San Francisco 49er quarterback Joe Montana, the National Football League's top-rated passer, will undergo back surgery today and probably will miss the remainder of the 1986 season. A team physician also said his career may be endangered.
Coach Bill Walsh made the announcement during a post-game press conference after the 49ers' 16-13 loss to the Rams at Anaheim Stadium Sunday.
"Joe is checking into the hospital today (Sunday) and will have surgery tomorrow for a disc problem," Walsh said. "He could be out, conceivably, the entire season."
Montana initially injured his back as he ran left and twisted to his right to throw to Dwight Clark during the 49ers' 31-7 season-opening win over Tampa Bay. In that game, Montana completed 32 of 46 passes for 356 yards.
"Everything is pretty well set. The doctors already know what they're going to do," said Michael Dillingham, the 49ers' chief orthopedic surgeon. "If the doctors find this, they know they'll do that. If they find that, then they'll do this."
Asked about the severity of the injury and the risk it posed to Montana's career, Dillingham replied: "There are players that are playing in this league who have had comparable surgery."
Dillingham said that doctors should know within 24 hours of surgery how long Montana will be out.
"We'll have to wait and see about whether he'll ever play again," said Robert Gamburd, a 49er team physician.
Gamburd said Montana's injury was in the fifth lumbar region and is similar to the one that forced Tampa Bay defensive lineman Lee Roy Selmon into retirement prior to the opening of the season.
Walsh downplayed the loss of his No. 1 quarterback.
"Losing Joe Montana is just a part of the sport," he said. "You don't stop, you continue to go on. The athletes will take the loss much better than the fans will."
Clark, Montana's favorite receiver, was not so sure.
"This is like somebody has died," he said. "There's something missing here now. . . . We're losing the guy I think is the greatest quarterback of all time. That's got to have an effect."
One immediate effect is that Jeff Kemp, heretofore a back-up quarterback, becomes the 49ers' starter.
Kemp, who completed 19 of 24 passes for 252 yards and 1 touchdown and was intercepted once against the Rams Sunday, had this response to the loss of Montana:
"My reaction to the whole thing is sadness for Joe," he said. "We've become good friends. I respect him and I've learned a lot from him.