It doesn’t matter if you’re not a Joe Montana fan. Or a Niner fan. Or an American football fan, for that matter. Wright Thompson’s profile of the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback is an astonishing, beautifully written, and revealing piece about the highs and lows of being the “greatest of all time” — and watching someone else take over the throne.

Montana’s children say he likes being recognized more now than he did at the peak of his powers. He knows what it is like to be both canonized and forgotten. “I can see that heartbreak in my dad a little bit,” his daughter, Allie, tells me. “The more distance he gets from his career, the more time he spends reminiscing on stories.” But he’s learning to make peace with slipping from the white-hot center of the culture, too. His most recent Guinness commercial has him at a bar where he laughs when some young guy asks if he used to play pro tennis.

Stretched out before Brady is his road to contentment. The man in the video has a long way to go. Montana knows about that journey. He understands things about Brady’s future that Tom cannot possibly yet know. On the day Brady quit, Montana’s calendar was stacked with investor meetings for the two new funds he’s raising. When he heard the news, he wondered to himself if this announcement was for real. Brady had traded so much for just one more try. On the field he struggled to find his old magic. His cheeks looked sunken. His pliability and the league’s protection of the quarterback had added a decade to his career. But along the way they also let his imagination run unchecked. Brady’s body didn’t push him to the sidelines. He had to decide for himself at great personal cost. Montana was never forced to make that choice. He had to reckon with the maddening edges of his physical limits but was protected from his own need to compete and from the damage that impulse might do. For all his injuries took from him, they gave him something, too.

Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Cheri has been an editor at Longreads since 2014. She's currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area.