Tom Junod, winner of two National Magazine Awards, was GQ Magazine writer-at-large when he wrote the following, which was the cover story of the September 1994 issue.
I HEARD THAT JOE MONTANA was traveling to Brunei at the behest of the royal family, and I had an awful dream. I dreamed that Joe stood alone on desert sands in his helmet and shoulder pads and jersey, surrounded, at great distance, by oil barons in their Mercedeses and Rolls-Royces. And one by one, the barons got out of their cars, trudged up to Joe and demanded “Do me like you did Dwight Clark.” And Joe couldn’t say no, because the barons were paying extravagantly for his time, and so again and again, until day passed into night and the only lights were the headlamps of luxury automobiles, Joe was compelled to roll right, the way he did in his first NFC championship game against the Dallas Cowboys, and lob a high, lumpy spiral to leaping oilmen … who, encumbered by their robes and lack of experience, dropped every pass and became humiliated and wound up abandoning Joe to the winds that scour the desert clean at night.
Never mind that I had no idea where the hell Brunei was and that the next morning, when I looked at the map, I saw that it’s in the South Pacific, on the island of Borneo, and what I dreamed was desert is in fact occupied by rain forest. The dream spooked me. It carried the weight of omen, and when I finally met Joe, I asked him what he had done there. He had gone with Herschel Walker, he said. He had stayed at the sultan’s palace. He had played a lot of golf and had made a lot of money. He had been paid to throw the football to the sultan’s nephew and to teach the nephew’s children how to play the American game. The nephew had purchased equipment for the occasion, and he wanted Joe to suit up. Suit up? Well, sure – Joe was a football player, and so here, in the oil-rich Islamic sultanate of Brunei, Abode of Peace … here, across oceans, time zones, languages, religions, cultures … what was waiting for him was shoulder pads and gleaming black helmets … football stuff. C’mon Joe – suit up! But Joe told the sultan’s nephew that by the terms of his contract with the Kansas City Chiefs he was forbidden to wear the uniform of another team, any other team – it was a fib, but it worked – and so Joe and Herschel played in shorts and T-shirts, while members of Brunei’s royal family, augmented by the strongmen of the state security force, ran around in the brand-new helmets and shoulder pads.
I was frightened by the force of premonition. Yes, I know I should have been pleased for Joe; after all, not everyone can make a killing teaching monarchs how to throw a spiral. Still, the idea of Joe, Joe Montana, in a role of lucrative servitude … especially after that dream – well, it was unseemly. It was grotesque. It was the Mick drying out at Betty Ford, Ted Williams hawking his wares on QVC, Joe Willie hoofing in a dinner theater, Joe Louis squeezing hands at Caesars, Joe DiMaggio shilling for Mr. Coffee. As a young man I could never watch a Mr. Coffee commercial without feeling a pang of misery; I had never seen the Yankee Clipper play, but I imagined that he must have been great then, because he sure wasn’t great now – he looked bereft, like a defrocked priest: Joyless Joe DiMaggio. I did not feel sorry for him, however, as much as I felt for those who loved him, who had adored him and had believed that his ineffable and defining greatness would somehow last forever.
Now it was time to feel sorry, in a strange way, for myself. You see, I’d had another dream about Joe – our Joe, my Joe – and his journey to Brunei, and this was the dream I had invested with my own hope and belief. I had dreamed that Joe had gone to Brunei on a mission of dire importance; that the sultan had summoned him personally, not for instruction or diversion but rather for survival, to quell an insurrection of infidels. I dreamed that he did not fail, because Joe, well, he never fails; that what Joe did on a football field, he would keep on doing, outside of football, outside of sport, forever; that he would just keep playing, in ever greater and more important arenas … diplomacy, espionage, politics, art, literature, music, whatever … and ride the whole supercool, super-clutch mystic mojo of his own greatness – which, after all, is partially our greatness – into history …
I felt sorry for myself, of course, because once I’d met Joe Montana I realized that, as the cost and condition of his greatness, he had purged his brain of grandiose and debilitating dreams and that the only dreams he had left were dreams of refuge – from history, yes, and also from us.
TO EXPLAIN WHAT I MEAN about the costs and conditions of Joe’s greatness, I would like to tell two stories about him, both of which happen to concern Tim Barnett’s ears. The first is about what makes Joe legendary and the second is about what makes him – efficiently, impressively, triumphantly, magically – limited. That both stories have an aural leitmotiv just goes to show how, in Joe’s case, what is legendary and what is limited are intertwined and, in the end, indistinguishable.
