ROCKLIN, CALIF. -- Now this is living, California-style: everyone dressed in shorts and running shoes gathered around a community college football field here, east of Sacramento, watching the world champion San Francisco 49ers in training camp. The air is dry, the breeze is cool, the sky is as blue as Joe Montana's eyes.

Speaking of Montana, since everyone here is, he's on the field running plays as crisply as if it were next January and he were leading the 49ers on still another touchdown drive to win their third straight Super Bowl and fifth overall. Only recently he agreed to a four-year, $14 million contract -- yet he's practicing as if he were a free agent rookie, and broke.

Why? "Because," says Norb Hecker, who's been to 40 training camps as player, coach and now administrator, "nobody loves football like Joey."

Montana loves playing football and playing it to win, be it a summer drill or the biggest game. Here's the familiar fake pitch to Roger Craig ("Joe and I do that better than anybody in football," Craig would say later), then Montana's patented quick steps on cats' feet, followed by the slanting bullet over the middle to Jerry Rice. That's close to perfection.

The people in the small stands across the field recognize the Rembrandt touch. They gasp, then applaud. "Joe, Joe, Joe," many of them shout as he walks from the field at the end of practice. Watching him, 49ers publicist Jerry Walker says, "I would think that these would have to be the best days of Joe Montana's life."

Montana agrees. He's relaxed and cooling down, holding his helmet and sitting in a golf cart outside the 49ers' locker room. Tanned and handsome, he nevertheless looks his 34 years, if not more. He's known pain, and certainly everything he's done has not been as easy as he's made it look.

But he has the spirit of a 10-year-old, what Coach George Seifert refers to as "the little boy in him. When you're a little boy you want to keep doing what you enjoy."

"I've been in sports all my life," Montana says, "and it's something I'm not ready to give up on yet. I've got a pretty good thing going. For a job, you can't beat it. Six months off. Doing something you love to do. Making a lot of money at it. It's the best of all worlds. So you've got to make it last."

His way of doing that is the way of Rice and Craig and all the San Francisco veterans. "Whenever you hit that field," Rice would say a little later, "it's got to be 100 percent." Even if you've proven you're the best. Even if it's only August.

Montana himself wondered in 1986 if he were finished with football. His thoughts then: "You've got to have surgery and it's on your back. Oh, God. You go through all the scenarios. Will I be healthy? Can I play? What happens if I do play?"

He could hardly wait to find out. An operation to widen his spinal canal and remove a ruptured disc was performed that year on Sept. 15. He began throwing four weeks later. He practiced for the first time Nov. 3. He played Nov. 9, against St. Louis. Some people thought he was crazy.

"He could have quit," says Mike Holmgren, offensive coordinator. "He had an insurance policy against a career-ending injury. My feeling was -- and that was my first year with the team -- I thought I'd never get the chance to coach him very much."

"He could hardly walk," Hecker says. "We all thought he was done."

But Montana's injuries have never concerned him as much as they do other people. Just like he doesn't worry about bad field position.

"One thing that put me at ease about my back," Montana recalls, "was that I didn't get hurt getting hit. I got hurt throwing the ball like this." He feigns an awkward throwing motion. "I twisted it and it went."

So he reasoned, if he never threw the ball that way again, maybe he'd never suffer an injury like that again. So as much of America cringed at the peril it thought he faced, Montana blew away St. Louis, completing 13 of 19 passes for 270 yards and three touchdowns. "I'll bet you that even some of the Cardinals, when they knew they were beaten, were rooting for Joey," Hecker says. Montana doesn't remember a thing about that game. "St. Louis?" he says.

You know the feeling, how time gets away, the days blend. With Montana, some of his brilliant performances blur in a seamless tapestry.

"His greatest pass?" says Harris Barton, fourth-year offensive tackle from North Carolina. "You name the game, I'll name the pass."

"There's no one play that was his greatest," 10-year reserve wide receiver Mike Wilson says. "I'd say there are 50 that could fit the category." The Coolness

Historians could devote Jeffersonian volumes to Montana's body of work, the extent of which is wondrous considering that since 1986 he's played with numbness in his left foot. He considers this "nothing out of the ordinary.

"I think all players in this game have to learn to deal with injury. There's nothing you can do about it. You have to play with a certain amount during the year and, I don't know, I've played the game so long I guess I'm just used to it."

In one game he hyperextended his knee because he couldn't feel a tackler grabbing his foot and kept pulling away. But when all is said about everything Montana has done, the exquisite artistry of the 11-play, 92-yard drive he directed to beat Cincinnati in the 1989 Super Bowl may stand as his signature accomplishment.

Consider his coolness. "Right before that series," Barton said, "we're standing on the sidelines and he says, 'Look up there.' He's pointing up in the stands. He says, 'That's John Candy.' "

Then Montana turned back to the game. He completed eight of nine passes during the drive and might have completed them all except that he began hyperventilating at the line of scrimmage. Not that anybody could tell. He was making it look so easy that every 49er knew he'd take them in. The soon-to-be losing coach, Sam Wyche, had an inkling too. A microphone caught him muttering, "Here we go again."

