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At this moment, Joe Montana is confused about when, or if, he'll be able to play this season. He discussed his injury and his prospects recently in an office at the 49ers' headquarters in Santa Clara.

``I wish one thing or the other would happen,' he sighed, ``either my elbow gets better or worse. Now, I'm in a kind of limbo.'``Do you have any idea what's going to happen?' I asked.

``No,' Montana replied.

He rubbed his elbow. He said the worst possible scenario would be if the elbow seems to improve but never enough for him to play, and he drifts through the season never quite making it back to the team.

``Do I throw and test it and take the chance of it getting worse?' he asked. ``Or do I not throw and hope it heals? Or do I throw as hard as I can and rip it and have surgery?'

``Are you concerned that your career is in jeopardy?' I asked.

Montana turned his baseball cap around so that the bill was on the back of his head. ``No,' he said. ``If my career was in jeopardy, I wouldn't be able to throw now. Either it will get better on its own or I'll have surgery. With surgery, they say I'll be out six to eight weeks. It's not that big a deal to repair my elbow unless there's more there than we think. But that doesn't appear to be the case. Six to eight weeks. If we're in the playoffs, I could make it back.'

Montana paused, took off his cap and ran his hand through his hair. ``It's really kind of confusing,' he admitted. ``With surgery I'm definitely out six to eight weeks. On the other hand, if I string it along week to week, I could end up being out six to eight weeks, anyway.'

Montana looked confused. He rolled up the right sleeve of his sweatshirt and displayed his right elbow - the elbow in question, the most talked about elbow in America.

It looked like an elbow.

The skin on the elbow was purple and wrinkled. Montana pulled on it and giggled. He had applied an ice pack to it the other day - one of those blue ice bags that's colder than regular ice - and although the bag felt odd and even stung him, Montana decided to tough it out. Later, he learned that he had burned the skin on his elbow.

He flexed his arm. ``I could show you the tear in my tendon,' he said. ``It's usually visible, but the arm's too swollen.'

I peered at the inside of his elbow. It looked so ordinary, so absolutely mundane. The tear in his tendon, if I could see it, must be tiny. But the inside of the elbow definitely was puffy. Montana had thrown about 70 passes that very morning - he had thrown 55 the previous session on Tuesday - and he assumes the stress of throwing caused the swelling. He didn't seem upset. He had thrown a maximum of 30 yards to Brent Jones who stood still because he's rehabilitating an injured knee. ``I'm not throwing to moving targets or dropping back or any of that,' Montana said. ``Hopefully I will Saturday.'

On Saturday, Montana hopes to throw passes of 40 and 50 yards, and to do that, he will have to throw at 90 percent effort. On Thursday, he threw at 50 percent.

``I feel good about things,' he said. ``Today, it wasn't any worse. It wasn't any better, either. I didn't feel that I did any damage. I take that as a positive.'

Montana shrugged. It's strange, he said. He can do everything involved in throwing a football right now, except giving the final twist at the end. That's where the pain comes in.

It was time for Montana to go to practice. He doesn't participate with the team, just stands on the side and observes. I asked if he regretted the things he had said about Steve Young a few weeks ago - that Young is out for himself, that he and Young aren't close.

Montana leaned forward on the couch. ``I was asked about competition,' Montana said, his voice rising. ``I used him as an example. We're competing for a job. I want to do better than him. If a guy doesn't feel that way, I'll show you someone who won't be successful, who'll always be second place. Maybe I didn't say it well, but he's said the same thing when asked. If I sat back and said, 'That's so nice. Steve's starting,' people would say, 'What are you nuts?'

``If you don't want to be the best, you shouldn't be on the team. When I said he's on a run for himself, I meant he's out prove he's a starter, not that he's selfish.'

A member of the public relations staff reminded Montana about practice. I asked Montana if he ever feels insecure, wonders what will happen with him and the team.

He took his time, wanted to be precise so no one would misunderstand him. ``I wonder if I'll be able to come back and play,' he said. ``If things go the other way - if he plays well - will I ever be able to get back into the starting job. Yeah, there's a certain amount of insecurity.'

Montana sighed and got up to leave. At some level, Montana understands that he, as he calls Steve Young, is not his real competition. Montana is competing with his right elbow, trying to give his arm that final, definitive snap at the end of a throw that will rescue him, at last, from this maddening state of football limbo.


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