Tim Barnett is a wide receiver for the Kansas City Chiefs. He has unusual ears. While unremarkable in size, they are whorled and flared, distinctly shell-like, and they are joined to his head at an angle that makes them look like after-thoughts. Once Joe became a Chief, he made it immediately clear that they amused him. He called Barnett “the Doberman,” and Barnett, in truth, found some comfort in Joe’s mockery. Joe had joined the Chiefs from the San Francisco 49ers, where he had won four Super Bowls and had worked with the finest cadre of pass-catchers in football, and Barnett was frankly afraid that Joe would turn up his nose at what the Chiefs offered in the way of wideouts. Now, here was Joe Montana, who was the greatest quarterback ever, calling Tim Barnett “the Doberman,” and here was Tim Barnett – who was, well, Tim Barnett – calling Joe “Pinocchio,” on account of his prodigious beak. On his very first day in Kansas City, Joe Montana, had, in Barnett’s mind, become a full-fledged member of the Chiefs.
THE FIRST OF OUR JOE MONTANA stories takes Tim Barnett’s ears to Sand Diego, where, toward the end of last season, the Chiefs were playing the Chargers in a game crucial to Kansas City’s play-off hopes. The Chiefs were behind by a field goal late in the game and had to score a touchdown to win. Now, as everyone, including Tim Barnett, knows, dire situations are Joe Montana’s métier, and adversity is to Joe what spinach is to Popeye; still, a touchdown is a touchdown, and, as Barnet says, “when you’re behind, it distracts you.” It is rather like a twelfth man has sneaked into the huddle, a gloomy, twitchy, pessimistic character who, as the quarterback calls the play, shakes his head and frowns and says “That’ll never work.” Well, in San Diego on that day, the twelfth man had taken his place in the huddle and Chiefs were looking at him and he was making faces and Joe … well, it was like Joe didn’t see him, or if he did see him, he didn’t let on. The San Diego crowd was whooping it up, flexing its din muscles, and Joe said to his teammates “Don’t’ worry about the clock, don’t listen to the crowd, and let’s have some fun.” Then he looked at Barnett and said “Sorry, Tim – I guess with those ears you have to listen to the crowd. I guess with those ears, you can hear the press box. What are they saying up there?” The twelfth man, of course, was not amused; he slunk out of the huddle, took his seat on the bench and watched the Chiefs win the game.
The second Joe story takes place in a middle school in Kansas City, where Barnett’s ears, in theory, should have had little relevance. Joe was there – along with Barnett and backup quarterbacks Steve Bono, Matt Blundin and Alex Van Pelt – as a favor to the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator, Paul Hackett, or, rather, to Hackett’s son Nate, a seventh grader. As part of a fund-raiser, Nate had auctioned off an opportunity to eat lunch with Joe Montana and the Chiefs. The five kids who had come up with winning bids now sat in a little clubroom with their proud teachers, and when Joe entered, what they saw was this: a handsome man with broad shoulders, skinny calves, tanned skin, suspiciously blond hair, a slightly frayed hairline, a broad white grin, an extremely large nose, two sled-dog blue eyes centered in webs of white squint lines, a long, shiny, meat-colored scar across his right elbow and untied sneakers. The kids were not jocks; they were, for the most part, slouchy, brainy and quiet, and Joe took a seat next to a blonde girl who seemed to be the shyest of them all. For about two minutes, he spoke quietly to her, plying her with his smile; then he noticed Barnett across the table and said to the little girl, loudly, “Have you ever seen ears like those? Doesn’t he look like a Doberman?” The little girl smiled but did not say anything. Joe folded his own ears forward. “Anybody have a knife?” he asked. “You can sharpen it on his ears.”
Now, for a long time I thought of Joe Montana as a “thinking man’s quarterback,” a “cerebral athlete” whose game – a greedy, hungry, gobbling thing, based miraculously on patience, restraint, even passivity – was an expression of some kind of Zen mastery. Naturally, when I first heard the story of the huddle in San Diego, I believed that Joe had made fun of Barnett’s ears for calculated effect, to relax his team. I no longer think so. I have seen Joe and Tim Barnett together several times, and Joe has never failed to make fun of Barnett’s ears. I am convinced that he cracked the joke in San Diego simply to get a laugh, just as I am convinced that – at the beginning of the last-minute ninety-two-yard drive that beat the Cincinnati Bengals in the 1989 Super Bowl – he pointed out John Candy in the stands simply because he had spotted John Candy and wanted to share his find with his teammates. He is innocent of calculation. He is free of ulterior motive. He is unburdened by history. His Zen is not Eastern but, rather, Western Pennsylvanian. His Zen is the Zen not of the brainy but of the blessed.
