Was Joe Montana the greatest quarterback in NFL history? Just ask Steve Young, the man who took his job on the San Francisco 49ers.
"He's the greatest I've ever seen," Young said on the eve of Montana's retirement announcement today. "It's a time of mixed emotions for all of us who played with him or watched him."It's a time for me to reflect on all those great moments when I was standing on the sidelines with my jaw open, staring at something impossible he'd just done. I'd be completely amazed by the way he could find an open man, or see a crack in the defense, or take the team on some last-minute drive. There was no one who could do that like him, time after time."
Young wasn't among the dozens of former teammates, friends, relatives and sponsors set to join Montana for his nationally televised farewell to fans outdoors in a downtown plaza. Former 49ers coach Bill Walsh was named master of ceremonies, and Ronnie Lott, Dwight Clark and Roger Craig were invited, along with executives of the 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs.
Young wasn't invited, but he hardly felt snubbed.
"I've had nothing but respect for Joe for years," Young said. "Our relationship was kind of like an older brother, younger brother thing. In the backyard, we'd be competing hard, bloodying our noses, fighting for dominance. Look, let's face it, we both wanted the same job. We both wanted to play. We're competitors. But when the games came, we were always pulling for each other and working with each other. In all the years we were teammates, we never had an argument or even a cross word between us."
Four NFL championships, three Super Bowl MVPs and an armful of records might be enough to qualify Montana as the best quarterback ever. For Young, Montana's legacy is broader.
"He taught me more than the nuts and bolts of football," Young said. "He taught me that you can go beyond your perceived capabilities and limits. You can go beyond what you or others think you can do. You can push yourself to another level."
Montana's comebacks from injuries - his medical chart is heavier than his football gear - and his escapes from seemingly lost situations gave him a larger-than-life image. In person, he has always been quiet and self-effacing, a rather average Joe in size and weight, strength and speed. He found words and emotions difficult to express. On Monday night, at dinner with his wife, agent and several aides to work out final details of the ceremony, Montana was nervous and typically quiet.
But when it came time to perform on the field, to win the big game with the big play, there was nobody cooler, nobody in greater command of himself and his teammates.
Montana had a way of scanning the field for receivers that was unmatched, his head turning from sideline to sideline, clicking off his primary target, his secondary target, his third or fourth targets, and throwing with uncanny accuracy to the one who was open.