Football 101: No. 14, Joe Montana
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The other day, I re-read one of my favorite sports essays — David Foster Wallace’s “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart.” The essay is, on the surface, a scathing review of Austin’s autobiography, Beyond Center Court: My Story.
Underneath, though, the essay is an exploration of what ticks inside the greatest athletes. And Wallace comes to the conclusion that we, as fans, will inevitably be disappointed by the answer, because while we might hope that the things that tick inside are as bold and heartening as courage and daring and spirit and fortitude, the real answer might be closer to, well, vapidness.
‘The real secret behind top athletes’ genius,” he writes, “may be as esoteric and obvious and dull as silence itself. The real, many-veiled answer to the question of what goes through a great player’s mind as he stands at the center of hostile crowd-noise and lines up at the free-throw line that will decide the game might well be: nothing at all.”
This, of course, leads directly to the John Candy story.
Joe Montana was the coolest customer of his or, I’d argue, any time. That was his greatest gift. He was drafted at the end of the third round, even though he was probably the most famous college quarterback in America. After all, he had just led Notre Dame to a stunning comeback in what would almost immediately be called the “Chicken Soup” game.
That was in the 1979 Cotton Bowl, Houston vs. Notre Dame, frigid day in Dallas — and people in Dallas know that when it gets even a little bit cold there, the city somehow transforms into Minneapolis. Montana was shivering, his body temperature dropped to 96 degrees. He could barely stand up. In the first half he went 6-for-15 with two interceptions.
He did not come out to start the second half. “They told us Joe was not coming back in the second half,” Notre Dame’s All-America center said. “And we thought it was over.”
It WAS over. Montana stayed in the locker room covered in blankets. South Bend’s Les Bodnar, an orthopedist by trade, didn’t know exactly what to do. But his daughter had given him a couple of packets of noodle soup — “Dad was always a wimp about cold,” Beth Bodner would say — and Bodner fed the soup to Montana.
Montana came back out with 4:40 left in the third quarter. He was a wreck.
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