Former San Francisco 49ers players John Taylor, Joe Montana and Lawrence Pillers are seen during a ceremony honoring the 1981-82 team at halftime of the NFL game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Cincinnati Bengals at Levi's Stadium on December 20, 2015 in Santa Clara, California.
Ezra Shaw—Getty Images
By Sean Gregory
April 25, 2018

At Thursday night’s NFL Draft in Dallas, several franchises will pin their futures on finding the next Joe Montana. It’s been a quarter century quest: since Montana retired after the 1994 season, arguably only two quarterbacks — Tom Brady and Peyton Manning — have measured up to the San Francisco 49ers legend, who won four Super Bowl titles. (Brady surpassed his childhood hero in Super Bowl rings, winning five). While working on a campaign to increase heart disease awareness, Montana spoke to TIME about the greatest quarterback of all-time debate, the draft, and why he thinks Colin Kaepernick no longer has an NFL job.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity)

So who’s better, you or Tom Brady?

Oh, me, of course. Did I take long enough to answer? [Laughs].

It’s really hard to compare guys. I said this long before Tom had even this fourth [Super Bowl victory]. You look at guys who played before me, Sammy Baugh, Otto Graham, how do you compare a guy who played back then not only to me but to this era now, when they’re not getting hit, they’re not tearing the clothes off the wide receivers as they get off the line of scrimmage. The game’s so different; it’s really hard to compare. Tom’s had a tremendous, tremendous career. And he may be [better than Montana]. I just think it’s really difficult to do that.

Being in the Bay Area, you saw a lot of Colin Kaepernick. Do you think he’s not playing in the NFL because of the anthem controversy, or because of flaws in his game?

If you look at a lot of the guys who come out of those read-option type systems, they have great first years. You can go back to RGIII, [it’s] the same thing: Once [defenses] get it figured out, those guys aren’t used to playing in the pocket and seeing defenses from inside, and being accurate at the same time. It’s a little bit easier now maybe for those guys because they’ve taken away some of that hitting that usually takes place late in the pocket.

But you have to be accurate to be in there. During those years he was struggling, he was in the low 50s and 40s in completion percentage. [Ed Note: Kaepernick’s worst single-season completion percentage was 58.4% in 2013; San Francisco finished that season 12-4]. Tim Tebow was the same way. They messed with Tim so much, got to fix this, got to fix that, let the kid play. He did well in college, let’s see if he can play or not. It’s too late to fix somebody when they get to the NFL. Tim was winning games, and he was in the 48-49% somewhere in that neighborhood at one point. [Ed Note: Tebow finished the 2011 season with a 46.5% completion percentage, and led the Broncos to a playoff win]. He couldn’t hang on.

Do you understand what the players who protest during the national anthem are doing? Or do you think players shouldn’t protest during the anthem?

Back when I was playing, or before, you didn’t have all the media outlets that are available to all these guys. Play the game. Go do your other stuff on social media outside of that, no matter what sport it is.

Ex-UCLA coach Jim Mora told Sports Illustrated that his former quarterback, top NFL Draft prospect Josh Rosen, “has a lot of interests in life. If you can hold his concentration level and focus only on football for a few years, he will set the world on fire.” Can you be an effective NFL player and have other passions. Or do you have to be locked-in all the time?

I think there’s a lot of time free for outside interests, post-season. It’s really difficult. If you have enough time to be doing other things during the season, then something’s wrong. You’re probably not putting in enough time at the quarterback position especially. I could never find enough time week to week. You need to be concentrating. He’ll be making enough money. He doesn’t need to be worrying about other things during the season.

So if you were a GM, would Josh Rosen’s outside interests worry you?

I think one of the problems is they’re under such a microscope these days. I mean every little tiny thing, flaw, they’re not looking can he do this, can he do that? It’s, ‘ok, what can we find bad about him?’ That seems to be the nature of our world today. Instead of, ‘hey, he’s a young kid.’ You should be happy that he’s worried about the environment. If he wasn’t playing football, you’d be going, ‘oh, that’s such a great thing.’

