Joe Montana's legend began being built while he was a collegian at Notre Dame, and one of the foundation blocks was the remarkable victory he directed over Houston in the 1979 Cotton Bowl when he brought the Irish back from a 22-point fourth-quarter deficit.

By Sal Maiorana
CBS SportsLine Historian

DALLAS (Jan. 1, 1979) - Joe Montana, one of the fiercest competitors to ever strap on a football helmet, remembers one afternoon in his illustrious career when he really didn't feel like playing football.

Of course, there would have to be extenuating circumstances for Montana to not want to play.

Like, for instance, the worst ice storm Dallas had seen in 30 years, which paralyzed the city on the day of the 43rd playing of the Cotton Bowl between Montana-led Notre Dame and the University of Houston. The freak attack by Mother Nature produced temperatures in the low 20s, wind-chills in the negative numbers, and a thick coating of ice that turned Dallas into one big skating rink.

"When I pulled the covers over my head the night before the game, I fell asleep to the sound of ice pelting the hotel window," Montana recalled. "When I got up the next morning and looked out the window, it was beautiful - beautiful if you were spending the day looking out a window. This was a day to watch football from the comfort of your living room, not a day to play it."

Couple the horrid weather with the severe case of influenza that had invaded Montana’s body in the days leading up to his final game for the Fighting Irish, and you couldn't blame the guy for preferring to sit this one out. As he stepped onto the field for pre-game drills and watched as maintenance workers tried to chip the ice off the artificial turf, he was shivering not only from the arctic cold, but also from the chills that accompanied his illness. To be honest, Montana had no business playing a single down against the Cougars.

This was the Cotton Bowl, my farewell to Notre Dame, but I didn’t care much about the game during the first half," he admitted. "Neither did anyone else. At the half I arrived in the locker room shaking uncontrollably. My temperature had dropped to 96 degrees. The doctors covered me up with blankets and coats and I began drinking as much chicken soup as I could."

But it was situations like this that made Joe Montana who he is - arguably the greatest quarterback to ever play the game.

Despite his condition, he started and helped the Irish open a 12-0 first- quarter lead. However, once the teams switched ends for the second quarter and Houston had the advantage of the 18-30 mph wind at its back, the Cougars dominated play. They opened a 20-12 lead by halftime, and with Montana in the Notre Dame dressing room during most of the third quarter - supposedly done for the day on the advice of the team's medical personnel - the Cougars stretched their margin to what seemed like an insurmountable 34-12.

"As my body warmed, that feeling I had had earlier - not wanting to play because of the cold - disappeared," Montana said.

Too bad for the Cougars.

Montana left the locker room and was back under center late in the third quarter. His presence seemed to matter little, though, as he threw two interceptions - raising his total to four for the day - and failed to produce a first down in his first five possessions.

But just when it looked like not even Montana's return was going to make a difference, the Irish made a game-turning play. Tom Belden blocked a Houston punt, Steve Cichy grabbed the loose ball and raced 33 yards for a touchdown with 7:25 left, and the Irish were revitalized.

MONTANA THREW A TWO-POINT CONVIERSION PASS to Vagas Ferguson to make it 34-20, then he scored on a two-yard run and hit Kris Haines with another two-point pass to make it 34-28. Lastly, he fired an eight-yard touchdown pass to Haines with no time left on the clock, and when Joe Unis kicked the pressure-packed extra point while staring at the scoreboard that read 0:00, Notre Dame's 35-34 victory - one of the most amazing in school history - was complete.

"The mind can conquer all," Montana said. "It was just as cold, just as nasty, and I had no feeling in my hands when I returned to the field, but now I wanted in. I figured we still had a good shot even though we were so far behind. Once I got back on the field, I didn't consider my health. I looked at the score and I never thought of losing. Nobody on our team did, that's how we kept coming back."

Montana had already forged a reputation as some sort of miracle worker at Notre Dame, even though he started only 22 games in his career. As a sophomore, he shared quarterbacking duties with Rick Slager and led the Irish to come-from-behind wins against North Carolina and Air Force, wiping out a 20-point deficit in the final 13 minutes to beat the Falcons, 31-30.

