This year, Joe Montana stars in Guinness’s first Super Bowl commercial in more than a decade. Guinness became the “official beer” of Notre Dame, Montana’s alma mater, back in August, and the ads are all about how true greatness is about resilience, starring the original comeback king, Joe Montana.
More importantly, this was how it came to be that I got to talk to my original sports hero, a guy whose jersey I owned in preschool, the star of my very first and probably to this day greatest sports memory: the time he led a 92-yard drive down the field trailing by three points with 3:10 left on the clock before hitting John Taylor for a touchdown pass with 34 seconds left to help the 49ers beat the Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII. Holy shit that was awesome, I still get goosebumps thinking about it.
During the drive, Montana famously pointed to the stands during a TV timeout and said, “Hey, that’s John Candy.”
And that’s always been the most interesting thing about Joe Montana’s version of greatness. That for every Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, or even Tom Brady, whose competitiveness seems to border on mania, every Joe Montana story seems to involve him being an affable guy. There may have been athletes greater, or athletes more chill, but has anyone so chill ever been so great? The part of his career we 49ers fans so often forget is that Montana led the Chiefs to an AFC Championship and then a Wild Card game before retiring at 39 and having a shoulder replacement. That his second act mirrors Tom Brady’s while playing for Mahomes’ Chiefs makes him a peculiarly apt choice for Super Bowl spokesman this year.
In the lead-up to the Super Bowl LV, I got to ask Montana all about drinking Guinness in Ireland, how he maintains his chill, and how much longer he might’ve played if the NFL rules during his playing days were as kind to aging quarterbacks as they are now.
So is that sweet Guinness zip-up part of the perks of the sponsorship deal?
Absolutely. We can get you one if you want.
Right on. Okay, so I know about that story during the drive against the Bengals that you supposedly pointed out John Candy in the stands to loosen up your guys. Are there any other stories of you loosening up your players in unconventional ways?
I really was only talking to one guy, that was the thing. Harris Barton, he was a people person. So he was the one that was always going out to dinner. We were free for dinner during Super Bowl week and he was like a kid in the candy store when he came back to tell you what celebrities he saw. So we were there and it’s just on a TV timeout, and I always tried to be myself, whether we’re winning and losing it didn’t matter. John Candy had just happened to be framed between two guys’ shoulder pads. And I was sitting there thinking, “I don’t remember Harris saying anything about John Candy.” So I went over and said something to Harris about it, “Hey, look, there’s John Candy.”
He looked at me and he started mumbling a bunch of stuff that I didn’t understand, something about the Super Bowl and trying to win. I thought he would appreciate it. He appreciates it today more than ever, but there were fun times all the time. There was always a lot of talking going on and there’s things that you can’t say, or I mean… you can repeat, but you probably couldn’t print them.
I heard another story that you were doing competitive horse jumping a few years back and that you got thrown through the stakes and then you bounced up and yelled, “Human field goal.”
No, I never did that. But I was so… We had a bunch of horses and I was really more of a cutting horse person. You have to look it up and see it. It was pretty crazy and I’d say probably the most adrenaline rush I’ve had since playing football. But my girls and my wife, Jennifer, and the two girls were jumping at the time. And I’m not a very good spectator, but it takes a lot of work and timing and getting used to the steps of the horse and to get them to the jumper right.
I had no patience for that. I just wanted to jump.
So there were so many times where it was the most embarrassing. This is the last time I rode. I said, “Okay, I’m done after this.” I’d gone in and I jumped… Well, I jumped, the horse didn’t jump. I cleared the rail and I was done, and I was mad. And I went to sit up in the stands and I’m getting ready to video and this guy comes running up the steps and his wife who is sitting behind me and she goes, “Oh man, I can’t believe it, you just missed it. He fell off again.” I said, “Okay, I’m done.” So I went back to my cutting horse. That was the end of my jumping days.
I heard that story from an editor of mine who said he used to work for Charlie at one of your ranches.
Oh yeah. Charlie’s actually the one that got me started on Guinness, over in Dublin. We were over there, the girls were looking at jumping horses, and he said, “Hey, let’s go get a pint after this.” And I’m like, “Okay.”
I was like most people though, I was looking at Guinness going, “Oh my gosh. I really don’t want a big, heavy beer.” And how different it was when I tasted it, it’s light and smooth. I was hooked from that point. Every day we were over there I’m going, “Charlie, come on, time to Guinness. Let’s go.”
They always say that it tastes better in Ireland, but that’s like the old stereotype. You think they’re working it out and getting the US version to match up?
I think they got it pretty close. And the thing about it too though, you have to remember, there’s a different atmosphere over there when you go into those pubs. That’s just something we don’t have here, no matter how much they try to make one here, it just doesn’t have that same feel.
I mean, the places the girls were jumping horses were ridiculous, you’re jumping in buildings that have got bullet and shell holes from a World War. And that just makes the atmosphere different, but they’re pretty close at this point.
Are you recognizable in Ireland? I lived in Australia in the early 2000s and even guys that didn’t know anything about American football, they knew Joe Montana.
You know what? I haven’t been back since. I mean, this was while the girls were still in high school, so 15 years ago, 10-12 years ago now. So I’m looking forward to getting back over there. We had a fun trip and yeah, this would be a great connection. Maybe with all the commercials, I might be a little more recognizable now, but before, out in the country where we were… people were all about the horses.
So these commercials, they’re about greatness and being the GOAT and all that. And I feel like… with other sports stars that are considered like the GOAT — like Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods or Kobe Bryant — it seems like all the stories about them or how they’re kind of single-minded and psychotically driven about their sport. And I feel like every story I hear about you is that you’re kind of like a laid-back, affable kind of guy.
