Photographs: Getty Images; Collage: Gabe Conte
The typically chaotic atmosphere of Super Bowl week has been taken to a whole new level this week as the big game hits Las Vegas for the first time. Accordingly, the town is currently playing home to a who’s-who of big-deal media members, celebrities, and athletes.
Two of the bigger names, period—Joe Montana and Joe Burrow—have teamed up with Guinness, and spent Friday morning chatting with GQ. Both have Super Bowl experience, though Montana retired with four rings while Burrow is still looking for his first. Shielded from the slot machines and selfie seekers at a bright and shiny hotel restaurant, the quarterbacks broke down their distinct approaches to the Super Bowl, the night-and-day differences between their respective eras, and much, much more.
What are you guys cooking up with Guinness?
Burrow: In March, we’re partnering with my foundation to combat food insecurity. This is something that I always wanted to do, I think is the right thing to do, and it’s something that I’ve always been passionate about. The more people we can help, the more good it’ll do.
Montana: I’ve been with Guinness for a number of years now. What they do for the community is a big part of why I’m with them. Obviously, I fell in love with Guinness way back, when I was in Ireland for the first time. It’s very important that corporations—and individuals—try to take care of the community they live in. Whatever we do, there’s always an element of that.
Have you ever been to Ireland, Joe B?
Burrow: I have not, but I’m down.
Montana: I started going—believe it or not, my girls were involved with jumping horses. It was cheaper to go into Ireland and France to buy horses and ship them back. You buy one or two extra, sell those, and it pays for your trip! To try and buy them here, it’s like ten times more expensive. So, when we were over there, that’s when I fell in love. Somebody said let’s go get a pint, and I was like, I don’t know.
You were skeptical of Guinness at first?
Montana: Oh yeah. I think that’s what everybody thinks when you first see it! The guy I was with said, “You sit down at the table, I’ll bring it back.” [After a few minutes] I go, “Hey, where’s the beer?” What do you mean? You gotta wait for it! They have to pour it. It takes a little bit of time! After I had that first one, every day after that when the girls were jumping their horses I’d go [taps wrist] “Isn’t it time for a pint? Let’s go!”
I’ve had a lot of fun trips over there. This last one with Notre Dame was fun. I got to see the storehouse for the first time. It’s amazing. I think I’ve bagged more potatoes than Joe.
Were you recruited by Notre Dame, Joe B?
Burrow: I was not! I wasn’t super highly recruited. It was never really an option for me.
This Super Bowl is also the Joe Montana bowl—49ers vs Chiefs. I’m curious when you watch these teams, Joe M, how much do you recognize stuff that you guys ran back in the day, and how much of the modern game looks completely alien?
Montana: I took one snap of shotgun. One. He snapped the ball three feet over my head. Bill [Walsh] said, “Okay, no more. Get up there.” That was in a game! And it was the first and last time we did that. His offense was all timing stuff. It depended on footwork, drop backs, coordination of how deep the routes were. So, he tried to move forward with the offense as the game was—teams were starting to use shotgun a lot—but we were one and done.
Joe B, as someone who played the 49ers this year and has had several battles with the Chiefs, what do you think has made these teams able to have such sustained success?
Burrow: I think the teams that have sustained runs are built on the offensive and defensive lines. That’s how you get the most sustainable success, I believe. Two great quarterbacks who are playing really well right now, two really good defenses, pass rushers. They’re just two complete teams that seem to add a new piece or something different every year. That’s a credit to their teams.
It’s tough to pinpoint one matchup because every game plays out so differently. We’ll know what kind of game it is after the first quarter. That’s usually when you know if you can run the ball on them or you’re going to have to drop back and pass, really whether your offense is viable, can block their defensive line, that’s always critical when you’re figuring out what kind of player you need to be.
Are you still watching every 49ers game, Joe M?
Montana: I try to watch as much as I can, but more often I just try to watch when two good teams are playing. I think the thing that makes the 49ers offense go is when both Deebo [Samuel] and [Christian] McCaffrey are on the field together. When one of them wasn’t in the game, their offense just wasn’t the same. I don’t want to say they were one-dimensional, but I think the real key is Deebo. He’s a beast. He’s a tough person to handle, because he’s not going to run around you, he doesn’t mind running you over. But he’s also pretty elusive!
