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Life after greatness for the Greatest Of All Time

How does one go on living without the very thing that made one’s life worth living in the first place?

The neighborhood between his office and his home is North Beach, the old San Francisco Italian enclave, and one afternoon he drove me down the main boulevard. We passed Francis Ford Coppola’s office and the famous City Lights bookstore, rolling through the trattorias and corner bars of North Beach. Up the hill to the left is the street where Joe DiMaggio grew up. DiMaggio’s father, Giuseppe, kept his small fishing boat at the marina where the Montanas now live. Every day, no matter how dark and menacing the bay, Giuseppe DiMaggio awoke before the sun and steered his boat off the coast of California. He gave his son an American first name and wanted for him an ambitious American life. Joltin’ Joe realized every dream his dad dreamed but emerged from the struggle a bitter man prone to black moods as rough and unpredictable as his father’s workplace.

Bitterness is such a common affliction of once-great athletes that it’s only noteworthy when absent. Ted Williams burned every family photo. Michael Jordan kept trying to get down to his playing weight of 218 years after his retirement. The story goes that Mickey Mantle used to go sit in his car during rainstorms, drunk and crying, because the water hitting the roof sounded like cheers. Joe and Jennifer’s front door is just around the corner, maybe a three-minute walk, from the house DiMaggio bought for his parents with his first big check in 1937 and where he moved when he retired from baseball in 1951. He and Marilyn Monroe spent their wedding night there. The Marina remained full of memories for him. DiMaggio loved to sit alone there and stare out to sea as if looking for a returning vessel. The two Joes knew each other in the 1980s but weren’t friends. DiMaggio was much closer to Joe’s mother, who worked as a teller at the branch where the Yankee legend banked.

“Why did your mom have a job?” I ask as we drive down Columbus Avenue.

Joe smiles. His mom was one of a kind. When he was a kid she bleached his football pants at night so he’d always look the best. She found the job herself.

“She got tired of just hanging around,” he says.

Once the pandemic travel restrictions loosened the whole family went to the North Shore of Oahu. It’s a surfing paradise. They’d booked two weeks. Two weeks turned into a month. They kept traveling together, chasing sunlight and water, Costa Rica, back to Hawaii, down to the islands, then to their little weekend place in Malibu. They surfed, they fished, they played dominos, they ate fresh seafood as the sun sank into the water.

They moved as a pack and that’s how I found them when I arrived in San Francisco last summer to meet Montana for the first time. He seemed like a case study in a psychology journal: forced to leave a job he did better than anyone who’d ever come before, forced to try to find a replacement for the time and passion that job required, forced to undertake that search while a kid who grew up idolizing him tore down his record and took his crown. If you wanted to understand the fragility of glory and legacy, Joe Montana isn’t a person you should talk to about it. He is the person.

“Look at Otto Graham or Sammy Baugh,” Joe says as we sit in his office during our first meeting, seeing his place in a continuum that existed before he entered it and will exist once he’s gone. He knows intellectually that comparison is a foolish talk radio game and yet. A bit later, unbidden, he says he wishes every living human could have the experience of standing on an NFL football field on a Sunday afternoon. Just to experience the way crowd noise can be felt in your body, the sound itself a physical thing, waves and vibrations rolling down the bleachers — 80,000 voices coursing right through you. Mickey Mantle sat in the rain in his car looking for that noise. Joe DiMaggio stared out at the San Francisco Bay hoping to hear it come through the fog. Even talking about it gives Montana chills. If the number of titles separates the men on the quarterbacking pyramid, then the memory of the game, the feel of it, connects them. That’s Joe’s point about Otto and Sammy. “Those guys were so far ahead of the game,” he says. “I don’t know how you compare them to today’s game or even when we played.”

It’s the moment that matters. Not records. He was fine to let his trophies burn. He misses the moments. The moments are what he thinks about when he sits at home and watches Brady play in a Super Bowl. He’s not jealous of the result or even the ring. He’s jealous of the experience.

“To sit in rare air …” Ronnie Lott says, searching for the words.

“… is like being on a spaceship.”

Breathing rare air changes you. Every child who’s sucked helium from a birthday balloon knows this and so does Joe Montana and everyone who ever played with him. It’s the feeling so many kids hoped to feel when they slipped on the No. 16 jersey and let the mesh drape over their arms.

