Not your average Joe
By Brian Murphy
Special to Page 2

He made The City a winner.

The City -- yes, capital T, capital C, as it has been known to locals for generations -- had languished in fog-shrouded shame for all of its professional sports life. Lifelong San Franciscans, third- and fourth-generation San Franciscans never knew how championship glory felt or how it tasted or how it wrapped you in a bear-hug of camaraderie and pride and made you scream out the window of your Victorian apartment in the Haight-Ashbury.

Joe Montana
Italian, Notre Dame, magical comeback, Super Bowl wins: Joe Montana had it all.

Until Joe.

And I hate to go all Don Cheadle on you here, but to 49ers fans everywhere, he is "Joe." He is the Original Joe.

Joe had no idea what he did for The City. No fault of his. He's from western Pennsylvania, and on top of that, Joe was never one for trafficking in analysis of his greatness. But City people know. They know on long rides down Geary on the Muni bus, when an elderly Chinese or Italian or Irish face boards the bus, wearing a faded, gold "FORTY NINERS" satin jacket. They wear that satin jacket for Brodie and McElhenny and Joe (The Jet) Perry ... but above all, they wear it for Joe.

My mother is first-generation Italian-American, and she grows faint at the name: Joe Montana. My Italian cousin Toni would build a shrine to him if city ordinance in Vallejo, Calif. would allow it.

He won four Super Bowls for the 49ers, but none will ever top the first; nothing tops the innocence, the ebullience of the first. In 1981, the 49ers turned from NFL laughingstock to a mobile, confident and stunning winner -- mostly because of a guy who wore No. 16. You could recognize him not just by his number, but by the golden locks that bounced from underneath his helmet when he scrambled, impossibly skinny legs churning for daylight.

Page 2's heroes
  • Ralph Wiley on Allen Iverson
  • Jim Caple on Charlie Brown
  • Jason Whitlock on Reggie Miller
  • Eric Neel on Magic Johnson
  • Tim Keown on Roberto Clemente
  • Patrick Hruby on the Zebras
  • Dan Shanoff on Gary Barnett
  • When the 49ers clinched the NFC West title in '81 with a win over the New York Giants at Candlestick, my brother and I stormed the field. I was 14. We ran around in the November shadows, soaking up the air of disbelief and joy.

    We owed it all to Bill Walsh and to Fred Dean and to Ronnie Lott and to Dwight Clark. But we knew we owed it mostly to Joe. He made us understand all things were possible, and became the perfect symbol for our newfound glory:

    The kid outta Notre Dame.

    The Comeback Kid.


    I still remember the San Francisco Examiner the day after the 49ers beat the Dallas Cowboys in "The Catch" game. At the top of the front-page news story, above the byline, the Examiner ran italicized lyrics from the 1934 classic "Paper Moon."

      It's only a paper moon
      Hanging over a cardboard sea
      But it wouldn't be make believe
      If you believed in me.

    Joe Montana made it possible to believe.

    Brian Murphy of the San Francisco Chronicle writes the "Weekend Water Cooler" every Monday for Page 2.



    Brian Murphy Archive

    Readers' greatest sports heroes

    Caple: Heroes & villains

    The List: Greatest sports heroes

    Page 2: Holding out for a hero

    Email story
    Most sent
    Print story

    espn Page 2 index