The things we used to do—like when you have a tight end like [Travis] Kelce—the Cowboys and Green Bay would try to take our tight end and make him kiss the center. They did not let him off the ball! Now, you play a lot with the tight end off the ball and move him a lot, especially Kelce. He’s going to get his catches, but you can’t let him make big plays. That’s what they used to do with Jerry Rice. They’d put someone in his face and put someone behind him. They’re going to let whoever else beat them, but not him.
When preparing for the Super Bowl, did you find it foolish or dismissive to try and approach it like it’s any other game? It feels like there should be some acknowledgement that this actually is more important than any other game.
Burrow: You acknowledge it, but your process doesn’t change. Your preparation is the same as if it were a Week 5 game. Process and routine is the number one indicator of success throughout the season. If you get away from that—which is hard with the Super Bowl because you have photoshoots and so many interviews, especially if you’re the quarterback—you have to manage that in a way that keeps your process as close to the same as you can.
Montana: What Bill did was try to normalize our week. It’s a two-week thing, so in the first part, we’d just kind of practice. In the week when you come down, we had another week of practice, but our normal week of practice wasn’t a normal week of practice for other teams back then. We never wore shoulder pads. We didn’t wear pads in training camp unless we were going to have a scrimmage.
You never hit at all in practice?
Montana: No. Bill would look at our offensive linemen. Those guys never wear sleeves, right? They’d be bruised from Sunday to Sunday! He’d say, “I don’t need you healthy on Wednesday or Thursday, I need you healthy on Sunday. This is what we’re going to do. If I don’t see the effort I think we need, we’ll put the pads back on. It’s up to you.” So, he’d normalize that second week and try to keep things from getting crazy. The family comes in and it’s, I don’t like my room. I want this ticket. I want to go to this restaurant.
How were the nerves for your first Super Bowl?
Montana: Well, they kind of got thrown out real quick. I never did this again. But I never wore a lot of tape for my ankles and stuff. It didn’t take me long to get ready. So I got on the last bus to the Super Bowl. We were half a mile away from the stadium and traffic dead stopped.
No police escort?
Montana: We did, but the vice president stopped everything because he was coming to the game. We’re sitting there looking at our watch going, We have to be on the field in 20 minutes to warm up! Ever since then, I’d get up in the morning, hit the training table, grab something to eat. Then I’d get in a taxi to go to the stadium. I didn’t care if the game was at night, afternoon, didn’t matter. I just went straight to the stadium. I usually had a Snickers bar at halftime.
You were taking taxis by yourself to the stadium? You never took the team bus?
Montana: Yeah. I’d go mess with the trainers and equipment people. Sometimes I’d do stupid stuff like hide the guys’ shoes.
I imagine you’re not eating Snickers bars at halftime, Joe B.
Burrow: No, I usually get a banana in. But Super Bowl halftime is much longer, so you gotta eat a little more. You need to have a plan for that because usually it’s ten minutes, and it’s 45 for the Super Bowl. You kind of need a meal at halftime.
On that note, being in Vegas, the one thing you can’t get away from is the cigarettes. How many of your teammates were smokers back in the day?
Montana: We had two or three. When we were at training camp they’d go and hide in the broom closet, play dominoes, and smoke cigarettes.
Burrow: I have not seen a cigarette in the locker room.
What is the morning of the Super Bowl like?
Burrow: I just remember wondering how it was going to play out. I wonder that about every game. There’s a lot of things running through your head before every game. What am I going to have to do today? Every Sunday is different. One day your defense might not be playing great, and you have to step up and make more plays than you usually do. Sometimes you're firing on all cylinders and all you have to do is hand the ball off and get the ball to your playmakers in space. Every morning before the game I just think about everything that can happen.
Are you aware of Montana’s old habit of calling his wife during games from the sideline phone?
Burrow: [laughing] We were talking about that earlier! That’s wild.
Did you ever do that during the Super Bowl?