He missed all of 1976 with a separated shoulder, and in 1977, he began the year as Rusty Lisch's backup. Notre Dame started 1-1 with Lisch, and then fell behind in-state rival Purdue 24-14 in the third game. With the season close to being ruined, Montana came off the bench with 11 minutes remaining for his first game action since 1975, threw for 154 yards and a TD, and Notre Dame won, 31-24. He started the final nine games including a 38- 10 romp of No. 1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl that delivered a national championship to Notre Dame, the 10th in its history.

As a senior in 1978, the Irish trailed Pittsburgh 17-7 with 13:46 left but Montana completed 7 of 8 passes for I IO yards and three TDs to pull out a 26-17 win. And against USC, Montana nearly pulled off another great comeback. Down 24-6 with 12:59 to go, he threw for 201 yards and produced three TDs in less than 12 minutes to put the Irish in front, 25-24, only to see USC come back and kick a game-winning field goal in the waning seconds.

SO MONTANA REGAINED CONTROL of the reins against Houston, his teammates sensed something wonderful was about to take place.

"When Joe came back to the field, I started thinking this was a fairy tale," said Haines. "Here he comes again. He's done it so many times before."

Said linebacker Bob Golic: "Whenever he came on the field, the players knew they had a friend coming in."

Anyone searching for a clue that this was going to be an interesting day got it on the opening coin toss. The Irish won it and elected to take the wind at their backs. So Houston had the choice of kicking or receiving, and for some reason, the Cougars chose to kickoff. When the teams came onto the field to start the game, both kickers came out, thinking they were kicking.

When things were sorted out and Notre Dame was deemed the receiving team, Randy Harrison caught the kick and rambled 56 yards to the Houston 34. Three plays netted nine yards, and on fourth down, coach Dan Devine elected to go for the first down, but Jerome Heavens was stopped for no gain.

Houston - using its potent veer running attack which was perfect for this day - drove to the Irish 34 before Randy Love fumbled and Jay Case recovered for Notre Dame.

Montana promptly took the Irish 66 yards in nine plays, scoring on a three- yard run. Along the way, he threw a 27-yard pass to Heavens and a 28-yarder to Dean Masztak. A bad snap foiled the point after.

When Bob Crable recovered a Cougar fumble on the ensuing kickoff, Notre Dame was set up at the Houston 25, and six plays later, Pete Buchanan slammed across the goal line from a yard out. Though Montana's two-point pass fell incomplete, the Irish were ahead 12-0.  

HOUSTON THEN SCORED 20 POINTS IN A ROW, all courtesy of Notre Dame turnovers.

Late in the first quarter, Notre Dame's Dave Waymer fumbled a punt at his own 12 and that set up Danny Davis' 15-yard touchdown pass to Willis Adams to make it 12-7.

Midway through the second quarter Montana lost a fumble which Houston's Dave Hodge recovered at the Notre Dame 21 leading to Love's one-yard run and a 14-12 Cougar advantage.

Montana then threw back-to-back interceptions, and though the Irish defense stiffened, Houston managed a pair of Kenny Hatfield field goals that raised the count to 20-12 at intermission.

Montana was in no shape to return to the field for the start of the third period, so he stayed behind and Devine handed the ball to backup Tim Koegel.

"They told us Joe was not coming back in the second half and we thought it was over," said Irish center Dave Huffman. It sure looked over when the Cougars tacked on two more touchdowns to increase their bulge to 34-12.

"We knew for a fact people were clicking off their TVs all over the country," said Huffman. "You could hear the ratings drop every time Houston went up another point."

HOUSTON OPTED TO TAKE THE WIND and kick off to start the second half and it paid a handsome dividend. Davis fired a 20-yard pass to Adams to key a 38-yard touchdown drive which Davis capped with a two-yard run. Then, Bobby Harrison blocked a Notre Dame punt giving the Cougars the ball at the 19, and three plays later, Davis swept in from the five.

It was at that point that Montana came trotting out of the locker room and informed Devine that he was ready to play.

"Rick Slager was in law school then and he was a graduate assistant coach on the sidelines with me," Devine said. "His job was to run into the locker room every five minutes to see what Joe's temperature was. He'd come back and say 'It's up to 97' and five minutes later I'd tell him to run in and find out again."

Said Montana: "I don't know what the doctor thought, but this was my last game and there was no way I was not going to play. My temperature was near normal so he didn't try to stop me. I don't think he could have if he tried."

