The Winning Spirit of Joe Montana

Hometown Heroes, People, Sports, Traditions
on January 27, 2006
David Mudd

Joe Montana remembers celebrating his first of many Super Bowl wins on Jan. 12, 1969.

Sure, the record books say another quarterback named Joe—the New York Jets’ Joe Namath—celebrated a Super Bowl victory in Miami on that date. But Montana, then age 12, relished his own victory—with imaginary teammates in his backyard in Monongahela, Penn. (pop. 4,761). "I’ve won a thousand of them since," recalls Montana, 49, with a smile.

Unlike many boys who perfected their aim by tossing a football through a tire swing, Montana’s dreams later became reality—not just once, but four times. Considered by many the best professional quarterback in the game’s history, Montana led the San Francisco 49ers to Super Bowl victories in 1982, 1985, 1989 and 1990, and also took home Most Valuable Player honors for three of those championship games.

"It’s one of the most exciting games you can be a part of as a player," Montana says about the Super Bowl. "I remember the first time walking on the field for the first Super Bowl, when we played in Pontiac, Michigan. You could hear the yeahs and boos as you walked on the field for warm-ups."

Ironically, a recollection of a man known for his intense focus was when he surprised teammates by diverting his offense’s attention from the game for a moment. During the 1989 Super Bowl, the 49ers found themselves on their own 8-yard line, trailing the Cincinnati Bengals 16-13 with three minutes remaining in the game. Feeling the palpable tension in the huddle, Montana kneeled and caught sight of actor John Candy eating popcorn on the sidelines. "Look, isn’t that John Candy?" Montana asked.

The players looked at the sidelines and then returned their attention to their quarterback, who they thought had lost his mind. Laughter erupted in the huddle, and the tension evaporated. The 49ers scored the winning touchdown with 34 seconds to spare.

Focus on the family
These days, Montana is a football spectator, joining his wife, Jennifer, in the stands to cheer sons Nathaniel, 16, and Nicholas, 13, both quarterbacks for their schools’ teams. "I’m pretty quiet," he says. "I tend to help the boys, more than anything. I really just try to watch fundamentally what they are doing and try to keep them right that way. I don’t want to talk to them too much; I want to try to help them if they are having a problem.

"Otherwise, they are going to make bad throws and bad decisions. That is all part of what they have to get used to doing. I’m trying to let them know that it’s not going to be perfect, so go have fun."

The couple’s daughters, Alexandra, 20, and Elizabeth, 19, attend their father’s alma mater, the University of Notre Dame, which he led to the national collegiate championship in 1977. "I was always hoping one of them would pick there," he says, "but I also wanted them to know the decision was theirs."

The Montanas live on 600 acres in the Napa Valley in Calistoga, Calif. (pop. 5,190), where he enjoys raising grapes and riding Western cutting horses. He retired from football at age 38 but maintains a hectic schedule of business meetings, motivational speeches and product endorsements. He owns a real estate investment company and recently released a book, The Winning Spirit: 16 Timeless Principles that Drive Performance Excellence, co-written with business coach Tom Mitchell. "I tell my wife, ‘I’m ready for retirement, because retirement is killing me!’" he says with a laugh. "There’s been a lot of travel."

A health scare
Last year, Montana traversed the nation to educate people about the dangers of high blood pressure, a condition with which he was diagnosed during a routine physical examination in 2002. An athlete and nonsmoker who always has maintained his pencil-thin physique, Montana seemed an unlikely candidate for health concerns. But his mother, who died of cancer nearly two years ago, had high blood pressure, and her father died of heart disease at age 54. Sixty-five million Americans, or one in three adults, have high blood pressure. Like 30 percent of those with the condition, Montana didn’t know he was one of them.

"My blood pressure had gone up extremely high," he says. "I didn’t even ask what it was. My doctor sent me to the cardiologist right away." Medical tests revealed Montana also had a small blockage in one of his arteries. "A good friend said, ‘Oh yeah, they call that the widow-maker.’ I go, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’

"I was surprised when I found out about it. I was as shocked as anyone. I have four kids and a wife and I wasn’t ready to be gone from that. I had enough reasons to be around; that also helped motivate me."

Montana takes medication for high blood pressure and says he sometimes needs a reminder from his wife. He’s improved his eating habits by enjoying his favorite foods in moderation. "I like red meat, steaks, fried chicken, burgers and pizza," he says. "Salt is my nemesis; I love potato chips. I am fortunate because my kids try to move the salt shaker to the other side of the table away from me or give me that look, ‘You shouldn’t be eating that.’"

While his exercise regime isn’t as intense as when he played football, he still tries to work out at least five times a week. "After working out six days a week for thirty-something years, I thought I could cut back a little," he says. "I cut back a little too much! I’ve got a bad knee, so I can’t run. I would love to be playing basketball with the boys, but I can’t do any of that."

He is a paid spokesman for the BP Success Zone Program (, which encourages people to get their blood pressure checked, reduce salt and fat in their diets and increase physical activity.

"This is something that is still the number-one killer in the U.S. and you can do something about it," he says. "I felt it was something that we could make some pretty good strides with and get the word out there."

Montana relies on the principles that brought him success on the football field to help him stay healthy. "Athletes are so used to having an injury and working to get over it," he says. "A lot of people treat illnesses as ‘Oh, I don’t have to go to work today,’ where athletes want to get back as fast as you can."

That winning attitude has defined Montana’s career, from his Super Bowl wins and MVP trophies to the 1986 ruptured-disc injury that threatened his career. Although he underwent surgery and missed eight games, he returned two months later to help his team clinch the division championship.

That courageous comeback was vintage Montana—a man driven by a natural passion for the game, as well as the discipline and confidence he learned as a little boy throwing footballs in the backyard.

"I always remembered my dad’s advice from when I was growing up," he says. "‘Whatever you do, Joe, you should want to be the best.’"

Quarterback Picks
Much of America has been glued to the tube watching football this season, and Joe Montana is no exception. Here’s the former quarterback’s take on some of his favorite gridiron hotshots.

Since he always maintained his composure when things turned stressful on the field, it’s no surprise Montana enjoys watching New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady play. "I just think he’s cool and calm in the pocket," Montana says. "You never see him yelling around and complaining a lot. Everybody is going to get upset every now and then. We all do, and he does on occasion, but you go out there and play the game and get back pretty quickly.

"I like watching [Indianapolis Colt] Peyton Manning, even though he’s kind of animated at times. I like watching [Philadelphia Eagle] Donovan McNabb, and I think [Tennessee Titan] Steve McNair is pretty good, too."