish game on the radio, and frequently watched the Sunday television replays.) Sometimes it was strategic, like fudging the paperwork so the eight-year-old could play nine-year-old midget league football. Even though he was a year younger than all the rest, the skinny kid with the closely cropped blond hair and the earnest blue eyes was immediately recognized as one of the best players, so naturally, he became a quarterback.

Unlike many of his teammates, he did not approach the game as an outlet for his boyish aggression. The chance to hit somebody was not what made him tick. A rather timid player who tried to avoid contact, he earned playing time by the projection of his superior athletic skills and a widely admired competitive streak. Even then, the coaches and players could see how much he hated to lose. Childhood teammate Keith Bassi recalled, "Joe thrives on competition. He lives for it."

Two years after joining the youth league, when Joey, in a moment of youthful distraction, considered quitting the Monongahela Little Wildcats so he could join his cousins in the Cub Scouts, it was his father who manipulated his perseverance by insisting he complete the season — simultaneously teaching a valuable lesson about the importance of not quitting something he had started and protecting him from the consequences of a hasty decision.

"The father was a driving force," said Crawley. "You take him out of the equation, I think you have a very different story."

While the first critical element in Montana's emergence was having a father who took an interest in his athletic development and endeavored to nurture it, this investment of time and focus also required a delicate balancing act. Under different circumstances, it all could have gone very badly. All that pressure could have yielded burnout, alienation, hatred. It could have produced some steel-country version of Southern California phenom Todd Marinovich, the can't-miss creation of uber-paternal athletic engineering who flamed out with the Los Angeles Raiders just as Joe Montana was nearing the end of a brilliant career with the San Francisco 49ers. But the elder Montana avoided many of the pitfalls associated with so many sports fathers, managing to push the son toward achievement without causing rebellion or resentment — without pushing him away. In the end, it probably worked because the father was driving the son to reach for something the son truly wanted.

"You can push a kid and when they see what you're trying to do, and their head's screwed on right, they'll take it, they'll appreciate it," Crawley said. "And Joey's head was screwed on right."

Sports cemented a deep bond between the two, a connection that proved strong enough to withstand the usual adolescent tensions and the complexities of raising a young man of such obvious athletic potential without allowing him to become spoiled, disrespectful, or arrogant. From the boy's childhood, there always seemed to be a duality to their relationship. "Joe and Mr. Montana were best friends who happened to be father and son," said college friend Steve Orsini. In time, obedience gave way to trust.

The fact that Theresa supported Joe Sr.'s efforts cannot be overlooked as a significant factor in Montana's development. A loving mother who delighted in cooking traditional Italian dishes — including Joey's favorite, ravioli — she was not the sort to nag her husband about pushing their son. She was not the type to ridicule Joey's athletic aspirations. By all accounts, the mother completely bought into her husband's belief that their son could someday play professional sports. She could see how much her boy loved competing, the way it lit him up, the way it fostered in him a sense of self and possibility. Her enthusiastic encouragement contributed to a solid domestic foundation bereft of conflict. At the same time, Theresa was usually the one who made sure Joey did his homework, providing the necessary balance to his life. Although he was a reasonably good student, he later conceded, "I was really concentrating on sports."

One of the reasons the dynamic between father and son worked so well was the eventual transition to organized sports that handed off much of the coaching to others, including Crawley, a beer salesman with a discerning eye who volunteered his time as head coach of the Little Wildcats.

"Joey had a lot of speed, and I noticed right away that he could roll out and throw equally well, with good accuracy, to his left or his right, which was very unusual for a right-handed kid," said Crawley, a stout, gregarious man with a raspy voice.

Once a star lineman and fullback at California University of Pennsylvania, a small liberal arts and teachers college, Crawley had earned tryouts with the Philadelphia Eagles and the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he survived until the final cut of training camp. He wound up playing several years of semipro ball and eventually spent two decades as a college football official, refereeing games all across the country, including the Rose Bowl, while climbing the corporate ladder at Jones Brewing Company, owned by the actress Shirley Jones, where he became vice president of sales and marketing. Crawley knew the game and had a knack for interacting with young boys. His coaching provided a critical bridge between the father's backyard instruction and the more complex high school days to come.

When Crawley saw Montana loafing during wind sprints — even though he was beating his teammates by several steps — the man with the whistle gruffly urged him to reach for something more, introducing a concrete example of how to strive not just for victory but for his own potential. When he cracked his helmet after colliding with a tackler — a jarring experience that left him momentarily dazed — it was with a measure of pride that Crawley and the other coaches watched him race to the sideline and demand another, presaging the tenacity that would propel him forward in the years ahead. The once-timid player shattered an important psychological barrier by destroying his headgear. "I think that was a turning point," said assistant coach Clem Uram. Never again would anyone wonder about Montana's ability to take the punishment required to play the game.

Beyond his obvious skills, Crawley was struck by his maturity level. "He was a very intelligent ballplayer, a heady ballplayer, like a coach on the field," he said. "You could talk to him like an adult. He was a quick learner, and he made good choices."