“He breathed rare air with me,” Lott says, and the way he talks about air sure sounds like he’s talking about love.

TOM BRADY RECORDED a video alone on a beach and again told the world that he was done with football. For good this time, he said with a tired smile. His voice cracked and he seemed spent. He’s a 45-year-old middle-aged man who shares custody of three children with two ex-partners. Next year he’ll be the lead color commentator for Fox Sports. This past year he’d just as soon forget. He retired for 40 days, then unretired and went back to his team, looking a step slow for the first time in his career, and finally retired again. Those decisions set off a series of events that cost him the very kind of family, the very wellspring of moments, that have brought Joe Montana such joy. Brady has fallen off the cliff that Steve Young described and faces the approaching 15 years that Jennifer Montana remembered as so hard. Tom’s book is now written. He will leave, as Montana did before him, the unquestioned greatest of all time.

“You cannot spend the rest of your life trying to find it again,” Young says.

Stretched out before Brady is his road to contentment. The man in the video has a long way to go. Montana knows about that journey. He understands things about Brady’s future that Tom cannot possibly yet know. On the day Brady quit, Montana’s calendar was stacked with investor meetings for the two new funds he’s raising. When he heard the news, he wondered to himself if this announcement was for real. Brady had traded so much for just one more try. On the field he struggled to find his old magic. His cheeks looked sunken. His pliability and the league’s protection of the quarterback had added a decade to his career. But along the way they also let his imagination run unchecked. Brady’s body didn’t push him to the sidelines. He had to decide for himself at great personal cost. Montana was never forced to make that choice. He had to reckon with the maddening edges of his physical limits but was protected from his own need to compete and from the damage that impulse might do. For all his injuries took from him, they gave him something, too.

This lengthy, deep-dive article on the life of the incomparable Joe Montana after the NFL is about one hell of a lot more than just football, and it’s simply one of the finest I’ve ever read, on any topic, ever.

One of the most astonishing-to-me aspects of the Montana story is that, despite being possessed of talent and ability that was as obvious as it was exceptional, Joe Montana never played for a coach who truly believed in him. Going all the way back to high school, they all did their level best to sideline him, to stymie him, at every level and in every way, including some damnably petty, personal ones. It’s beyond all comprehension, and redounds to the eternal discredit of said coaches, up to and including Bill Walsh.

You probably can’t see it here thanks to the NFL’s jealous protectiveness of its “intellectual property,” but the below vid is of what came to be known as The Catch, from 1982’s NFC Championship game against my once-beloved Cowboys. Yes, I saw it at the time it happened; yes, I was duly crushed, although I never hated Montana and the ‘Niners as much as I did the Steelers and their fabled defensive line, the nemesis of my ‘Boys in so many crucial games back then.

Trust me, no matter who you are or how you may feel about the NFL, Montana, San Francisco, or the ‘Niners, you’ll find something here that will move you and shake you like a blue-tick hound worrying at an old bone. Block out some time to read it all. It’s just incredible, and you’ll be very glad you did. Heartfelt gratitude to Weird Dave for the steer.

4 thoughts on “Life after greatness for the Greatest Of All Time

  1. For most women, that ephemeral experience that elite athletes face is akin to the brief moments of physical desirability that some women have in their youth. It won’t last, to keep chasing it is useless. But some women spend 5heir entire lives chasing after just one more day in the sun.

    I have a bum knee and have gained weight. My face is lined, my hair is grey, and I am far from the women who could once make men’s heads turn. But, I don’t live in the past. My life is, and has been, so full.

    1. Well said, Rau. One of the earliest lessons I learned after Christiana was killed, a thing I’ve repeated to the three or four people I’ve counseled after they’d lost a loved one unexpectedly, is this: you have to find a way to not be bitter over what you lost, but to be grateful for what you had. If you can’t do that, it will simply eat you alive, until there’s nothing left of you but a hollowed-out shell. It can be very tough to accept, but it really is the only way to get through it.

  2. Heh, well thanks for that, Mike. Montana was one of my favorites even though I didn’t much care for the rest of the team. That was a time when I still watched the pro football games.

    I can only imagine the difficulty in the transition from superstar to has been.

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