With Montana unable to resuscitate the offense right away, the Notre Dame defense had to hang tough and prevent Houston from increasing its already enormous lead. And it did. While Montana did nothing on his first five drives, the Cougars did even less. They could not achieve a first down on five straight possessions, and it was after their last failure that Belden broke through and blocked J.J. Wyatt's punt which Cichy returned for the touchdown.

"When it was 34-12, 1 felt we had to do something to turn it around, and it happened when Cichy scored on the blocked punt,,, said Devine.

Houston's sixth straight series without a first down resulted in a Notre Daine drive start at its own 39, and Montana hit Masztak for 17 yards, then threw a 30-yard strike to Heavens which put the ball on the Houston 14. An 11-yard pass interference penalty on Gerald Cook moved it to the 3, and after two runs netted just one yard, Montana kept around left end on third down and just inched into the end zone. Again, Devine called for a two-point conversion, and again Montana was successful, hitting Haines to cut the deficit to 34-28 with 4:15 to go.

Now the crowd - which would have been more than 70,000 on a nice day, but was now down to about 15,000 - was aroused. A holding penalty on first down wiped out a 15-yard run, and the Cougars couldn't fight their way out of the hole and were forced to punt for the seventh consecutive possession without making a first down. The kick traveled only 27 yards into the wind, and the Irish took over at the Houston 49 with 2:25 remaining.

MONTANA CONVERTED A THIRD-AND-11 with a 14-yard pass to Pete Holohan, but then, after scrambling for a 16-yard gain to the Houston 20, Montana was stripped of the ball by Hodge and Tommy Ebner recovered for the Cougars with 1:50 to go.

"It was a pass play but the middle broke open," Montana explained. "When I saw Hodge coming, I made a move to elude him. I had the ball in my hand because I had forgotten to tuck it away. I was afraid that was it, but then I realized we had some timeouts left and the defense was playing fantastic."

Montana's fumble should have been the death blow. But a highly-questionable decision by Houston coach Bill Yeoman kept the door open just a crack, and that's all Montana needed.

Houston went three-and-out again and, faced with fourth-and-6, punted. The ball traveled only 21 yards, rolling dead at the Houston 45 with 35 seconds left to play. Back at the line of scrimmage, there was a penalty flag on the field, and the official indicated that Notre Dame was offsides.

Rather than decline and give Notre Dame the ball at the 45, Yeoman chose to try and convert the fourth-and-1 back from the 29 and end the game right there. Emmett King was stopped by Bob Gramke and Mike Calhoun, and Montana led the Irish offense onto the field for one last possession with 28 ticks left.

"I was completely responsible for that call," said Yeoman. "We were kicking the ball only 10 or 12 yards into the wind, and (long snapper) Chuck Brown had a bad wrist and couldn't snap the ball very well.

"On first down, Montana scrambled for 11 yards and the clock stopped on the first down. Quickly, Montana got called another play, and he hit Haines on an out pattern for I0 more, putting the ball at the 8. Feeling the need to get organized, Houston called for timeout with six seconds to go, and that gave Montana a chance to confer on the sidelines with the coaching staff.

"I gave Joe two plays," said Devine. "The first play I said 'Run a 91' which is a three-step drop, quick release, quick turnout by both wide receivers where they drive down the corner and break out hoping on the poor turf that you lose your defender. I said 'Use the 91 and then come back with what you're most comfortable with.' That might have been the smartest thing I did."

Montana ran the 91, but when Haines couldn't shake free, Montana gunned the ball out of bounds to make sure he could get one more play off. Two seconds were left.

"HE KEPT LOOKING AT THE BENCH for approval to come back with 91, " Devine said. "I had a policy that if I turned my back on a player, that told him he knew more about it than I did, that he should make the decision. I turned my back on Joe, and he came back with the same play."

"Joe asked me if I could beat him again and I said yes," said Haines. "He smiled and said 'Let's do it.' And we did. It couldn't have been a more perfect pass. It looked low and outside, but that's where it was supposed to be. It was so clutch."

Now there was the matter of the game-winning extra point. Unis had been a walk-on at Notre Dame, a native of Dallas playing in front of the home fans. Could there have been a more suitable ending?

Of course not, because after Unis kicked the ball through the uprights, the play was nullified by a procedure penalty on the Irish. The officials backed Unis up five yards and made him kick it again. The penalty did not matter as Unis nailed it dead center to win the game.

