HOUSTON -- Unlike those 743,000 Bay Area liars over the years, he was at Candlestick Park when "The Catch" became a part of football legend and lore. Not that he remembers it, exactly.
The slight 3-year-old was there, tucked between his father, Tom, and mother, Galynn, at the other end of the stadium behind the south end zone. During the first half he had whined and agitated for one of those foam 49ers-are-No. 1 fingers -- and, eventually, of course, he got one, along with a hot dog and some ice cream. And when Joe Montana feathered that ridiculous, off-balance prayer to Dwight Clark, the kid jumped to his feet and cheered for the San Francisco 49ers like everyone else.
"I don't to this day know how much or whether or not that had any role in his desire to become more actively involved in football, but he was there," the father says of the 1981 NFC Championship game, a 28-27 victory over the Dallas Cowboys. "We had a fun time and we were excited, and he became excited when we became excited."
The boy, as you may have surmised by now, was Tom Brady. He is still an excitable boy.
In the 23 years that have elapsed since The Catch, he has traced a career arc unnervingly similar to Montana, his idol then and now. That the Patriots' quarterback, only 26, finds himself on the threshold of a second Super Bowl is almost inconceivable to his parents.
"It's a dream," says Galynn. "It's so hard to even comprehend sometimes. What's happened to Tommy is unbelievable for my husband and myself. We keep pinching ourselves and saying, 'That's our son out there!'
"I think his coolness really reminds me of Joe -- being able to come back in a game when you're behind or tied -- the last two minutes to have enough calmness to march down the field and win a football game. We watched many games with Joe Montana, I think they called him the Two-Minute Man.
"So in that way, I see Tom as Joe."
Stop your snickering. This isn't just a mother seeing the best in her son. The numbers, even based on Brady's early returns, bear it out. No less an authority than Montana's old genius coach, Bill Walsh, agrees.
"I see the similarities," he said recently, "in the serenity with which they play the game."
We have all seen it:
In Super Bowl XXIII, the 49ers found themselves trailing the Cincinnati Bengals 16-13 with 3:20 left. Montana took his team 92 yards in 11 plays with a level of creativity and skill that can only be called art. His 10-yard slant to wide receiver John Taylor with 34 seconds left gave the 49ers the game, 20-13. Montana didn't win the MVP Award -- Jerry Rice did, after catching 11 Montana passes for 215 yards -- but he took home his third the following year when San Francisco torched the Denver Broncos.
"I mean, nothing fazed him," Brady says of Montana. "There was a certain calmness in watching him. I always remember that when you watch him drop back, you knew he was just going to get it done. There's other players that you watch drop back and you're always afraid. Watching him, he always looked like he had everything under control."
Brady's first Super Bowl, XXXVI, came two years ago against the St. Louis Rams. The score was tied at 17-all, when the Patriots got the ball on their 17-yard-line with no timeouts left and 1:21 on the clock. Brady competed five passes to a running back, a tight end and a wide receiver and moved his team 53 yards. With almost crazy coolness, Brady spiked the ball at the line of scrimmage with seven seconds left and Adam Vinatieri kicked the winning 48-yard field goal attempt as time ran out.
"I just knew that they were going to win," Montana says of Brady. "It was very easy to see that he was confident. That's the biggest thing -- having confidence in your own ability gets you past a lot of that pressure. I think that those that are afraid that they can't do it, feel the pressure more.
"I think Tom has that presence enough to know his own ability and his capabilities in that situation -- and it comes not only on the TV, but to your teammates."
Young and impressionable
On a gray day in late November at Gillette Stadium, Brady explained what Montana meant to him growing up in San Mateo, Calif.
"He was the guy I looked up to and idolize," Brady said. "And still idolize."
Brady actually used to wear a Montana jersey, a scarlet No. 16.
"Tommy was at that time, 10, 12 years old and very impressionable," his father explained. "He'd wear that (jersey) all the time. As a family we were kind of nuts into this stuff, so we would go to the game and then even come home at night and watch the game on replay."
He was a 15-year-old sophomore at Junipero Serra High School when Montana played his last season for the 49ers in 1992. Brady threw 31 touchdown passes in his career there and then went 20-5 as a two-year starter at Michigan.
And when he landed with the Patriots in 2000, what was the offensive scheme? Why an evolved version of Walsh's West Coast offense -- short passes based on timing designed to control the ball.
"They both have that same frail body, but they continue to make plays," said Patriots wide receiver Troy Brown. "They're both tough guys who keep bouncing back and keeping their team where they can win games,"
The hard evidence is compelling.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only three quarterbacks with more than 40 career starts have a winning percentage better than .700. Roger Staubach was 85-29 (.746), followed by Brady (34-12, .739) and, of all people Montana (117-47, .713). That's some serious company; Brady is the only one who isn't yet in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
And consider this: Montana won his first five playoff games without a loss. With a victory in Sunday's Super Bowl XXXVIII, Brady would be 6-0. That would make him 40-12, a surreal winning percentage of .769 -- the best of all-time.
There's more, too. Brady was 24½ when he won Super Bowl XXXVI, making him the youngest Super Bowl-winning quarterback ever. Before that, Montana and Joe Namath were the youngest to win the ultimate game. Now, Brady can win his second Super Bowl at the age of 26½. Montana was 28 when he won his second.
"They've got a good shot this year," Montana said. "I don't want to jinx them, but they're playing well."
"If he can put a couple of more rings on my finger, then I'll make that comparison," Brown said, laughing. "He has a long way to go to be Joe Montana, but he's winning a lot of ballgames for us like Joe did."
Said center Damian Woody, "It's hard to compare Tom to one of the best quarterbacks of all time. I'm not ready to throw him into that group, up there that high, but he's showing flashes of it, I'll tell you."
If the Patriots are to win, Brady will have to be Montanaesque in his precision.
A few weeks ago, the elder Brady was watching the NFL Channel. It was the 49ers vs. the Cowboys back in 1981.
"I'm sitting there thinking, 'I've seen that drive,'" he said. "They get six yards here and eight yards here and how methodical Joe was able to execute time after time after time. That's what Tommy's mantra has always been. That we're going to move the chains -- whatever it's going to take, we're going to move the chains."
Last year, Brady met his idol for the first time. He didn't mention the foam finger or The Catch.
"He didn't say a lot, but I think that's typical of his personality," Montana said. "He had a lot of respect for what I had accomplished. He was curious how I approached certain things.
"It's always nice to see that someone has chosen you as an idol to be successful, and it's great for Tom that he has his own style. It's something that we talked about, that you can't try and be somebody else. You have to know what you can do and be the best at what you try to do, and he's doing that."
And what Tom Brady is doing is being Joe Montana.
"In our eyes, Joe Montana's the best -- is the best, was the best," said Tom Brady, Sr. "And until somebody shows us anything better, is going to continue to be the best.
"To have Tommy even mentioned in the same breath is almost bizarre. On the other hand, when I step away from it and I'm a little bit more impersonal, I think he does have a lot of the same qualities. I think that the team does respond to him and he responds to the team. And I think that's what it's all about."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com