No athlete ever really retires anymore, as I was saying just the other day to my cab driver, Pedro Borbon.
But Joe Montana gave it a shot Tuesday, officially announcing his retirement from football to about 50,000 Joe freaks packed into Justin Herman Plaza.
They came to say thanks and good-by, and to chant “One more year!” and to shout, laugh, cry, holler “JOOOOOOE!” and hold up babies and handmade signs.
Jammed into the square under a bright blue sky, Joe’s faithful showed more emotion than Joe, which isn’t surprising, since he didn’t become the master of the last-minute miracle by letting his emotions run amok.
He told the assembled masses that playing pro football had been his dream.
“My dream, like most dreams, you end up waking up,” Montana said. “It’s like a wake-up call for me.”
“No, no!” fans cried out. “One more year! One more year!”
If Joe’s dream is over, the reality to which he awakens ain’t scary. He said he plans to play golf, hang out with his family at their new wine-country estate, maybe do some TV stuff, work with an IndyCar racing team, fly his airplane.
It will be a tough grind, but Joe’s no slacker. Tomorrow, Montana becomes just another guy in suburbia, taking out the trash. But yesterday he was elevated to heights he probably never dreamed of.
One speaker called Montana “One of the great Americans,” and Bill Walsh said, “Joe brought to San Francisco excitement, pride, but more importantly, renewed dignity. He brought San Francisco back to being the nation’s premier city… . This was a city in great distress, but then came Joe Montana … His brilliant performances have exhilarated all of us, and helped me purchase my new home.”
It was a day for the grand statement. Carmen Policy, 49ers president, likened the ‘80s to Camelot, with team owner Eddie DeBartolo playing King Arthur, Walsh as Merlin the Magician, “and then there was Sir Lancelot.”
John Madden, though, got to the core of the matter.
“We always do disclaimers,” Madden said. “We say, ‘He’s the greatest quarterback I ever saw,’ or, ‘He’s the greatest quarterback this and that.’ I say it with no disclaimers: This guy is the greatest quarterback that ever played.
“Just think if we could all be him for one day, just be cool,” Madden said. “Where’d that (coolness) come from?”
Other than DeBartolo, who probably cries when he finds a parking place downtown, Madden seemed to be the most emotional of the speakers. Madden’s life, a big part of it, is watching and studying and understanding football, and he is not unmoved by true football brilliance.
“I’m grateful, just like you,” he told the mass of Joe worshipers, then he turned to Montana and said, “Thanks for all the memories.”
Montana addressed the crowd a couple times, in his usual low-key manner, and tried to spread the credit around. When he started to thank Policy for his role in the 49er dynasty, fans shouted out:
“YOU did it, Joe!”
“HE (Policy) couldn’t throw!”
And that was one of the essential truths that came out yesterday. Walsh was the genius, DeBartolo and Policy were pillars, Ronnie Lott (among the players on the dias) got Joe the ball, Dwight Clark made The Catch …
But none of them will ever draw 50,000 worshipers to a rally in their honor.
None of the great players behind him yesterday, or anywhere yesterday, will ever be Joe Montana.
“Joe Montana was not a product of the (49er) system,” DeBartolo said, hitting the philosophical nail on the head. “Joe Montana was a product of the system he was born with.”
The invited guests included players and ex-players Lott, Clark, Roger Craig, Steve Bono, Dwight Hicks, John Taylor and Fred Quillin.
(Where was Steve Young? Actually, Young almost showed. As a prank, someone, possibly a 49ers player, phoned Young’s agent, Leigh Steinberg, identified himself as Montana’s agent and invited Young to the rally. Young graciously accepted the invitation, until he learned it was a hoax.)
After the rally, Montana held a press conference. He explained that he was not retiring for physical reasons, denying reports he faces imminent knee surgery.
“It’s not so much my body,” he said. “It just came up on me all of a sudden, ‘I’m not as fired up, not as excited about working out.”’
There was no moment, he said. It was just a feeling that came over him this off-season: Time to quit.
Montana also shot down rumors that he was badgered into retirement by his wife Jennifer, and that he was quitting because Kansas City Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer’s practices were too hard, and that he is getting out because it doesn’t look like the Chiefs have a Super Bowl team.
Maybe it’s just as simple as Joe feeling it’s time to retire.
But by saying his knee is fine, that it will be years before he needs that knee surgery, that he’s healthy and fit, Montana left that window of speculation open. You know, the Michael Jordan window.
You don’t think some team might phone Montana late next season, some team with a shot at the Super Bowl but with an injured quarterback, and there’s Montana looking well-rested, just hanging out, playing golf?
But yesterday Montana seemed very retired.
“I really have no regrets,” he told the fans.
And a fan bellowed, “You’re the best, Joe!”