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Joe Montana Comments on Physical, Mental Toll of NFL Career

FILE - In this Jan. 28, 1990, file photo, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana raises his helmet toward the crowd as he leaves the field following the team's 55-10 victory over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV in New Orleans. Montana won four Super Bowls, collecting three MVP trophies along the way, so it's not easy to pick his top game, but the 1990 Super Bowl might very well be it.  (AP Photo/Lennox McLennon, File)
Lennox Mclendon/Associated Press
Scott PolacekFeatured ColumnistFebruary 5, 2016

The topic of Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning’s legacy and historical rank among signal-callers will be a hot-button issue following Sunday’s Super Bowl 50, especially if it is his final game. One quarterback he, and arguably everyone else in league history, is still chasing is Joe Montana.  

Montana won four Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers and has made a handful of media appearances leading up to Sunday’s Super Bowl in the Bay Area. However, the Hall of Famer discussed the overall toll of his NFL career with Josh Peter of USA Today on Friday, rather than his 40,551 passing yards and 273 touchdown passes.

The 59-year-old said, “Unfortunately, most of us leave this game with things that linger.”

Montana played from 1979-94 with the 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs, and he suggested the difficult thing to overcome at first was missing the game of football, per Peter: “The mental part was hard initially when I first retired. Because it’s quick—cold turkey, the game’s gone. Then the physical stuff tries to catch up with you.’’

The physical stuff has certainly caught up to the former Notre Dame star. Peter noted Montana suffers from arthritis in his elbows, knees and hands, among other things. Montana said, “My hands have been, oh my gosh, in the middle of the night they hurt like crazy.”

He also reflected on his multiple knee surgeries, “They kept saying I’ll need a knee replacement when I can’t walk. I can’t really run or do much with it.”

One thing Manning already has in common with Montana outside of their respective statuses as all-time great quarterbacks is neck-fusion surgery. Manning underwent the surgery in 2011, and Montana has already done so three times. The former 49er said he may not be done either, per Peter: “I think I’m headed down the fusion thing again. ... The path of a nerve they think is being affected.”

The nerve damage extended to one of his eyes, and Montana said, “It acts like a lazy eye to some degree because every time you’re tired, it kind of goes wherever it feels like a little bit. Not dramatic but just enough where you can’t read or you have to refocus,” per Peter.

Peter pointed out a doctor told Montana the nerve damage is from head trauma, which is certainly an ever-present issue with the NFL and its current and former players.

Montana wasn’t the only former 49er great to recently weigh in on the subject. Fellow Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott was asked Wednesday if he is concerned about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CNN.com describes CTE as “a degenerative disease of the brain and is associated with repeated head traumas like concussions”), and he said, per Jimmy Durkin and Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News, “Everyone should think they have it and then work to slow it down by working to have a better life.”

Elsewhere, John Branch of the New York Times, citing researchers at Boston University, reported Wednesday that former Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler was diagnosed with CTE posthumously. Branch also noted Boston University researchers found CTE in 90 of the 94 former NFL players they examined.

As for Montana, he mentioned a number of the physical activities he is no longer able to enjoy with his family after retirement, per Peter:

My whole family likes to live on the edge, so some of the things I regret that I can’t do with them. Like snowboarding. I fell like 50 times within 30 yards off the top of the ski lift. ... I love basketball. I can’t play basketball. I can shoot, but that’s about it. I can’t run up and down the court. My knee just gives out.

I tried a little bit of skiing, but unfortunately when you get weight on one ski under my left knee, it’s just not very strong. After my first back surgery, what kind of compounds things, is my sciatic nerve has been damaged. So the muscles along my sciatic nerve into my left foot have been numb since ’86.

Montana may not be able to enjoy those things anymore, but he will once again grace the football field Sunday when he tosses the coin at the Super Bowl. Given the game’s location in Santa Clara, California, the 49er great is bound to receive a welcoming ovation from Bay Area fans.

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