SAN FRANCISCO — During the opening minutes of a football game here Sunday, quarterback Joe Montana called an audible that had an astonishing aftermath.
Lining up the San Francisco 49ers on the St. Louis Cardinals' 45-yard line, Montana sent wide receiver Jerry Rice to the goal line, then threw him a touchdown pass that was in the air for about 55 yards.
"The (passer) just got out of back surgery," a puzzled St. Louis defensive star, Leonard Smith, said later. "I'm sorry, but I don't believe this."
Even after Montana had done it again and again, combining with Rice to produce two more touchdowns on nearly identical 40- and 44-yard pass plays, there weren't many believers--even among those who saw it all happening in front of them.
Less than two months ago, on Sept. 15, Montana had been wheeled into surgery for a two-hour operation on his back.
On the day before the surgery, Dr. Michael F. Dillingham, the team's orthopedic specialist, had told the Associated Press: "There is a chance that (Montana) won't play football again."
San Francisco Coach Bill Walsh--noting that in laymen's terms a couple of disks had been removed from his quarterback's back and that the player's spinal canal had to be surgically enlarged--said: "I think we expect to face this entire season without Joe."
That was in mid-September. By Nov. 1--only six weeks later--Montana was not only walking but running and jumping and laughing, not to mention passing. And on Day 56 after surgery, a serene, sunny Sunday in Candlestick Park, he was once more on his favorite playing field, where, once more, he was leading the 49ers to victory.
How could that be?
Aren't patients with Montana's problems often crippled, or at least traumatized, for life--or at least for months?
How did this patient make it back in such a hurry?
The doctors directly connected aren't much help on that score. Dillingham and the other 49er physicians won't talk to reporters about the case, and Montana's back surgeon, Dr. Arthur White, would not talk to The Times.
And when White does talk--at press conferences usually--he makes two wildly contradictory points. He says on the one hand that he has cleared Montana to play football "with no misgivings whatever." He also says that if Montana plays football, he's crazy.
Other National Football League medical men and other sources in San Francisco and elsewhere in pro football, however, suggest that there seem to be five reasons for Montana's quick comeback:
--During surgery, Montana's doctors discovered that his problem wasn't quite as serious as they had feared.
"They didn't find the structural damage they thought they'd find," a San Francisco doctor said, asking that his name be withheld.
--The medical treatment Montana got was apparently first class. Three other back specialists were with White in the operating room--James Zuckerman, White's associate, and Robert Gamburd and Jeff Saal, San Francisco spine rehabilitation experts.
"Nobody with a back could have had better care," Jerry Attaway said at the 49er office. The club's physical development coordinator, Attaway formerly held the same position at USC.
--As a pro quarterback, Montana had more motivation for a quick recovery than other back patients. He was also better prepared mentally and physically for both surgery and rehabilitation than most who have back problems.
Said Walsh: "I suspect that the main reason Joe came back so soon is that he had such good health going in. A back problem is a wearying thing. A lot of back patients are worn out by the time they decide on surgery. The difference is that Joe went into the operating room as a well-conditioned football player."
Attaway agreed. "Most people with an injured back wait two, three years for surgery," he said. "The degeneration that takes place in that length of time is hard to overcome. But Joe is a football player who had to make a surgery decision as soon as he was injured, when he was still in good physical condition. This was a plus for him in surgery and afterward."
--The key to Montana's quick recovery is the enthusiasm--or at least the willingness--he showed for his rehabilitation.
Week after week, for four to six hours a day, every day, Montana subjected himself to the miseries of rehabilitation--until, six weeks later, his body was as good as ever.
"It was my wife, Jennifer, who kept me at it," he said Sunday. "Every rehab person has a lot of down times when you feel sorry for yourself. Jennifer would always let me rest--for a while. Then she got on me. 'Time to go, Joe,' she would say."
--Finally, Montana's rehabilitation program was more extensive and more intelligently designed and supervised than those for most patients get. It was designed by Gamburd and Saal and orchestrated by a specialist, Attaway, working full time for as long as it took.
And, of course, the rehabilitation outline was conscientiously followed by Montana.