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After 18-month layoff, Montana hopes to prove he's not too old to come back

Joe Montana was dining in Hawaii 18 months ago with his wife and wearing a cast on his broken right hand.

When the waitress, who didn't recognize the veteran San Francisco 49ers quarterback, asked him how he suffered the injury, he said sheepishly, "playing football."

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The waitress replied, "Oh, dear, aren't you too old to be doing that sort of thing?"

The other patrons in the restaurant laughed, but Montana hopes to get the last laugh this year.

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At 36, when most quarterbacks are ready for a pipe and slippers, Montana will try to prove he's not too old to play even after an 18-month layoff.

If Montana weren't so boyish looking, it would be a perfect role for Jack Palance. The old gunfighter attempts to show he hasn't lost his touch. Montana probably can do a one-handed push-up.

As the NFL interrupts its court fights, TV rebate battles and other off-the-field problems for its 73rd season, the player who will be watched the closest is Montana.

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham also is trying to make a comeback from a knee injury and he will get a lot of attention. But Montana is in a league of his own. He's the best of his time, maybe of all time.

He won his first Super Bowl in 1981 at age 25. He underwent back surgery six years ago, two years after his second Super Bowl season, and some doctors suggested he should retire. He went on to win two more Super Bowl rings.

The last time we saw him on the football field was in the fourth quarter of the 1990 NFC title game. He was protecting a 13-12 lead over the New York Giants and was on the threshold of a fifth Super Bowl appearance when Leonard Marshall blindsided him and broke his hand.

After he left, Roger Craig lost a fumble and Matt Bahr kicked the field goal that ended the 49ers' "threepeat" dream.

Montana then missed all last season after undergoing elbow surgery.

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Without him, the 49ers missed the playoffs. The league also wasn't the same. He is its No. 1 attraction.

That's why it was an encouraging sign that he was on hand Thursday when the 49ers opened training camp. He started out slowly, throwing only 40 passes a day, but he thinks he's ready.

L "I probably could play right now . . .if I had to," he said.

The 49ers will be happy if he's ready opening day. He's the only 49er left from the 1981 Super Bowl team, and his presence makes the 49ers a contender again. Not that he's looking at this as a last hurrah.

"I'd like to play two, three more years," he said.

Even if he comes back and wins the Super Bowl, he won't be ready to hang it up.

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"If I win a Super Bowl, you sit there and think, 'God, it would be nice to just go out while you're on top.' [But] feeling so good about the way you played, you would want to come back and play another year or so," he said.

It's almost a Montana trademark that he has so much self-confidence that he's not just talking about coming back, he's talking about winning it all again.

Watching him try to do it will add a special flavor to this season.

The recess

Halfway through the two-week recess of the NFL's antitrust trial in Minneapolis, it's not surprising that the owners and players haven't made any progress on a settlement. Stan White, the Baltimore agent who represents one of the eight players suing, Frank Minnifield of the Cleveland Browns, said that "nothing of any substance" happened last week to close the gap between the two sides.

The owners will meet in Dallas tomorrow, but the hard-line faction opposing a settlement still has the votes to block any deal. It would take 21 votes to get the owners to approve a deal.

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The big sticking point is that the players want free agency after four years and the owners are insisting on six years, including several restrictions such as a provision denying free agency to players making more than $1 million.

The trial resumes a week from tomorrow.

Pushing for expansion

Expansion is on hold while the owners await the results of the antitrust trial. But Sen. Al Gore's nomination as the Democratic vice presidential candidate adds something new to the mix. The NFL wouldn't exactly be thrilled to see Gore become vice president because he's been pushing the league to expand the past several years. When the league announced its expansion ** timetable, Gore, who's trying to get a team for Memphis, wanted to know why the league wasn't adding four teams instead of two.

If Gore becomes vice president and the NFL loses the trial and delays expansion, he's likely to ask why. The NFL expanded in 1976 without a collective bargaining agreement and has never come up with a reason for why it can't expand now without one.

