By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com
"You could knock the living snot out of him. He would get up, spit out the blood and wink at you, and say that was a great hit," says former Chicago Bears' All-Pro linebacker Mike Singletary about Joe Montana on ESPN's SportsCentury show (Friday, July 30, 7:30 p.m. ET).
Montana, who led the 49ers to four Super Bowl victories and is the only player to win three Super Bowl MVPs, was voted No. 25 among North American athletes of the 20th century by SportsCentury's distinguished 48-person panel.
Trailing the Dallas Cowboys 27-21 in the NFC championship game, the San Francisco 49ers took over on their own 11 with 4:54 left in the fourth quarter at Candlestick Park. Mixing four running plays with six passes, Montana adroitly moved the 49ers to the Dallas 13. But on first down, he missed an open Freddie Solomon in the end zone, causing the 49ers' usually stoic coach, Bill Walsh, to leap in the air and let out a yell.
Two plays later, faced with a third-and-three on the six, a mobile Montana sprinted to his right while three Cowboys chased him. In the back of the end zone, his favorite target, Dwight Clark, ran in the same direction. Throwing off the wrong foot, Montana lofted the ball towards the end zone. Knocked down, Montana never saw Clark's leaping catch. He rolled over, saw Clark's feet hit the ground and then heard the crowd roar. Ray Wersching's extra point with 51 seconds left gave the 49ers a 28-27 victory, putting them in their first Super Bowl.
"I was thinking of throwing the ball away, but I saw Dwight come open and I figured if I could hang on another half-second ..." Montana said. "We're instructed that if we throw that pass to make sure he's the only one who can catch it."
Tackle Keith Fehnhorst said, "That last drive will go down in history."
Odds and ends
Montana made his official recruiting visit to Notre Dame the weekend of Jan. 19, 1974, when the Irish basketball team snapped UCLA's record 88-game winning streak.
In the spring of 1977, he was a member of the championship team in Notre Dame's popular Bookstore Basketball tournament.
Before the 1979 draft, one scouting combine rated Montana a 6+ (out of 9). The report said: "He can thread the needle, but usually goes with his primary receiver and forces the ball to him even when he's in a crowd. He's a gutty, gambling, cocky type. Doesn't have great tools, but could eventually start."
Phil Simms (Giants), Steve Fuller (Chiefs) and Jack Thompson (Bengals) were selected ahead of Montana, a late third-round pick by the 49ers acquired from Dallas.
> Montana's first contract (three years) was for a $50,000 signing bonus and base salaries of $50,000, $70,000 and $85,000.
Behind Montana, the 49ers were one win from a perfect season in 1984. They went 18-1 record, including winning the Super Bowl, with their only loss being 20-17 to Pittsburgh in October.
Shy and quiet off the field, Montana was the boss in the huddle - and he made sure his teammates understood that.
While the 49ers' winning drive against the Bengals in the 1989 Super Bowl was 92 yards, Montana had to take them 102 yards because of a penalty. He completed 8-of-9 passes for 97 yards, including the 10-yard TD pass to John Taylor that gave SF a 20-16 victory. Montana hyperventilated during the drive, but didn't panic and got his breath back. "It's like the soldier taking two in the belly and still finishing in charge," Walsh said.
In 1990, Montana was named Sports Illustrated's "Sportsman of the Year."
In a loss to the New York Giants in the 1990 NFC championship game, defensive end Leonard Marshall delivered what Montana says is the hardest hit he ever took - a blind-side sack that bruised his sternum, fractured a rib and knocked him out of the game. Montana said that Marshall snapped back his right hand after they were on the ground, breaking a bone.
In his pro career (14 seasons plus one game in 1992), Montana completed 3,409-of-5,391 passes (63.2 percent) for 40,551 yards with 273 yards and 139 interceptions. His favorite TD targets were Jerry Rice (55) and Clark (41).
In 23 postseason games, Montana completed 460-of-734 passes (62.7 percent) for 5,772 yards with 45 touchdowns and 21 interceptions.
With Montana starting, the 49ers and Chiefs went 117-47 (.713) in the regular season and 15-8 (.652) in the postseason. The only team Montana didn't beat as a starter was Miami (0-2), but he made up for that by whipping the Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX.
The biggest deficit Montana ever overcame was 28 points. In 1980, his first season as a starter, Montana rallied San Francisco to a 38-35 overtime victory over New Orleans after trailing 35-7 in the third quarter.
In a 40-game stretch from late 1988 through the first game of the 1990 playoffs, Montana compiled a 36-4 record as a starter. He threw 80 touchdown passes, just 28 interceptions and won both Super Bowls.
During his first year out of football, Montana worked for NBC.
Montana was twice divorced before he met his current wife, Jennifer Wallace, when they did a Schick razor commercial. He proposed to her by hiring an airplane with a streamer reading, "Jen, will you marry me?" Married in February 1985, they have four children.