There are too many eyes on everybody these days. Let the guy live. Let him find out. He’ll find out soon enough.

After Jimmy Garoppolo, Tom Brady’s former backup, arrived in the Bay Area via a trade with the New England Patriots, he went 5-0 as the San Francisco 49ers starter in 2017. The team rewarded him with a contract that made him the highest-paid player in the NFL. There’s a lot hope in San Francisco now – is Garoppolo the guy?

What you said is where it all should be right now. There is a lot of hope there. I think he’s still a little bit untested — especially for the type of money that they paid for him. He could be the guy. I don’t know. He obviously made a little bit of a difference — or a lot of difference — in the team at the end of the season last year.

Is it the end of the season, and other teams are going, ‘oh we got the 49ers?’ or what? When you watch guys who leave from behind great quarterbacks like that — Tom’s had like three already, [and they] go all the way back to [Dan] Marino with [Scott] Mitchell, and Elvis Grbac playing behind Steve Young — when they leave that system, there’s been zero success rate for any length of time.

So hopefully this is the first one, for all the 49ers fans out there, and the organization. I just think you have to wait and let them play.

Your two sons played college football. But science continues to shed light on the dangers of head trauma incurred while playing the game. Knowing what you know now, would you have let your sons play football?

Yeah, but I think you’re going to see a lot more flag football — especially at early ages — until they get more mature and things even out. And take away a lot of those really early hits on the kids’ heads, because no matter what they do with helmets, and how much you try to protect, [hits] are still going to be repetitive.

Are you worried about your own future?

I’m not sure how I can judge that as of yet. There are times when my wife questions it; there are times that she doesn’t. I’m not concerned. I’m 61, I’ll be 62 here in a couple of months, and I’m just getting old, period. But I’ve seen a lot of guys where it’s had a tremendous effect on them, unfortunately.

You’ve been promoting the “Breakaway From Heart Disease” campaign. Why are you passionate about this subject?

Both my and wife’s family have been effected by heart disease. Her father passed away at an early age. My mom had high blood pressure, high cholesterol. Her two brothers had heart attacks. My grandfather passed away from heart disease, at 54, I’m pretty sure.

And so even with all of that information in front of me, I never really thought that I would get heart disease and high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Luckily for me, after I retired I went in for a normal physical and my blood pressure was high. So my doctor, we monitored it for awhile, and then I thought, ‘ahhhhh, it’s going to go down, no worries.’ But it never did.

So we started working on a game plan. For me, it took not only lifestyle changes but also medication. And we had an opportunity to be a part of this and get the word out there. This is the number one killer of Americans out there. We are able to control it if you just know the risks. Know what your blood pressure and cholesterol level is. And make a few changes. All you have to do is get with your doctor. That’s all we’re saying.

Is there anything you wish you did differently in your career?

One thing, I probably wouldn’t have retired as early. The other is I would have found extra hours to spend a little more time with my kids when they were growing up. Because when they were at a younger age they wanted a lot of excitement, but I knew I still had a lot of work. My wife was great with them, and she had the biggest influence there. But I missed those young times growing up. By the time I understood it, it was really too late in their lives. If I could do it again, I might go back and do that part differently.

Why did you wish you kept playing?

The game’s just too fun. Plus it’s cold turkey when you quit. I would play as long as I could because the game was so exciting on Sunday afternoons.

You did broadcasting at NBC for a year after you retired, correct?

I was brought on to talk about what it was like from a players point of view. Later on, the producer there really didn’t care about your point of view, as long as you were loud, argumentative and definitive. You don’t have to be right — that’s the part I didn’t like.

In fact something happened at the Super Bowl. We all had phones next to us. We were doing the Pittsburgh-Dallas game. I picked up the phone and called my wife and go ‘I’m leaving. I’m walking off right now. I’m not going to put up with this anymore. I can’t do it.’

She goes, ‘No, you can’t. At least go finish the game.’ It just wasn’t for me.

It would have been amazing to see Joe Montana walk off the set during the Super Bowl.

[Laughs] I was close. Believe me.

Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com.

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