Montana: No. I didn’t really think about it. The games we were in—first one was up and down against Cincinnati, second one was the Dolphins and Marino, next one was another up and down with Cincinnati. The last one [a 55-10 win over the Broncos] I probably could have called her. One thing I learned is that you don’t want to play too well because they’ll take you out of the game! You can take me out of the game anytime you want, but not in the Super Bowl! That’s the one game you want to stay in.
Burrow, one thing that you have that he doesn’t is the Heisman Trophy. Was that something that was a goal for you when you were at Notre Dame, Montana?
Montana: Obviously! Any college player would love to have that opportunity. But our offense was not built around the quarterback. We threw the ball about 19 or 20 times a game.
Right. In your senior year you had ten passing touchdowns. Burrow, in your two College Football Playoff games, you had 12.
[laughing] Montana: Yeah, we just didn’t do much of it. Like, Jack Thompson at Washington State was throwing it 50-55 times a game. How do you compete with that? You can’t. But yeah, it would have been fun to win.
Burrow: [smirking] It was fun.
Was fashion something you or your teammates ever really thought about? It’s become a huge thing now, but was it just jeans and T-shirt for you?
Montana: Pretty much. This is funny. One of the first times we were getting ready to take a trip, Bill Walsh had all the coaches dress up as what not to do. He had one guy come in with bib overalls and no shirt. One guy had plaid on plaid.
Burrow: That’s hilarious. I’ve always enjoyed [fashion] but it’s hard when you don’t have any money. I had my suits in college that I got from the team. Then I kind of moved to streetwear after the 2020 season. COVID season was suit and tie all the time. In 2021 I started spicing it up a little bit, having more fun with it.
Montana’s career was a little ahead of your time, but was he someone you studied?
Burrow: I was more of a basketball fan growing up. But, obviously I knew Joe as one of the all-time great quarterbacks. I always watched the Football Life documentaries growing up and saw highlights of him. It’s fun to see the evolution of the game from back then. The game evolves based on the great players that are in it. I’m sure defenses evolved because Joe was torching them every week and they had to figure out a way to stop that. Now that I get a little older, I can sit back and appreciate that.
Does he still kind of feel like a mythic figure to you?
Burrow: At the beginning, for sure. My dad was pretty excited, and my mom had a big crush on him growing up. We’ve gotten to spend some time together over the last few years, so we’re pretty good friends now.
There’s something about that name, Joe Montana. It sounds like a movie character.
Montana: Somebody asked us about nicknames earlier. They were trying to give me a nickname in the newspaper at one point. Somebody wrote that I didn’t need a nickname—I needed a real name, because my name already sounded like a nickname! They gave me the name David W. Gibson and sent a nameplate to put on my locker.
Do you have any regrets from your career?
Montana: The only regret I had was having to leave San Francisco. Personally, I don’t think I should have been traded or had to be traded. I mean, we had just won two Super Bowls in a row, then I got hurt in a championship game [the next year] that we were winning. It was one of the better statistical years of my career, but I broke my hand. Our doctors couldn’t really do much. I had tendinitis so for 14 weeks in a row I got shots before the games. My tendon finally gave out because I didn’t have time to strengthen my arm. When I went back and was ready to play the next season, I was playing catch with a guy I played with at Notre Dame, and it tore off the bone.
I healed from that and was ready to come back about three weeks into the season. When I would throw, there was a pinch that would zing my hand. So, they went in to pull the staple out, and they hit the nerve worse, so I had no grip.
Burrow: No way.
Montana: Yeah! That’s why it took me so long to come back. Steve [Young] had an okay year. It wasn’t like he set the world on fire. I’m like, Okay. They wouldn’t even let me compete for [the starting job]. I said, “Look, I’m better than he is. I’m not going to sit here on the bench behind him. There’s no reason.” I could understand if I had been playing bad. I don’t know what happened! When I left the championship game, we were winning. I don’t know what he did, but it wasn’t enough to get us into the Super Bowl. He couldn’t even hang on to the lead. I got into a battle with [head coach] George [Seifert] over it. I said, “Here’s the deal. Put two salaries on the table and let me compete. If I lose, I’ll stay, because …” [long pause] No, I won’t say it. [laughing]
Originally Appeared on GQ