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THE JURY ON JOE : The Kansas City Chiefs Believed They Needed Joe Montana to Reach the Super Bowl. The San Francisco 49ers Thought Steve Young Was the Quarterback for Them. With the Chiefs and 49ers a Victory Away From What Would Be a Classic Super Bowl Showdown, the Debate Still Rages About Who Got the Better Deal. Today's Conference Championship Tests Will Be Strictly . . . Pass or Fail : Great Debate Never Ends for Divided Fans of 49ers : Pro football: While many still would prefer Montana to Young, they would root against Chiefs if Super Bowl matchup comes to pass.

January 23, 1994|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA CLARA — It's drive time, three days before game time, 6:26 p.m. on Thursday. Interstate 280 northbound toward Cupertino is jammed with motorists, the radio airways with callers, none of whom give a Dick Button flying camel about figure skating.

You wonder if the Silicon Valley wonks would know Tonya Harding from Warren G.

Terry on a car phone clearly wishes to apply a cellular headlock on San Francisco Chronicle columnist Lowell Cohn, a guest on Ralph Barbieri's sports talk radio show on KNBR. Cohn's article that day had re-examined--for, oh, maybe the billionth time--the difficulties of being 49er quarterback Steve Young in Joe Montana's town.

Cohn wrote that Young appeared nervous at a Wednesday press briefing before Sunday's NFC championship game against the Dallas Cowboys, noting the quarterback had "dry mouth, the forced smile of someone who was not at ease with himself."

Terry is sick of this "pseudo-psychological probing," and warns Cohn he is only putting more pressure on the quarterback who had dared replace Montana.

"If he feels pressure from the article, he's got a real problem," Cohn shoots back.

John from Hayward phones in at 6:30 to say only a fool would compare Montana and Young: "When Joe comes on the field, you don't want to change the channel."

It's been like this for months in the Bay Area, which is in the throes of a major anxiety attack over the prospects of a San Francisco-Kansas City Super Bowl that would pit its beloved 49ers against its beloved expatriate quarterback, Montana, who led the team to four Super Bowls before departing with such sweet sorrow.

Standing in the way of this matchup--which would no doubt unleash an emotional civil war in Bay Area--is Sunday. San Francisco must dispose of the defending Super Bowl champion Cowboys, and Kansas City must defeat Buffalo in the AFC title game.

"It's almost like a death wish," said Bud Geracie, sports columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. "But everybody wants it."

Everybody. Fans, players, milkmen, nuns. No matter the consequences.

No matter that it might further split 49er loyalties into Young camps and Montana camps and reopen old wounds. No matter that it might force fans to choose between a team and a god.

No matter that a Montana victory over Young might cause irreparable damage to Young's

psyche and send the 49ers spiraling downward.

The moral dilemma: Could a die-hard 49er fan root against them in a game against Montana, the quarterback who gave San Francisco the best years of his life?

"There are three groups," Geracie explains. "There are Joe's people, the Branch Montanians, as they're called. There are Steve's people and a group that is torn between Joe and Steve. Of the groups, I think Steve's got the smallest following."

Young is in an almost impossible position. Since taking over for Montana in 1991, he has won three consecutive NFL passing titles and a most-valuable-player award. But until he wins a Super Bowl, he cannot escape the shadow.

"The fans here are ruthless, they really are," Mike Garcia, 30, a longtime 49er fan, said as he sipped on a beer at the Sports City Cafe in Cupertino. "Steve's at a very critical point in his career. Joe's in a no-lose situation."

That the rickety Montana, 37 and holding, is turning broadcasters to mush with his heroics does not help Young's cause.

"The entire Bay Area wants to see this matchup," San Francisco Examiner columnist Art Spander says. "If Joe gets in and Steve doesn't, it'll be just awful for Steve."

In case the dream matchup doesn't actually come off, many think it's necessary to jump on this story in advance.

In Kansas City, Montana said he "couldn't care less" about meeting Young in the Super Bowl.

At the 49er training facility in Santa Clara, players were interrogated about the possibility. Receiver Jerry Rice, an unabashed Montana supporter, said he was tired of making the comparison.

In back-handed fashion, he noted Young is "going to get better in years to come."

Rice also told reporters he would certainly do his best to beat Montana's Chiefs should the teams meet in the Super Bowl.

"It's not like if we get together in the Super Bowl I'm going to say, 'Joe, I've been so many years with you, I'm going to drop this pass for you,' " Rice said.

It is safe to assume, though, that several 49ers have been following Montana closely.

Eric Wright, a San Francisco assistant who played on all four 49er Super Bowl teams, said it would be strange facing his former teammate.

"It will be hard for me," Wright said. "The whole season in Kansas City, the guys have been pulling for him. We'll always be friends, but no matter how good of friends we are, when you put on that foreign uniform, it's all business."

Though there's no quantifying the emotions, it appears most 49er fans feel as Wright does.

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