You know what? I was a practical joker. I liked having fun. The camaraderie in the locker room was what you miss the most when you leave. And I don’t know, I learned from Bill Walsh, I guess, about being the quarterback and understanding what comes with it and what it takes to make the other guys around you — I don’t want to say “comfortable” but not acting like you’re above them in any way. I tried to do that. I tried to just be myself. If you do something stupid, I’m going to make fun of you, whether it’s in the huddle or on the sideline. And if you have problems when we’re out there, I’m not going to yell and scream at you, we’re going to try to figure out how to help you. I need you. And whether you’re somebody dropping a ball, or giving up an interception, or linemen having trouble blocking, whatever it might be, we got to figure out how to fix it, you know? Because when we get on the sideline, we’re all going to get yelled at.
So I don’t know… that’s just my personality. It just was different. I’m still driven like that. I’d compete to the end. Quarterbacks had this thing, we used to do. Portable goal goalposts were hollow on the top. So we would get rolls of tape that were just a little bit used. And we would sit there before practice and toss them up there to try to get them to drop in the hole. It didn’t matter if I was behind by one, I was going to stay there and get yelled at because I don’t want to lose. So everything was competitive for me. When I was first got there, we competed at everything. Space Invaders had just come out, backgammon… didn’t matter, whatever it was, we were competing in. So I still had that drive. I just… my personality was a little different.
Between when you were coming up and then watching your sons come up, do you think the blueprint for success was different? Did you notice a lot of differences in the way people approached the sport?
Yeah. There’s not a lot of teaching that goes on in college. They expect people to come up ready to play. You had kids who started late playing the game and… We’re in Pop Warner and the head coach was only letting his son play quarterback. And in the meantime, we’re going, “If something happens to that kid you’re going to be in trouble. So someday you need to start letting other people play because if he gets hurt, what are you going to do?”
So he goes, “Okay.” And Nicholas [Montana’s son] later wanted to play, but he took a snap. I got there a little bit late before they started and the coach goes, “Well, I let him do it, but he was trying to take the snap like this.” [Joe holding his hands sideways]
I go, “Well that’s what he does in the playground.” He goes, “Well I don’t sped all practice teaching them how to put their hands under center,” because it’s never happened for him. Nobody wants to teach anymore, they just have expectations. And especially if you’re a son of an athlete, they really have expectations.
So I think that was the biggest part. The most difficult thing for those guys is that everybody expected them to just be something and not feel like they had to learn anything.
Do you think that you would have played longer if with the current rules that they have that protect the quarterback a little more?
I might still be playing! I’m going to be 65 in June. It’s just, yeah, it’s a different game. Because I really quit because of the physical part of it. I was looking at the rest of my life with my kids and sports and being active, and because we’re a pretty active family altogether, all six of us. I’m probably the least active now because of all my injuries still, but it’s just, it’s a different era and a different time where you can sit back in there and be a lot more comfortable in the pocket. Knowing, even if you’re going to get hit, you’re not going to get body slammed and have somebody on top of you 300 pounds compressing you into the ground.
And so it makes the game easier. And I clarify that with “easier,” meaning it’s still hard, but it’s easier for guys who can play at that level and know that they don’t have to stand there and take that hit. That used to be the differentiator between other quarterbacks years ago, “Can I stand there, knowing that guy right there, as soon as I let this ball go, he’s going to tackle me, but he’s not just going tackle me, he’s going to compress his body weight into me?” And that’s where guys were getting hurt. Because if you think about it, quarterbacks are the only guys standing still when they get hit and they get hit by guys who outweigh them by 100 to 150 pounds. It’s hard for your body to take that.
You seem like you’re pretty active. You’re talking about horse riding and all that. Do you have physical limitations from your playing days still?
My first back surgery got rid of my sciatic nerve on my left leg. So it’s hard to keep muscle tone and I’ve had six or seven knee surgeries, cleanouts on that. And it’s looking like time for a replacement. I had a shoulder replacement, five-level neck fusion, another one, another single-level the next year, three backs, I don’t know how many elbows, three or four. My shoulder replacement took four surgeries to get it right. It’s just, yeah, it hasn’t been fun. But hopefully, it’s going to get better.
Everybody talks about The Drive and The Catch and the plays that show up in the highlight reels. Do you have any plays or moments of yours that you think are great that maybe don’t show up in those or get talked about as much?
I won’t say the most important game, but I think one of the more defining games for us and for me was when we played Philadelphia in Philadelphia, when they had Reggie White and all that group up front, and Buddy Ryan was the coach, and everybody said we couldn’t handle them physically. The first series I think I hit Jerry for, I don’t know, 60, 70-yard touchdown pass right down the middle. And I’m like, “God, this is going to be easier than I thought.” Next thing I know, I’ve never picked myself up off the ground more times between then and the fourth quarter than any other game that I played in. And we ended up coming back in the fourth quarter, but it took plays by Jerry Rice, Brett Jones, and Tom Rathman.
It was a gang effort, but we stayed in there, fought. And I still remember that when we were playing, I was standing there and– we were ahead and if we make a first down, we could run the clock out and we ran a little read route by the halfback. He’s out there, sitting there wide open and I think Jerry Rice was in the slot, Jerry takes off and I’m going, “Oh, touchdown.” So I throw the ball to Jerry and he goes for the touchdown, but the look on the coach’s face when I let go of the ball instead of throwing it to the back, in the video his eyes are wide open like, “Oh my God.” I got to the sideline and he goes, “You are so lucky that was complete.” But that’s probably one of the biggest things that sticks out in my mind.