Joe's back
At a time such as this, it is important not to overstate your case. Even in the face of an artistic debut, caution is critical. This is the kind of start that makes you think about the future in awe. Oh, if only the kid could keep it up. Oh, if only he could continue to walk out there and throw the ball like he was a somebody. Oh, if only he could only mix in a performance such as this in a big game or two. If he could, heck, then this Joe Montana guy just might turn out to be all right.

Of course, you've probably never heard of this kid. Shoot, he hadn't started a football game in 32 months before Sunday. Before last April, in fact, he wasn't even with this Kansas City football team. You had to scale down to the third team of the San Francisco 49ers to find him, and even then you had to dust off the doubts. If the battered body wouldn't get him, the popular thinking went, then the rust would. Nevertheless, the way he played in the Chiefs' 27-3 bashing of the Tampa Bay Bucs Sunday, people soon may be comparing him to the game's immortals. All the new guy did was hit 14 of 21 passes for 246 yards and three touchdowns, slicing up what was thought to be a pretty good Bucs defense like so much laser surgery.

Funny, but as you watched, you almost got the feeling that you had seen him somewhere before, a long time ago. You see him slide around the pocket, studying the field as if it were a map, then toss darts so accurately you'd swear he was picking out certain fingers on the hands of his receivers, and it brings to mind a guy who won a few Super Bowls back in the '80s. That guy looked a bit like Barry Manilow, too. Then you think, nah, it couldn't be. By now, that guy would be too old, too feeble, too rich to care. Wouldn't he?

This is the way Joe Montana, legend, seems to approach his latest life. As if everyone has forgotten about his old one. If Montana did nothing else Sunday, he showed he didn't go to Kansas City to play out the string and bank a few more paychecks. He went as if he is going to start over, as if he is going to climb another mountain. How many times must an immortal redefine himself? With Montana, it happened again Sunday. He came into town wearing a new number, a new jersey, a new team for goodness' sakes, and he left as gilded as ever.

So many times, Montana has had dirt shoveled on his career. When he injured his back. When he injured his arm. When Bill Walsh fell in love with Steve Young. When George Seifert fell in love with Steve Young. When Eddie DeBartolo's accountant fell in love with Steve Young. Montana is 37, you know? He has become not only his new team's savior, but its very personality. Out with the running backs (Barry Word, Christian Okoye), in with the controlled passing game. He has a bevy of young receivers, and none of them are Jerry Rice. He was in his first pro game as a non-49er, and a nation was watching. And you know what he did? He went out and was Joe Montana. That's all. "This was a big game for him," said Tampa Bay quarterback Steve DeBerg. "It was kind of a statement game. And he's at his best in big games."

Poor DeBerg. Watch the two of them, and you figure DeBerg must have the passing arm of Dorian Gray. Both quarterbacks get older, but it seems DeBerg's arm is aging for them both. You watch Montana time and again, and you try not to be amazed. But you are. Montana hit his first nine passes in a row Sunday, taking four yards here, six yards there, easing back into the driver's seat. Two of his first three incompletions actually were caught out of bounds. He had a touchdown pass dropped, then came back a down later and threw it again. "I think I made some bad reads," he said, shrugging. "I held the ball too long a couple of times."

Hah. This was an artist at work again. You never will see Picasso paint again, you never will hear Caruso sing. But Montana keeps going. Tell me, has heaven ever loved anyone so much as it loves Montana? He is athletic, successful, wealthy, famous, idolized. So, you wonder, why? Why does Montana keep going out and adding pages to his resume. After all, Joe, I've talked to the Hall of Fame. You got the job.

The answer is as simple as the grin Montana wore off the field Sunday, walking into an interview room soaked in sweat and glory. "Hey," he whispered to a reporter. "You got a beer?" Montana plays football for the same reason Sugar Ray Leonard kept boxing. It is what he is, it is what he does. And what he still can do. You say he can't throw anymore? Well, how about that 50-yarder down the middle to J.J. Birden? You say he can't move a team? How about those 246 yards in 2 1/2 quarters? You say he's too old to last long? Bet against him. Go ahead.

Sunday, none of those things mattered anyway. All that mattered was that Montana went out and was legendary once more. It was a performance to make you remember all of his yesterdays, to make you smile about his tomorrows. Even as Montana was doing his magic, another young quarterback sat and watched him operate. Craig Erickson shook his head as he tried to describe what it was like. "It looks like he's going to finish out a great career in good fashion," Erickson finally said.

Yeah, Craig? What year? "Your guess," Erickson said, "is as good as mine."

Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times 1993