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Joe Cool and The Great One

By Mike Toth

Joe Montana and Wayne Gretzky.

To sports fans of a certain vintage, (i.e. - old dogs) Montana and Gretzky will always be connected.

They were superstars in the 1980's, with Montana winning four Super Bowls and Gretzky claiming four Stanley Cups.

They both grew up in small towns and were raised by sports-loving fathers.

They both married actresses and their sons both ended up as quarterbacks; teammates, in fact, on the same California high school football squad in 2009.

Heck! Montana and Gretzky even LOOK alike, and they definitely played alike. Both of them weren't blessed with an abundance of size and strength. But they both had unbelievable natural talent and an uncanny ability to "see" the game and think one step ahead of their opponents.

Perhaps most important of all, Montana and Gretzky were also excellent all-around athletes during their formative years and are both big believers in kids experiencing as many sports as possible.

I just finished reading "Montana - The Biography of Joe Cool" by Keith Dunnavant. Most sports fans know about Montana's quarterback prowess, but he was also a heckuva basketball player. In fact, upset by a lack of playing time in his early college days at Notre Dame, Montana thought seriously about quitting football and joining the Fighting Irish hoops squad. But although Notre Dame basketball coach Digger Phelps was impressed with Montana's ability on the court, he convinced him that his best shot at a pro career was on the gridiron. In the end, Montana stuck with football and eventually became Notre Dame's undisputed starting QB. From there, of course, he took the NFL by storm and, give or take Tom Brady, Montana is considered the greatest quarterback to ever take a snap.

It's commonplace to romanticize the good old days when young athletes were encouraged to play all sorts of sports. Nowadays, with paid youth coaches, specialized instruction and year-round training, many elite players focus on just one sport when they reach their teens. But even in the 1970's, kids were sometimes pressured to devote all of their efforts to a single pursuit. Montana's high school football coach, for instance, was very upset with Joe for also playing high school basketball. Because of his hoops commitment, Montana was forced to miss a number of winter weightlifting sessions with the football team. The football coach couldn't understand why Montana wanted to mess around with basketball and refused to even speak with Joe for a number of years. Finally, after Montana had retired from the NFL, his buddies back in his small Pennsylvania home town got the two men together and they eventually worked out their differences. Glad to hear it, but let's be honest; that old coach sounds like a bit of a Bozo. After all, Montana's greatest strength was to find the open man and put an incredible touch on the football - skills that were obviously enhanced on the basketball court.


I'm a huge believer in kids playing as many sports as they can for as long as they can. I grew up playing volleyball in the fall, hockey in the winter and baseball in the spring and summer. My two sons also have a variety of sporting interests, which helps develop different skill sets and keeps them from getting bored and burned out. To be honest, it's also great for parents as I have to admit the idea of sitting in a cold hockey rink on a gorgeous July or August afternoon turns my stomach. Our Canadian summers are already too short and for puck-crazy parents who think their young phenom will be left behind if they don't skate all summer, here's something to think about; Wayne Gretzky never played summer hockey and, if memory serves me correctly, he turned into a pretty decent player. In addition to his on-ice wizardry, Gretzky was also a devoted baseball player, good enough to be offered a tryout with the Toronto Blue Jays, and he spent his summers playing on the diamonds in Brantford, Ontario. Gretzky often speaks about his baseball-loving youth, explaining that it was a great break from chasing pucks and left him feeling hungry for hockey when autumn rolled around.

Like Montana, Gretzky wasn't a big weightlifting fan either. It wasn't until the end of his career that Wayne finally relented and decided to follow a strength building program to try and keep up with the younger and bigger players that were coming into the league.

So how did that work out?

"When I started my NHL career," Gretzky once famously said, "I could score 90 goals, but I could only do nine push-ups. At the end of my career, I could do 90 push-ups, but I could only score nine goals."

All kidding aside.....Wayne wasn't really kidding.

The Great One really did turn into The Mediocre One during his final NHL season, as Number 99 managed only nine measly goals with the New York Rangers. But, thanks to his new weight training regime, just about every one of those nine pucks hit the back of the net. 

The fact is, neither Joe Montana or Wayne Gretzky were great physical specimens. But they had the natural athletic ability, uncanny anticipation and incredible passion for the game that propelled them to hall-of-fame heights.

So, the next time your kid wants to shoot hoops instead of tossing a pigskin or belt a baseball instead of slapping a puck, don't sweat it. Encourage them to play as many sports as possible for as long as they can and during their rare down time, maybe you can tell them a tale or two about a pair of true sports-loving legends - Joe Cool and The Great One.

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