Thursday, February 3, 2011

Super Bowl Moment XIII: Joe Montana spots John Candy, then marches 92 yards like it's no big deal...

When in doubt, look for a B-list celebrity to calm everyone down...

The very brief disclaimer: this isn’t a list that’s ranked in any order other than chronological…so don’t judge too much. It’s Super Bowl moment number 13 on the list of the top 25.

This is probably my favorite Super Bowl story. It has everything I love about football: the best players on the biggest stage in the most crucial moments and they actually delivered. And more than that, they did it with style. They had panache.

It was Super Bowl XXIII and it was supposed to be a coronation for the NFL’s dynasty of the 80’s: the San Francisco 49ers. With Bill Walsh (one of the greatest coaches ever), legendary quarterback Joe Montana, and the best receiver of all-time (Jerry Rice), the Niners were stacked with talent.

Throw in ridiculous players like Ronnie Lott (who once cut off his own finger at halftime of a game so that he could keep playing), Roger Craig (the first running back to both rush and receive for a 1000 yards in the same season) and Bill Romanowski (who would eventually get caught in the BALCO steroids scandal with Barry Bonds), you had all the makings of a great team (even if Romo was on roids).

(All that and I didn’t even mention that Steve Young was the backup quarterback.)

But with 3:20 left in the fourth quarter, Montana and the 49ers trailed 16-13 to the Cincinnati Bengals.

Their offense had been largely stifled all game (with the notable exception of Jerry Rice who was on his way to a Super Bowl record 11 catches for 215 yards and a touchdown).

And because of a penalty, San Francisco took over on their own 8 yard-line. As 49er guard Harris Barton put it: “This was the tensest time that you could ever have as a football player. I mean, this is the Super Bowl, and you’re down.”

Right around the time Barton (and probably the rest of the 49er offense) was wrapping their minds around the difficulty of the task in front of them, Joe Montana strolled into the huddle.

He was already a legend, having won two Super Bowl MVPs and led many late-game heroics. But he’d never had to do this in the Super Bowl. San Francisco’s other wins had been more comfortable.

So there he is with the rest of his teammates, standing in their own endzone waiting for the play-call. And seemingly oblivious to the nervousness around him, Montana gestured to Barton to look down at the other endzone.

“You see him?” Montana asked. Barton was clueless.

“There’s John Candy” said an amused Montana.

And in that very serious moment, a crossroads in Super Bowl history, when the 49ers could either become a full-fledge dynasty or see their coronation ruined, the San Francisco offense was more interested in the presence of the John Candy.

It’s one of the most hilarious moments in football. Especially given the nature of football and the 49ers in that time, who were so given to a completely focused and serious mentality, it seems so unusual that they would pick that moment to goof off. 

But maybe that’s what made it so cool, that at the very point when they should have had maximum anxiety, they were loose enough to be star-struck (but seriously, they couldn’t have picked a more high-profile celeb?)

Of course, what makes the story so incredible is that the television timeout ended seconds later and Montana and his offense proceeded to drive 92 yards for the game-winning touchdown with 34 seconds remaining. Simply legendary. It was one of those things that literally could not have been believed had a screen-writer composed it.

What's fascinating is that, for all the calmness he projected, Montana actually hyper-ventilated midway through the drive. He was ignored by Bill Walsh when he wanted to call a timeout so he could calm down because Walsh was so fooled by Montana’s cool demeanor.

But he kept it together (like always) and simply picked apart Cincinnati’s defense before firing an inch-perfect pass to John Taylor for a ten yard touchdown that gave the Niners the lead for good (20-16).

It was Walsh’s last game as coach and the last play he ever called for them (20 Halfback Curl X Up) worked just as he’d drawn it up. Focusing too much on Jerry Rice (who moved from right to left in motion), the Bengal defense left a seam wide open for a grateful Taylor.

And while the effect of spotting John Candy can’t be measured, the ensuing drive speaks for itself. Montana’s confidence, bordering almost on aloofness, is the reason why even his fiercest rivals wouldn’t prefer any other quarterback to him in the classic question: “If you had to win one game to save your life, who would the quarterback be?”

The answer, undoubtedly, would be Joe Cool.

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