“He isn’t complicated,” says Bill Walsh, the coach who presided over Joe’s rise to professional glory. “People look for another agenda – it really isn’t there. He just loves football. He loves to play the game. He plays with a smile on his face.”
He plays with a smile on his face because in football he has found the magical alembic by which to turn the lead of his limitations into the gold of his legend. He loves football not because it frees him to create but because it constrains him to react, and he is very good at reacting. “A lot of people,” he says, “try to do more than they’re able to, than they are capable of. I don’t.”
I once asked him if, during those famous moments of crunch time and crisis, when his team is behind and the clock is running, he tries especially hard to complete his first pass, because then he knows that the defense starts thinking, Oh, no, her comes Joe …. And Joe answered that no, he tries to complete his first pass because it’s always better to compete a pass than not to complete a pass. He feels the same way about the second pass, and the third. He is a simple man who plays a simple game, and “his simplicity,” in the words of 49ers president Carmen Policy, “is his genius.”
“He is able to operate on a simplistic level and come to decisions that others would think of as very complex,” says Policy, who ought to know, because, in the most painful event in the history of his franchise, he traded Joe to the Chiefs, and admits that he was outwitted in the process. “It’s like dealing with a person who walks into a crowded party and works the room and has everybody loving him. And you say ‘How do you do that?’ But it’s nothing you can train for, not a muscle you can develop … It’s not physiological. It’s probably not even psychological. It’s probably spiritual.”
I have my own theory about Joe, of course. I have come to the conclusion that, at the moment of conception, Joe was spared the tiny whirring gear of doubt and introspection that at once hobbles, vexes and enriches our lives; I have come to believe that his mind-set is a matter of circuitry, biology, evolution and destiny, and that when, at the end of this season, Joe Montana retires from football, he will become a fugitive from the very game – the very purpose — for which he was created.
WHAT, YOU HAVEN’T HEARD? He’s retiring after this, his sixteenth season in the NFL. Walking away at age 38. This is it, folks – the last campaign, the grand finale, the final episode of the Joe Show. No more perfection in desperation, no more final-second thievery, no more long passes when logic dictates that he should throw short, no more short passes when it’s clear he absolutely must throw long, no more soft little flares that settle into a receiver’s hands at the precise moment he is ready to run forever … no more Joe. Oh, sure, people have been talking about Joe retiring for years; now, however, Joe is talking about it, to his wife, Jennifer, to his parents, to his agent and friends, to other retired athletes, such as Roger Staubach and Reggie Jackson …. No, he won’t come right out and say it, because he’s always resented the sporting press’s counsel in the matter of retirement, but he makes it clear that he wants to get out before he has to get out, before his last game turns out to be like last season’s play-off in Buffalo, when the Bills clanged his head against the frozen turf and he sat on the sideline with a coat over his shoulders and nothing in his eyes, looking so pale, so puny.
“Oh, he has to,” says Bill Walsh when asked about Joe’s retirement. “You lose some of your quickness; you don’t move and avoid people as well as you once did, and you start taking punishment.”
Of course, Walsh is justified in his concern, because, as even Joe admits, Montana has taken some shots over the years…there have been a few injuries…well, a lot of injuries…indeed, enough traumatized tissue to warrant surgical invasion of Joe’s body on a scale more often endured by medical-school cadavers.
“I thought after Buffalo that would be it, but he wasn’t ready,” says Joe’s mother, Theresa Montana. “But I hope this is his last year, for his sake. He needs the rest.” Yes, that’s it, the kind of thing a mother says, and knows: that more than anything else, her son is tired. How long has been playing football? For as long as Joe has been at his life, he has been at his game; his mother remembers him wearing out his grandfather, playing catch with him all day long, at age 2. “He liked it,” she says. “You and I walk down the street; Joe picks up a ball and starts playing just like you and I walk down the street.”