The stadium deal

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Owner Jack Kent Cooke's bid to get a new stadium for the Washington Redskins in Alexandria, Va., doesn't seem to be the done deal he said it was a week ago. A lot of opposition is building in the Virginia legislature to the idea of the state kicking in $130 million of the $280 million project. Now that Gov. L. Douglas Wilder is back from the Democratic National Convention, he's going to have to do a lot of lobbying to save the project. On top of everything else, the Federal Aviation Administration is studying whether the site is too close to National Airport.

A message for Rypien

With John Riggins scheduled to be inducted to the Hall of Fame in two weeks, there's sure to be discussion about his season-long holdout in 1980 and his return in 1981 when he said simply, "I'm bored, I'm broke and I'm back."

Quarterback Mark Rypien, who said he felt he was slapped in the face by the Redskins' offer in the $3 million range and will become a holdout today when the Redskins open camp, could learn a lesson from the Riggins holdout.

Cooke showed in 1980 what a hard line he can take at the negotiating table. He's not the type of owner who caves in.

Cashing in

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It's Rypien's misfortune that he doesn't play for Tim Robbie, the owner of the Miami Dolphins. Robbie made quarterback Dan Marino the highest-paid player in the league last year when he boosted Marino more than $1 million above Montana ($4.43 million to $3.25 million) even though Marino's credentials don't come close to matching Montana's.

On Friday, Robbie came close to doubling coach Don Shula's NTC contract when he gave him a two-year, $3.7 million deal. Shula deserves to be the highest-paid coach, but almost doubling his salary seems rather generous in an era when the TV revenue is supposed to go down.

A message for Bidwill

William G. Bidwill is loyal to a fault. The owner of the Phoenix Cardinals stuck with personnel director George Boone for over two decades even though his terrible drafting record (Steve Pisarkewicz, Steve Little, Clyde Duncan and Anthony Bell were among his first-round choices) has crippled the team. But Bidwill didn't interfere when general manager Larry Wilson fired Boone a week ago and hired Bob Ackles,who lost out in a Dallas Cowboys shake-up, as his new chief scout. Ackles may help rebuild the team.

One reason Bidwill was forced to agree to the move was the apathy the team is facing in Phoenix. Things are worse than they were in St. Louis.

The Cardinals sold 55,000 season tickets in their first year in Phoenix in 1988, but only 21,451 this year -- a drop of almost 6,000 from last year. The Cardinals sold 27,000 in their last year in St. Louis, and the Colts sold 24,000 in their last year in Baltimore.

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Since it wouldn't be practical for Bidwill to pickup and move again, he finally decided to do something about improving the team.

All this came at the same time that St. Louis was breaking ground on a new domed stadium-convention center project. Now that St. Louis likely to get an expansion team, the city may be better off that Bidwill moved. As long as he was in town, there wasn't much sentiment to build a new stadium.

Different styles

As Washington and Dallas head to their Monday night season opener, the teams are taking different approaches.

As usual, coach Joe Gibbs is worried. He always worried. This year, he's worried about holdouts, the distractions of the London trip in mid-August and the move to a new training facility after camp.

In Dallas, the Cowboys have a swagger. They're talking about making the Super Bowl.

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"I think the S-word is on everybody's mind," owner Jerry Jones said. "You don't buy the Dallas Cowboys unless you think you can eventually get to the Super Bowl."

You might think they'd be more concerned about beating Detroit Lions' backup quarterback Erik Kramer, who blew them out in the playoffs last year.

In memoriam

Two members of the Hall of Fame from different eras, Alex Wojciechowicz, who was inducted in 1968, and Buck Buchanan, who was inducted in 1990, died last week.

Wojciechowicz was a member of the Fordham "Seven Blocks of Granite" line (they had better nicknames in those days) in the 1930s and played for the Detroit Lions and Eagles.

Buchanan was a standout defensive tackle on the Kansas City Chiefs' two Super Bowl teams in the 1960s.

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How much have times changed? Wojciechowicz made $7,000 on the Eagles' 1948 championship team. The highest-paid player, another Hall of Famer, Steve Van Buren, made $13,000.


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