At an age when many of his teammates were still trying to master snap counts and the fundamentals of blocking and tackling, Montana soaked up Crawley's careful instruction about the nuances of the game. "I put in plays where the quarterback had to make a decision, and from that, he learned," he said. "Bit by bit, I taught him how to play the game ... how to play the game by thinking through all the choices and possibilities." When to dump it off short. When to tuck and run. Confronted with each predatory defensive act, he learned how to react in a way that gave him the best chance to move the chains, taking the first tentative steps toward his life in the pocket. It was a fitful process for a young boy still growing and maturing and trying to learn his multiplication tables and his spelling words, but his combination of instinct and applied knowledge frequently put a knowing smile on Crawley's face.

The beer salesman was the first man outside the Montana household to glimpse the future, quietly predicting, when the boy was ten, "This kid is going to be an All-American."

Such heady talk served only to validate the father's already high expectations.

* * *

The revolution began downriver, with a burst of fire and a billow of smoke. The year was 1875. On a tract of land just west of the Monongahela River, eight miles north of Pittsburgh in the village of Braddock, Scottish-born industrialist Andrew Carnegie opened his first steel mill. A new age dawned, on the same field where, more than a century earlier, in a decisive battle of the French and Indian War, forces led by British general Edward Braddock had been routed. The wilderness had finally been tamed, not just by military might but also by the consolidating force of the industrial revolution. Carnegie was not the first American to employ the still-new Bessemer process, which produced larger quantities of the still-precious metal more efficiently. But by harnessing the cutting-edge technology on a mass scale and embracing business practices that would one day be called "vertical integration" — just as the demands of an emerging continental infrastructure began to surge — Carnegie gave birth to an industry that made possible, or at least practical, many others. Cheap steel transformed America, nowhere more profoundly than Pittsburgh, where the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela rivers converged like nautical superhighways, and the surrounding Monongahela Valley. By the end of the nineteenth century, once-sleepy western Pennsylvania was producing nearly half of the world's steel, as well as abundant supplies of coal, iron ore, and kerosene-yielding petroleum (first discovered on American soil at Titusville, north of Pittsburgh, in 1859), much of it shipped to customers via the Monongahela, which became one of the busiest waterways in the western hemisphere.

As the industrial age gathered steam, the region became a magnet for immigrants seeking a better life, especially central and southern Europeans with little or no formal education, hearty souls undeterred by the prospect of demanding, often dangerous manual labor. The rapid influx of first-generation Americans gave rise to dozens of melting-pot communities that depended, directly or indirectly, on the steady demand for steel and coal.

The town of Monongahela, a horseshoe-shaped municipality located on a western bank of the river about twenty miles south of Pittsburgh, traces its roots to 1769. During the Whiskey Rebellion, an antitax insurrection that threatened the new republic during George Washington's presidency, a group of Pennsylvania rebels conducted a meeting that was credited with peacefully ending the revolt. It happened on a bluff near the present-day intersection of Main Street and Park Avenue, three blocks from Montana's boyhood residence. Like many communities in the valley, Monongahela exploded from little more than a settlement to a vibrant town in the early years of the industrial surge, crossing 5,000 by 1900 and peaking at 8,922 residents in 1950.

During Montana's formative years in the 1960s and early '70s, with the steel and coal economy still going strong, the so-called Mon City resembled hundreds of ethnically diverse, blue-collar towns scattered across the American industrial heartland. Unemployment and crime were low. Seven new car dealers vied for business in a town with eighteen churches and eighteen taverns. A large percentage of the men in town commuted to work in mills and mines in neighboring towns, traversing the steep, circuitous two-lane roads up and around the river. Shoppers converged on the locally owned stores on Main Street for nearly every conceivable need, from hardware to prescription drugs. Most mothers stayed home to raise their children. Front doors routinely remained unlocked. But it was also a time of mounting unease, especially if you happened to be an eighteen-year-old boy with a low lottery number.

"Vietnam cast a shadow across our generation," recalled Don Devore, one of Montana's high school teammates. "The thought of having to go to Vietnam was always in the back of your mind."

After a merger of school districts, predominantly white Monongahela High School consolidated with predominantly black Donora High School, located in the steel town of Donora eight miles south. As the new Ringgold High spread classes across two campuses, the tension associated with throwing two rival communities together led to riots and unrest, some along racial lines. After a bloody stabbing incident at Monongahela, security guards patrolled the halls and a menacing vibe permeated the place.

For decades, educators in Monongahela and elsewhere had maintained a rather rigid schoolhouse discipline by cultivating a certain amount of fear. Students entered the system conditioned by their parents to respect authority figures. Those who stepped out of line were paddled, and many were destined to be punished more severely at home. "The thinking of the day was, the fear would give [the teachers] some amount of control," recalled former Ringgold teacher Steve Russell. But the students were starting to change. Many were experimenting with illicit drugs. And fear was losing its power.


Excerpted from Montana by Keith Dunnavant. Copyright © 2015 Keith Dunnavant. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
One: The First Crack,
Two: Green Jerseys,
Three: Chicken Soup,
Four: Number Eighty-Two,
Five: The Catch,
Six: The Art of Reinvention,
Seven: No Pain, No Fame,
Eight: The Other Man,
Nine: Elbowed,
Ten: Homeward Bound,
About the Author,
Also by Keith Dunnavant,

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