He was born to play and raised to compete. He was an only child, and when his parents discovered within their son some great, hulking jones to win at whatever game he played, they did whatever was necessary to feed it. To give Joe a taste of pressure, his father, Joe Sr., exposed him to the best competition possible when Joe was 7 or 8, driving the boy all over the state of Pennsylvania to play in basketball tournaments. To make sure that Joe had the whitest pants on his football team, his mother didn’t just wash them, she cleansed them. “One day Joe came home and said ‘Mom, I don’t know how you do it but my pants are whiter than anyone else’s.’ I took him down to the basement and showed him the old-fashioned washboard. I said, ‘This is how you do it. First soak ‘em in cold water with a little bit of Tide. Then rub ‘em. Then throw the water away and soak ‘em in bleach and hot water. Then rub ‘em again. Then throw them in the washer.’ I didn’t have the new kind of washing machine, either – I had the old fashioned wringer when I was doing his clothes.”
No wonder he’s tired. Metaphorically, at least, he has been wearing the whitest pants on his team for virtually his entire life. In the little leagues…in high school…at Notre Dame…with San Francisco and now in Kansas City…he has always had this blinding glow, he has always been the great Joe Montana, and now, well, as his mother says, he needs a rest. The thing is, I don’t think he’s tired of wearing the whitest pants on the team; in fact, I think he likes wearing the whitest pants on the team. He’s just tired of everyone else getting them dirty.
IT’S LIKE SOME FREAKING bad dream. Joe doesn’t want to wiggle, but winds up wiggling anyway. He tries to tell the others that he doesn’t want to wiggle, but they are too tall, or too beautiful, and they can’t hear him. So he wiggles. He is onstage, with Brooks Robinson and Joe Willie Namath and Veronica Webb and Danny Manning and Miss U.S.A. and Dikembe Mutombo, in the basketball arena of the University of Arkansas, at a rally of Wal-Mart stockholders. The air smells vaguely of meat, and the stockholders are in full throat, demanding that the athletes and models do what they do, every morning, if they work in a Wal-Mart store: the Wal-Mart cheer. Joe is fourth in line; Joe is the hyphen, and the hyphen must wiggle. W! A! L! Now it is Joe’s turn, so he drops into a kind of crouch and shakes his fanny as though he’s performing an ethnic dance back in western Pennsylvania. The crowd roars its approval – Joe! – and later a goodly number of women approach him and say, winkingly, “Nice wiggle, Joe.”
In a limousine, he goes from the university’s new basketball arena to its old one, where Hanes – a Wal-Mart vendor and one of the companies that pay Joe to license his name – has provided him a table at which he is to sign autographs. In anticipation of his arrival, a line has formed, a line that hums with the sound of America, that hums with appreciation of Joe.
“Is this the Joe line?”
“This is the Joe line.”
“Me and him – like this!”
Then a wife: “You guys have the patience to stand on line for an autograph but you don’t have the patience to stand with us when we’re shopping?”
“This man is God.”
Then Joe comes in, and the wife fans herself. “Oh, is he a cutie. Oh, is he cute.”
Joe is wearing a sharp olive-colored suit, and his eyes are blue and steely. He is chewing a piece of gum, hard. He sits down at the table and begins signing black-and-white photos of himself smiling above the Hanes logo. He smiles as he moves his pen across the photographs, but the smile is pickled and guarded, one per customer, and as he chews his gum, his jaw muscles grab his cheek like a claw.
The line moves. People ask Joe to sign jackets, footballs and pennants, but he politely declines, because he can sign only licensed paraphernalia. People try to take pictures. “No pictures!” snaps a Hanes representative. A man asks Joe to sign two photographs. “Just one,” Joe says. “One?” the man says. “One,” Joe says firmly. His eyes have a hunted look, and a vague air of resentment has settled over the line. A man complains that Joe wouldn’t sign his Canadian flag, and his wife says, “He’s not friendly at all. He looks miserable.”
As a matter of fact, he is. Joe knows that nobody at an autograph signing is getting what he wants. He knows that what the people want is a moment with Joe Montana, some little frisson of commonality, some indication that he sees them, and he knows that he has no moments to give. He is always gracious and always polite; he tries, however, to save his moments for his wife and four children. Quite often, his fans try to have some kind of moment with him when he is trying to have a moment with his children, and the result is a camera or a video camera thrust into the face of one of his little boys or girls, and Joe’s miserable realization that his children have a better time in public places when Daddy stays home.
