For two weeks, they asked him about the kid.
And Joe Montana just gave 'em that humble tellin'-no-secrets smile.
Montana could have snapped back, "Hey, look in the record book. I'm the highest-rated passer in the history of pro football. This guy Dan Marino has had one hot year. I've been the MVP of a Super Bowl; he's just here for the first time."
But Montana said nothing. Montana deflected the credit and the praise and the Super Bowl hype. He let the pressure build on the 23-year-old Marino until the kid snapped at fans and reporters and showed his frayed nerves to everyone.
Montana waited until today in Stanford Stadium to have his say.
Then, in his understated way -- scrambling and rolling out, dumping to his backs and flipping darts over the middle -- Montana broke some of the records on the Super Bowl books.
The San Francisco 49ers' 38-16 demolition of the Miami Dolphins and their phenom, Marino, was one long testimonial to Montana's modest methods. Guiding an offense that amassed a Super Bowl record 537 yards, Montana made sure that the once-beaten 49ers won more games in a season (18) than any NFL team ever.
Most passing yards, 331. Most yards rushing by a quarterback, 59. Most yards total offense, 385.
All of that goes into the books next to Montana's name, along with three touchdown passes today and 24-for-35 precision. Montana, who is both the most accurate passer in history (64 percent) and the hardest to intercept, has been the MVP of both Super Bowls he's been in -- XVI and XIX.
From sunny afternoon to foggy dusk to chilly night, Montana lived up to the words that 49ers Coach Bill Walsh laid on him afterward: "I think Joe Montana is clearly the best quarterback in football today, and he's the greatest to come along in some time."
If this keeps up, before long the capital of Montana may not be Helena.
It'll be Joe.
"Deep down inside, when all you hear for two weeks is 'Miami, Miami,' I think that gives you something to prove," Montana said. "I thought that was the key (to the game) . . . It just motivated us . . . No one gave (this team) any credit. It didn't bother me, but I had something to prove as much as anyone . . . We've been overlooked the last two weeks and most of the season, really.
"We wanted to show that they had to reckon with us."
Marino may have thrown his 56th touchdown pass of an unbelievable season today, but he'll spend the winter knowing that his statistics -- 29 of 50 for 318 yards and two interceptions -- looked better than they were. While Montana was elusive in the pocket and crisp on every key pass, Marino couldn't move off a dime under pressure and underthrew many a pass.
"We thought Miami's defense fit into our offense almost perfectly," said Montana, whose career passing rating of 92 is eight points better than anyone else in NFL history. "They lay back and give up the short pass, and that's what we like to take."
All week, Montana hinted he thought the pressure might be getting to Marino. "It looks like he's about had it with what's going on," said Montana after frequent reports that Marino was testy. "I think he's getting sick of (the hype) already."
This evening, Montana grinned and said, "Everybody was asking me, 'What do you think of him?' He was taking all the heat."
Montana and Marino seem like foils created for each other. They are equally diligent about praising their linemen and being compulsively noncontroversial, but Montana does it with a humility of bearing and speech that is as natural to him as a swagger is to Marino.
"We love him a lot," said halfback Roger Craig, who scored three touchdowns, two on passes from Montana of eight and 16 yards. "If he's hurt, he'll still practice. Heck, he even lifts weights with us. If he has to give up his body to run the ball, he will."
Asked, "Do you know why you play so well in big games," Montana paused, then answered, "No."
"Well, could you make up a reason?"
"No, thanks," Montana said.
If that gentleman named Marino had not passed for more than 5,000 yards and 48 touchdowns during the regular season, Montana's year would have been acclaimed as fabulous: 279 for 432 passing for 3,630 yards and 28 touchdowns, with 10 interceptions.
In the end, Marino had to carry too much weight. Without a running game and facing one of the NFL's best defenses, the deck was stacked against him. Montana, on the other hand, had most of the edges -- a quality running attack facing a defense that was weak against the rush.
As 49ers offensive lineman Randy Cross said, "It's a gratifying feeling when you can run at 'em, and it works. You can run around 'em, and it works. And you screw up, and it works."
With a ground game that chewed up 211 yards, Montana could orchestrate an almost perfectly balanced offense.
Now, the light of celebrity will turn its fickle beam back to Montana -- to his personal life and all that goes with being the MVP in the most important of all football games. But it probably won't come too close to nailing down the real Joe Montana.
The real Montana exists in those fragile microseconds when the pocket is crumbling around him and the secondary receivers in Walsh's pass pattern are just breaking into the open.
Then, his quick feet, his quick arm and his quick eyes find solutions only the truly great ones can concoct.
As the final gun sounded here, the average Joe with the best football moniker anybody ever got handed, made one last excellent, split-second decision.
He could search out Marino for a conciliatory handshake. Or, he could beat the crowd to the locker room before it engulfed and mauled him.
Montana didn't think. "I just ran," he said, "And nobody could catch me."