“75 for 75” is an article series from the 49ers Museum highlighting legendary moments in 49ers history as part of the team’s 75th Anniversary celebrations in 2021.
Just eight weeks after suffering a near career-ending ruptured disc, Joe Montana made a triumphant return to Candlestick Park. It created more comeback buzz than Frank Sinatra’s return to Hollywood.
Montana’s appearance against the St. Louis Cardinals was his first since undergoing spinal surgery after the 1986 season opening win over Tampa Bay. Doctors informed the two-time Super Bowl MVP he risked paralysis if he played again and retirement was a better option. Several teammates, including good friends Dwight Clark and Ronnie Lott, were concerned that after dropping to 185 pounds during the layoff, Montana might still be a bit fragile.
“We were a little worried about him before the game but the only thing that seemed to concern Joe was whether he would be rusty or not,” Clark said. “As you could see, he wasn’t rusty.”
A raucous capacity crowd greeted Montana with a standing ovation as he took the field.
During his absence, the 49ers coasted unsteadily to a 4-3-1 record. Now, the breathless 49ers Faithful waited at Candlestick wondering if Montana could recoup his magic touch.
Midway through the first quarter, Montana put all doubt to rest. He dropped back to pass, held his ground against a stiff Cardinals pass rush, then fired a 45-yard touchdown strike to second-year sensation Jerry Rice.
All eyes were on Montana, who was smothered under the rush and absorbed a late hit from Cardinals linebacker Charlie Baker. After an agonizingly long second, Montana popped to his feet and pumped his arm. The 49ers Faithful went nuts. Joe was back.
“It seemed like he’d never left,” tackle Keith Fahnhorst said.
It was just the beginning. Montana directed the 49ers to scores on seven of nine possessions. He finished the game with 270 passing yards, completing 13-of-19 attempts and firing three touchdown passes to Rice.
“I was so excited to get back on the field. I missed football,” Montana said. “I missed the day-to-day practices. I missed the camaraderie in the locker room. It’s nice to know the fans appreciate you.”
The 49ers 43-17 win over St. Louis inspired emotionally charged team owner Eddie DeBartolo to say, “With all due respect to all the doctors on earth, what Joe Montana does best is stand behind the center, even if he’s hurt. It’s what he wants to do. There aren’t a whole lot of people who can play the way he does.”
Indeed, Montana put the doctors and naysayers to rest and went on to earn the 1986 NFL Comeback Player of the Year award. He also guided the 49ers to two more Super Bowl crowns before retiring in 1994, eight years after the back surgery, and earning a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.