He would like to stay home, forever. He has never understood the intensity of public adoration, the sheer need. As a child, he never even had posters of athletes in his room, because he didn’t want to watch or worship them, he wanted to be them; as an adult, he has always considered football merely a “fun job,” and he really would have preferred playing it in empty stadiums, just him and the guys. In truth, the game he loves is already receding into the past, and his future is here, signing photographs of an old smile, among people who call him God and yet resent him for his distance, making money by learning how to wiggle.
THE PLANE RISES SLOWLY into the sky. I pray, because I am afraid of flying. Joe smiles, as is his habit. Joe has a dazzling smile, a theme he plays with variations. I assume, at first, that this is his interview smile – helpful, hopeful and eager-to-please, even in the face of impatience and befuddlement. I am asking him what he’s going to do after he retires. Broadcasting? No, he is a positive person and can’t imagine being paid to criticize his fellow ballplayers. Coaching? “Successful coaches tend to be players who can be satisfied succeeding through someone else. I’m too competitive for that. I can’t stand not being in there.” Politics? “Politics are too political.” Books? “I started working on a book once, with a writer who probably would have done an excellent job – but it was too much time and effort.” Business? “I’m not really a businessman, not yet. I feel like I don’t know enough about the business world to make my own decisions.”
No, what Joe dreams of is, in fact, what’s making him smile: flight. He dreams of taking Jennifer and the children, with their billowing blond hair, in his own airplane and then into the sky, away from the people who want him, want them… He dreams of coming down, behind gates, behind fences, on a landing strip all his own, on a ranch all his own, and riding horses out to the grapes he grows, for the wine he makes, for the restaurant he runs, for the friends he has chosen, for the world he has created, all his own.
This is, of course, a rich man’s dream, and Joe is, of course, a rich man. He is already taking flying lessons, searching for land in the Napa Valley and talking to winemakers about starting his own label, though “nothing too serious.” He collects wine and is said to have discerning judgment. Joe has a “sensitive side,” Jennifer Montana says, and she hopes, paradoxically, that the public will begin to see it, and appreciate it, once her husband gets out of football and regains his privacy. A lot of people have high hopes for Joe’s retirement. His father hopes that he will compete on the senior golf tour. Bill Walsh hopes that he will coach. Roger Staubach hopes that he will go into business. I just hope that he doesn’t turn into Joe DiMaggio, and so I ask him what he thinks people will be saying about him ten years from now, what he wants people to say about him ten years from now. We are flying. We are drinking wine. Joe is smiling.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he says. “How about ‘Where is he?’”
I AM LISTENING TO JOE TALK about his trip to Brunei and wondering where greatness goes. Joe is in the Chiefs locker room with some of his teammates, and he is taking practice swings with an imaginary golf club and speaking about his host, the sultan’s nephew, whom he calls “Akeem.” “Akeem didn’t have to do shit,” Joe says appreciatively. “When he played golf, he held out his foot and his valet tied his shoes. When he was ready to tee off, his valet put the ball on the tee. He didn’t have to do shit.”
Where does greatness go? I have been following Joe to come up with some kind of answer. I have been following Joe to determine if greatness is, like a bus ticket, transferable, from his world, the world of football and holy innocence, to our world, the world of unholy complication … if it is indestructible, like matter, subject only to transformation, rather than extinction … or if it is as perishable as a perfect tomato, strictly of its moment, of our moment, and then gone. Now, however, I am thinking that Joe is trying to tell me something: that greatness goes wherever it wants to go; that it goes to Brunei, if the money is right; that it doesn’t have to do shit. Then Joe’s teammates leave, and I ask Joe a question of great concern. I am very superstitious, and the day is Friday the thirteenth. Severe thunderstorms are galloping in from the western plains, and I am scheduled to fly out of Kansas City at the same time they are scheduled to arrive. I ask Joe if, under the same conditions, he would get on the plane.
He smiles and looks me directly in the eye. He does not answer yes or no but instead leans forward, as though telling me a secret, and says, “Friday the thirteenth? Thunderstorms? That just makes it better, doesn’t it?”
I get on the plane two hours later. Like Tim Barnett in San Diego and, for all I know, the sultan’s nephew in Brunei, I have had my Joe Montana Moment. The plane rises quickly, easily; behind me, to the west, there is an insurrection of thunderheads, glowering like infidels. To the east, though, where I’m headed, the skies have been cleansed of all dark dreams, and greatness follows me home.