CANTON, OHIO This was 49ers Day at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Starring, as ever, Joe Montana.
Before a crowd bedecked in red 49er jerseys, the peerless quarterback led the list of inductees, with three of the five having played for San Francisco.
"This is not an ending point," said Montana, clearly moved by the unparalleled gathering of football talent. "This is a beginning point. This is the beginning of the rest of my life with a new team. Take a look at these guys. What a team it is."
Joining Montana on Saturday were Ronnie Lott, the great safety on four Super Bowl champions, and Dave Wilcox, a linebacker in the '60s and '70s.
Howie Long, the Raider-turned-actor and television host, and Pittsburgh Steelers president Dan Rooney were also honored.
But Montana's star eclipsed that of everyone else on a day when more than 100 of the 136 living Hall of Famers returned for the biggest reunion in the Hall's history.
Such was the regard with which Montana is held that each of the inductees paid tribute to one of the dominant quarterbacks of the last three decades and a player whose grace in the heat of pressure was unsurpassed.
"I had four or five clean shots at Joe that I didn't take them," Long quipped. "His kids are too cute."
Said Wilcox, who played a decade before the Niners began dominating the NFL: "When I tell people I played for the 49ers, they ask me if I played with Joe Montana. I say I played before Joe and before money."
Lott, like Montana a first-ballot selection, earlier in the day thought he had lost his bearings. Suddenly, it seemed, he was back in the Bay area.
"It's like a Niners' home game," he said. "I never saw so much red."
During his speech he recalled how he didn't think he'd get the chance to be inducted at the same time because he signed with Kansas City in 1995. He then broke his leg during preseason and retired.
A player must be retired for five years to be eligible for the Hall. Lott thought that season counted and he wouldn't be up for election until next year.
"Joe," said Lott, who is the godfather of Montana's youngest son, "I'm so honored to be here with you today."
This was the biggest Hall of Fame turnout, an estimated crowd of 18,000. Montana alone requested 352 passes for friends and family from his boyhood home in western Pennsylvania, breaking the record of 310 set by Ohio native Don Shula when he was inducted in 1997.
One woman had it both ways she wore a red Kansas City jersey with the No. 19 that Montana wore there in the final two years of his career. She also wore a red 49ers hat.
The crowd began exiting after Montana's induction, fourth of the five, leaving Rooney's induction to start over the murmur of a milling crowd. The murmur was stilled however, by Rooney's introducer, Joe Greene, one of 10 Hall of Fame members from the Steelers that won four Super Bowls in the 1970s.
Montana was introduced by former 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo Jr. He recounted his ups and downs in football, including a short stint as the seventh-string quarterback at Notre Dame. He recalled his travails on poor San Francisco teams his first two seasons after being chosen in the third round of the 1979 draft.
"I had a very difficult time with it at the beginning," he said of his election to the Hall last January. "I don't think I was looking at it in the proper perspective. I saw the Hall of Fame as an ending point.
"I felt like, well, I'm only 44 years old. I feel like I'm being in my grave, in my coffin alive and they're throwing dirt on me. And I can feel it and I'm trying to get out."
But he said things changed this weekend, when he was surrounded by players he idolized while growing up. And, he noted, he was again treated like a rookie.
"These past three days, spending time with these gentlemen behind me, I think I really got the true meaning of what this is all about," he said.
Montana said he originally had another speech written. But he awakened Saturday in the middle of the night and told his wife, Jennifer, that he was going to change it.
And that was perfect. It was just like Montana on the field: a great improviser.