"I didn't have time to think about being nervous," Unis said. "Every kicker fantasizes about winning games like this."

In the jubilant locker room, Notre Dame athletic director Moose Krause hugged Devine and proclaimed "Dan, that's the greatest comeback in Notre Dame history." Devine, who had heard Krause say this on a couple of occasions thanks to Montana, smiled and said "Come on Moose, you say that every time."

Upon further reflection, Devine came to agree with his boss.

"As far as comebacks were concerned, this one was unbelievable," he said. "I felt complete exhilaration. We had so many great comebacks at Notre Dame that it's so hard to say which is the greatest, but if I had to pick one, the combination of three touchdowns and two two-point extra points and one extra point in the final 7 1/2 minutes. ..."

POSTSCRIPT: The Irish finished seventh in the AP poll while Houston ended in the 10th position, both teams possessing 9-3 records.

Montana became a third-round draft choice of the San Francisco 49ers in the 1979 draft. He went on to win four Super Bowls in the 1980s, winning the game's MVP award a record three times. In 1993 he went to the Kansas City Chiefs in a trade, and after two seasons, retired with the NFL's second- leading career passer rating (92.3), the second-best completion percentage (63.24), the second-most 400-yard passing games (7) and the third-lowest percentage of interceptions (2.58).


Notre Dame 12 0 0 23 - 35
Houston 7 13 14 0 - 34

ND - Montana 3 run (kick failed), 8:05.
ND - Buchanan I run (pass failed), 10:20.
Hou - Adams 15 pass from Davis (Hatfield kick), 14:43.
Hou - Love 1 run (Hatfield kick), 8:33.
Hou - Hatfield 21 field goal, 12:00.
Hou - Hatfield 34 field goal, 14:57.
Hou - Davis 2 run (Hatfield kick), 8:31.
Hou - Davis 5 run (Hatfield kick), 10:20.
ND - Cichy 3 blocked punt return (Ferguson pass from Montana), 7:35.
ND - Montana 2 run (Haines pass from Montana), 10:45.
ND - Haines 8 pass from Montana (Unis kick), 15:00.
Att - 32,500


RUSHING - Notre Dame: Heavens 16-7 1, Montana 7-26, Ferguson 10-19, Pallas 4-11, Mitchell 1-3, Buchanan 2- 1. Houston: Davis 19-76, King 21-74, Love 22-73, Brown 1-6.

PASSING - Notre Dame: Montana 13-34-4 - 163, Koegel 0-3-0-0. Houston: Davis 4-12-0 - 60, Brown 0-1-0 - 0.

RECEIVING - Notre Dame: Heavens 4-60, Haines 4-31, Masztak 3-49,Holohan 1-14, Ferguson 1-9. Houston: Adams 2-35, Herring 2-25.

And now the inside story of the 79 Cotton Bowl:

  • Kris Haines, Montana’s ace receiver, had a temperature of 102 and was praying that they would cancel the game…
  • Brian McMorrow, a sophmore student manager, sat in a wind swept tunnel under the Cotton Bowl and painted the helmets – alone…
  • The youngest daughter of Dr. Les Bodnar, the team surgeon, crept into her parents hotel room on Christmas eve to put up their stockings. Almost as an afterthought, she put in a packet of Mrs. Grass Chicken Noodle Soup…

These and other eye witness accounts are part of in depth coverage of the ’79 Cotton Bowl

One of the most enduring legends of the ’79 Cotton Bowl, indeed the one which gave the game it’s nickname, is the story of Joe Montana and his bowl of chicken soup.

After struggling though a first half with field temperatures dipping below freezing, Montana returned to the lockerroom shivering uncontrollably. We spoke to Doctor Les Bodnar, the team orthopedic surgeon, last December. The Doctor started by saying that he had heard so many inaccurate accounts of what went on in the lockerroom at halftime that he was happy to set the record straight.

Dr. Bodnar: "The whole story really began with a tradition in our family to hang stocking Christmas Eve. When we went to the Cotton Bowl and took our youngest daughter along on the trip. Well, she sneaked into our room and when we woke up in the morning she had filled our stockings with apples, oranges and a packet of Mrs. Grass Noodle Soup. Now, on road trips we always carried along a little coffee maker to brew up tea and soup."