In 1987, Wyche, a former 49ers quarterbacks coach, had received another memorable lesson from his one-time student. That was in Cincinnati when Montana threw to Rice to beat the Bengals. When he did that, there was no time on the clock.

It was too bad for Wyche, Montana's friend. "He taught me the offense, the steps, the reads and the coverages," Montana says. "Sam was the basis, the groundwork for me when I got here. He did all the refining I needed done so badly."

With the famous Super Bowl drive underway against Wyche's Bengals, Montana was looking like Joe Cool. Suddenly, he couldn't see straight.

"It was the excitement of the moment, plus the crowd was loud and I was screaming all the plays at the top of my voice," he says. "It was probably the loss of the oxygen. I was walking to the line of scrimmage, yelling out the play and I kind of got that fuzzy look, and then as I sat there under center -- although I was watching the replay and I didn't sit there all that long -- it started to go away. But the moment I moved it came back again. So I just took the ball and threw it away."

After his head cleared, Montana had no other worries during "The Drive" that culminated with a 10-yard scoring pass to John Taylor with 34 seconds remaining.

"I don't see that situation as any different than anytime we have the ball," Montana says, showered and dressed now and just hanging around. "That's what we play the game for." And then he adds, absolutely without guile: "We had a lot of time."

Craig, coming out of the locker room, puts in a few rehearsed words here on the subject of Montana: "He's a Green Beret."

Where does Montana's poise, his toughness come from?

"I have no idea," he says.

Being honed in western Pennsylvania steel country, home of many pro quarterbacks, didn't hurt.

"My guess is that he became a great instinctive performer at 12 or 14 playing in the street," former 49ers coach Bill Walsh said last year. "Those kinds of people do so much better in big games because big games for them create enthusiasm and heighten their senses." The Comebacks

The foreshadowing of Montana's pro career occurred in the 1979 Cotton Bowl on a frigid day in Dallas when he brought Notre Dame from 22 points behind in the last 7:37. As late as the fourth quarter, he was in the locker room suffering hypothermia, his temperature registering 96 degrees. He was fed bouillon -- then he ran out and warmed things up on the field by leading his fifth and final fourth-quarter comeback for the Irish. The final score was 35-34 and it came with no time left.

Wilson, seated on a bench at the 49ers' camp, laughs a little as he describes the "prototypical" quarterback. "On paper," Wilson says, "he's 6-3, 210 pounds or so, strong arm, throws hard, lot of velocity. But on the paper it doesn't say much about poise, the ability to learn the game, what a catalyst you might be."

Montana is listed as 6 feet 2, 195 pounds. He's about 6-1, 185. But he's not altogether scrawny. He has big shoulders, fairly long arms and large hands. It's his legs that make people think he's frail-looking. "We have some other legs like that around here," says Barton, laughing. "They hang out of birds' nests."

During the 1981 season, Montana began demonstrating his comeback specialties for the 49ers. He engineered the drive and threw the pass that resulted in "The Catch" that won the NFC title game against Dallas, 28-27. That play signaled the arrival of the 49ers as a power and the beginning of the Cowboys' decline.

Rushed and virtually surrounded near the sideline, Montana nevertheless saw Dwight Clark the whole time. When he let go of that pass, Montana was aiming directly for Clark. For Montana, it simply wasn't a very good pass -- understandably so. Clark's leaping grab became a high point in NFL lore.

"Dwight was the second receiver," Montana says. "We scored on that play earlier with Freddie {Solomon} and they were ready to take Freddie this time. Dwight's the secondary receiver and he tries to kind of get in the way of the guy covering Freddie, but he can't pick him, so to speak, and so he comes back along the end line. If he's covered you throw it high, but I didn't think it was that high when I let it go. I didn't see it until the replay."

During the 1988 season, Walsh, revered as architect of "The Team of the '80s," decided that maybe Montana couldn't do it anymore and went with a quarterback who always looked good on paper, 6-2, 200-pound Steve Young. Montana had had his run-ins with his high school coach in Monongahela, Pa., and Dan Devine at Notre Dame, who kept shuffling Montana in and out. Montana thought Walsh should have known better.

"It was really uncalled for," says Montana, his voice still matter-of-fact. "They" -- which is to say, Walsh -- "were just trying to give somebody a job who, no matter where he'd been, hadn't done enough for anyone to say, hey, let's give him the job."

Montana had been injured off and on, but not enough, he thought, to be kept out. "Yeah, that's the way I looked at it. To have one bad game and all of a sudden it's not your job." He laughs. He can now; his comeback as No. 1 quarterback during the last stages of the season led to three sensational postseason games (eight scoring passes, no interceptions) culminating in "The Drive" against the Bengals.

Since then, Walsh retired to the announcer's booth and he and Montana have worked at being closer. They've played golf and tennis together. But great athletes don't like it one bit when they believe managers or coaches have overstepped their bounds. And they don't forget.

"I don't think it was ever bad," Montana says of his relationship with Walsh. "You know, he has to make a decision. I have to live with his decisions but I also don't have to agree with them."

It had been a very unhappy time.

"It was," he says. "It was."