The morning of the game Gene Paszkiet, the head trainer, told Dr. Bodnar that one of the lineman was sick and could he bring some soup to the game. The Doctor checked with the hotel kitchen, but because it was so early, they didn’t have any prepared. Then, he remembered the packet of noodle soup and brought that and the coffee maker to the game.

Dr. Bodnar: "Well, when we got to the stadium, Gene, said that the lineman had recovered and didn’t need the soup, so we stuck it up on the window ledge in the lockerroom. Now during the course of the game, Joe was the only player not wearing long sleeves. When we came into the lockerroom at halftime, he was shaking like a leaf. We put him on a cot and piled blankets and coats on top of him. Then, we remembered the packet of chicken soup sitting on the window sill."

So, Dr. Bodnar brewed up the chicken soup and Joe began to drink. At this time Joe’s temperature was down to 96 degrees, and athough he started to come around, he still wasn’t ready to go at the end of the half.

Dr. John Thompson, was the general team doctor and he stayed with Joe in the lockerroom when the Irish went back on the field. Dr. Thompson recalls what happened next:

Dr. Thompson: "When the second half started out, we heard a good bit of crowd noise and being that we were away from home, we figured that was not our home crowd, with that much volume. So, that kind of perked Joe’s ears up and gave him an added impetus to get back in there. I decided to let Joe go out there by himself because I wanted him to feel like he was on his own and didn’t have someone tagging along. But psychologically he seemed very ready to get back in the game.

After the game, Dr. Thompson was about to leave the lockerroom when he noticed something over by the training table where Joe was treated.

Dr. Thompson: "When we got ready to leave the dressing room, I noticed the soup bowl and spoon. I asked the other doctors and trainers if anyone them, and no one did. So, I took them back to the hotel and offered to buy the spoon and bowl from the manager. He said, ‘No, go ahead and take it.’

"Now after I had it awhile, I had some words printed on it and years later, when the College Football Hall of Fame came to South Bend, I took it down there and asked the President if he would like to have it. He said they would.

A few weeks after the Cotton Bowl, though, there was a banquet to celebrate the victory. Dr. Thompson took his bowl and asked the chef in the kitchen to do him a favor. When Joe Montana was served his salad course, he smiled. His garden greens were served in a very familiar bowl. Around the rim of the dish were printed these words, "Cotton Bowl Notre Dame 35  Houston 34-January 1, 1979...Joe Montana's and Notre Dame's Souper Day."

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The bowl and spoon Joe used at half time.
(Photo courtesy of the College Football Hall of Fame).

And so, Irish fans, that’s the story of how a little girl’s thoughtful stocking stuffer helped the Irish win one of their all-time greatest victories.

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Manager Anthony Totaro checks Joe Montana's helmet in the lockerroom on the morning of the 1979 Cotton Bowl.
(Photo from the Brian McMorrow collection).

Brian McMorrow was a sophmore team manager for the ’79 Fighting Irish. He’s told me that he has many fond memories of his years with the team, but one job he would probably like to forget was the one-man helmet painting crew he comprised before the Cotton Bowl that year. Usually the helmet painting is a venerated tradition with a crew of managers (we’ve all seen the Adidas commercials) prepping, painting and buffing in the cozy cofines under Notre Dame stadium.

Brian McMorrow: " As everyone who follows the Irish knows (or has seen the movie, Rudy), the helmets are painted in a ventilated area. For home games, we sprayed the helmets on Friday nights in the ND Stadium concourse. For road games, we painted the helmets on Thursday nights in the ACC by one of the garage doors. For bowl games, the helmets are painted on site on the eve of the contest. On December 31, 1978, Dallas was in the grips of one of there coldest and iciest storms ever. Helmets were to be painted under the stands of the Cotton Bowl. Although covered, winds blew through the concourse area and temperatures were below freezing. One of the upperclassmen helped set out the helmets on the drop cloth covered concrete. (Oh, yeah, there were enough guys to tape the facemasks downstairs in the warmth of the lockerrroom). I began spraying.

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Managers Brian McMorrow and Mike Skurka painting the helmets prior to the 1978 USC game.
(Photo from the Brian McMorrow collection.) 

"While painting the helmets, the Kilgore Rangerettes (I think that's what they're called) assembled nearby, ventured down to the field to practice their halftime show and quickly called it off due to the icy drizzle and poor field conditions. I continued spraying until every last helmet had a fresh coat of gold paint (probably 75-80 of them).

Brian was busy for most of the game with his job of watching the equipment carts behind the sidelines, digging out things that may be needed (extra pads, pliers, cleats) but he does remember watching the last touchdown play and jumping up and down with defensive back Dave Waymer after the Irish scored.

After the game, Brian recalls seeing Joe Montana sitting on the training table, his football pants soaked with snow, sweat and blood.

"They had to cut his pants off with with surgical scissors. It was the only way to get them off."

"After every game that season, my Mom and my grandparents would call to say they saw me on TV and how great the helmets looked. After this game, they made no mention of the helmets but yelled at me for not having a coat on!! (If you ever get a hold of the CBS game tape, I'm the manager standing behind Frank Gleiber, the sideline reporter, when he was speaking without sound about the conditions on the field). Just like there wasn't enough thermal undershirts to go around for everyone, not everyone could wear a parka.

Brian has one last recollection of the Cotton Bowl weekend.

"It was the morning after. I was having breakfast in the hotel restaurant with my fellow managers and trainers. In walked Moose Krause. Striding to his table in his (now trademark) cowboy hat, he sat down at the table behind me and promptly boasted to anyone who would listen how yesterday's game was the greatest comeback in Notre Dame history. Talk about getting a perspective!

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Kris Haines was Joe Montana’s favorite receiver at Notre Dame. We spoke to Kris last week as he took a break from his job as owner and director of Gold Coast Martial Arts in Chicago.

Kris Haines: "You know, it took me 20 years to figure out what happened on that play, and I didn’t until I watched the game again on tape.

Kris wasn’t talking about the diving touchdown pass that he caught with 1 second on the clock, to bring Notre Dame to within an extra-point kick of victory. He was talking about two plays before. With the ball on the 18 yard line and seconds to go, Joe Montana hit Kris with a 10 yard sideline pass. After Haines caught the ball, he turned and, almost instinctivley game the Houston defender a shot to the head. Kris describes the play:

"After watching the tape of the play, I think I figured out what happened. After I caught the pass, I hit him [the cornerback] and came across with an elbow shot to the helmet. His head jerked back and then he hit a cameraman on the sidelines, spun around and went down.

"So, then the guy gets up and he’s real groggy and it takes him a long time o get back to the huddle. And, on the next two plays, he must have been in a daze because he’s playing way off me. For the last play [the touchdown pass] he was playing 10 yards back in the corner of the endzone! So their defence was playing two guys on me, but I really couldn’t understand why they were playing so far off.

"So all I had to do was run to the goal line and cut, and Joe threw it low and outside. But we practiced that all the time."


One of the classic photographs of the game shows center Dave Huffman hoisting a jubilant Kris Haines, still clutching the touchdown ball. Dave, an All American in 1978, was killed in a car crash last November. He will be remembered and greatly missed by his family, teammates and fans. Next time you go to the Grotto, light a candle for him.

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Dave Huffman 1957-1998

In wrapping up our Reflections From The Dome segment Irish Legends would like to recall some memories of those who were there:

Athletic Director Ed "Moose" Krause: "This beats the Army game of ’32. It surpasses the win of ’35 against Ohio State. It beats everything."

Steve Cichy, the sophmore who scooped up a blocked punt and ambled 33 yards for the touchdown that ignited Notre Dame’s electrifying finish, conceding: "There were moments when we had our doubts, and as the clock went on the doubts seemed more real, but ‘way down deep inside’ there was a piece of the heart that told each of us we could do it."

Dave Huffman, Notre Dame’s center: Most of the afternoon I kept looking at the scoreboard and seeing Houston’s lead mount. Then just for a split second before they turned off the scoreboard lights, I saw that beautiful score, 35-34.

And lastly, Joe Montana: I didn’t have much to say after the game. I was in no shape to talk. Or walk. I was so bruised, so cut up I was a scab from elbow to elbow, from knee to knee – they literally had to cut my pants off.

"By the time I got back to the hotel, after the trainers and the doctors got through with me, all my teammates had gone out, and I had no idea where they were. So I sat in the hallway of the hotel, all alone with a case of beer, and celebrated the end of my college career."

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