Last season Montana played as if he were, at last, free. Seifert knew how to do it: He left Montana alone. Responding with still more heroics, Montana threw five touchdown passes, four in the fourth period, to shock Philadelphia with yet another comeback.

"He's in a world of his own," Craig says.

Montana wants to stay there too. "Oh, yeah," he says, "I want to play as long as I can."

He has a scar above the right part of his mouth. "I was bitten by my aunt's dog when I was eight," he says. "He wanted to quit playing, but I wanted to keep playing." The Fishbowl

Two men from Washington, Pa., just 21 miles from Montana's home town, show up at the 49ers' camp. They're the coaches of a 10- to 12-year-old baseball team that happens to be playing in a tournament nearby. They want to bring the team over to meet Joe. "I think they'd rather meet Joe than win their games," one man says. Montana agrees to meet the youngsters. The next day they surround him like the Cowboys did on that pass before "The Catch." Montana poses for pictures and signs autographs. He's good with kids.

Sick children can affect him deeply. "Maybe," Walker suggests, "because he has three kids of his own" -- with his third wife, Jennifer, a model-actress who's helped Montana cope with life in a fishbowl despite his reclusive nature.

This day, he greets a 9-year-old boy with a rare blood disease. Montana is extremely gentle, bending to shake the boy's hand, sign a 49ers cap, pose for a picture taken by the boy's father. Montana lingers with the boy, making small talk. "That's a great watch you have," he says.

One time, even though his elbow was hurting, he carried a boy with cancer around the locker room and wouldn't let go of him. "It was as if," a friend says, "everything would be all right if he kept holding him."

The 49ers actually prefer that Montana doesn't meet ill children on days before games. "Sometimes he can get depressed," Walker says. "We were driving away from Children's Hospital one time and he was real quiet. I said, 'I get the impression you're not doing too well.' He said, 'You're right.' "

When Montana's out in public, say at a restaurant, he simply wishes people would let him be. Maybe send their autograph requests to the club; he'll respond (although parts of his mail have backed up one full year and are in Walker's garage).

"I think people want to meet you, though, more than they want the autograph," he says. "It's nice but it makes it hard to have a peaceful time with your wife in public, because there's always interruptions.

"I've talked to Magic Johnson about it. I said, 'Magic, how the heck do you do it? You can't hide, you're too big.' He said one day he was out and he had his son with him and he was signing autographs and his son looked up at him and said, 'Dad, are you with me or are you with them?' "

So Montana is careful where he goes because he says he wants to spend time with his family. He also just wants to be one of the guys on the team, except even they, like fans and other admirers, treat him with a certain awe. Despite that, he pretty much succeeds in being a regular Joe. The Respect

In training camp, many 49ers get from place to place on bicycles. Montana has, at different times, had somebody stick a bunch of bikes up in trees, and chained a dozen bikes together himself. When somebody's bike is missing, one can assume who's ridden off on it. Montana never gets around to renting his own. He does, however, have a little red Buick with a sun roof to drive around camp in if he chooses to.

The respect he's given has been built over the seasons.

"We were playing the Rams my rookie year," Barton says, "and Bill Walsh signals in a play that we had not run since training camp. Everybody's looking at one another. I forgot totally what to do. Joe goes, 'Tackle, you block out, guard pull, center you block back.' He went down the whole thing in just those few seconds, telling everybody exactly what he was supposed to do. I went up to the line of scrimmage thinking, 'Holy cow, the guy knows everything.' "

When teammates huddle up with Montana, they hear his commanding voice and see the piercing look in his eyes, between the rim of his helmet and his face mask. The voice and the eyes, as much as anything, get their attention.

Holmgren says Montana's success stems from "his understanding of the offense and his ability to make quick decisions."

How quick? Often, he disregards the primary and secondary receivers while he is still at the line of scrimmage or during his first or second step back and already is scanning for a third, fourth or even fifth receiver. It isn't so much peripheral vision with Montana, but rather his ability to look at things in a kind of fast forward.

"I try to know where everybody is," he says. "Our guys and the type of defense being played and who will be covering who and where, and where the hole might be. Then you have that progression of receivers that you run through."

What could possibly be left for a Holmgren to show Montana going into his 11th season?

Montana's coach smiles; there's not much.

"I think it's important to challenge him too," Holmgren says. "You expand on the system slightly. You add different looks. You try to reach perfection."

Montana is patient despite years of this repetition, Holmgren says, because "he just loves to play and he's always looking for a better way of doing something."

As it is, all the toil and all the success have vaulted Montana to the ranks of football's greatest quarterbacks. It's become fashionable to compare him to Johnny Unitas. But in a self-effacing manner that does not seem at all put-on, Montana refuses to be drawn into talk of his "place in football history."

"I don't know," he says, strolling across the campus. He has on a black cap with the proud message: "Back to Back Super Bowl Champs." "I don't look at it and try to figure out when I was better than somebody else, or if I'm better. I don't compare myself with others. I compete more with myself.

"I see myself as having fun. I don't think about things like where I fit into history. I go about what I'm doing and let where I'm at in the game take care of itself. I just try to do one thing -- go out every week and win a ballgame."