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Former Chiefs player Joe Valerio learned leadership by example from Joe Montana


Everyday Life Lessons from an Everyday Athlete by Joe Valerio

Lesson 2: Leadership by Example from Joe MontanaJoe Valerio 

In the early 90’s, Kansas City offered its players the best of both worlds—the chance to play for some of the best fans in the NFL on Sundays coupled with the space to live a pretty normal life the rest of the week.

Walking through a mall in K.C. after a game was much like walking through campus at Penn or through the hallways at Ridley—congratulations and well wishes but no intrusive invasions of privacy, unlike what some players in more intense media markets endure.  The locals, while incredibly supportive of the team, were content with a wave or a few friendly words if they came upon a player at the local Price Chopper supermarket or at Gates Barbecue.  

Relative anonymity and normalcy were even easier to maintain during the off-season, when half the team headed back to their hometowns, leaving only thirty-odd players in town for workouts.  Arrowhead Stadium itself became bit of a ghost town during the spring months.  Gone were the barbecue grills and festive tents that carpeted the parking lot before every game.  Gone, too, was the familiar hubbub of 60 players milling about. When I went in for three hour workouts each day, it was typical to find a mere handful of players in the training facility at the same time.

It was against this serene backdrop that the Chiefs organization made a radical direction change in spring of 1993, turning the team and the town upside down with a huge off-season trade.  I was in the weight room with ten other guys when a breathless trainer burst in with the news:  “We just traded for Joe Montana.” A stunned silence fell over the room.

Joe Montana?  Here? Eyebrows went skyward and jaws dropped a bit in the face of the unexpected news.  Joe Montana –architect of the potent West Coast Offense, co-conspirator in “The Catch,” and at the time the greatest quarterback ever —was headed here?  By the time I finished lifting, there were news crews at the door of the training facility and the media feeding frenzy had begun.  A week or so later, a Sports Illustrated arrived in my mailbox featuring the legendary QB, his four Super Bowl rings, and the tagline, “Kansas City, Here I Come.”  Needless to say, the city went bananas, and a buzz of anticipation was in the air.Joe Montana photo: sportsillustrated.cnn.com

Winds of change were blowing strong that year, and with Montana came a whole new playbook.  The West Coast offense migrated 1,800 miles eastward, and we were all buckling down for some serious time in the classroom building a new Chiefs offense from scratch. When spring minicamp arrived, Joe Montana walked into Arrowhead Stadium and ushered in a new era.  

With no fanfare, Joe entered the offensive meeting room and every eye was on him. Given the average age of most of the players, Joe Montana was a childhood icon for a lot of the guys on the team, and his presence in our meeting room silenced the normally boisterous group.

Somehow, Joe was smaller than I expected.  A childhood spent watching Montana carry the 49ers to four Super Bowl titles meant that Joe loomed a little larger in my imagination than he stood in real life.  I wondered if others were thinking the same thing.

I watched with curiosity as Joe took a seat a few rows from the front and opened his notebook.  What occurred during the next thirty minutes left an indelible impression on me and on every guy in the room.  It also taught me a substantial lesson about leadership.

The focus of the meeting was the installation of our first new play—the first step in the West Coast offense implementation that would take us months to complete.  Starting small, the offensive coordinator carefully explained “38/39 WACK,” the simplest running play in the book, featuring a pitch from the QB to a single running back. Montana, who had run the very same play with the 49ers literally hundreds of times, leaned forward in his seat as the coordinator spoke. He took two pages of notes. From my seat with the O-line in the rear of the room, I watched as other slouching players shifted in their seats and flipped open notebooks, putting pen to paper and taking their cue from Joe.  How easy would it have been for him to simply lean back with his arms folded as the rest of us learned a play he could have run in his sleep?  

Instead, he instantly became “one of us,” leaping off the football cards and magazine covers and into the real life hard work that comes before success on the field. Without saying a word, he let the team know that we had a lot of work ahead of us. By his actions and even by his posture and choice of seats, he showed us that he would be there working alongside us—not  nodding at us from his chair as we all played catch up, but with his nose to the grindstone as well.  Joe Valerio

In addition to being smaller than I expected, Joe was also quieter—a nice guy, to be sure, but far less charismatic and outgoing than I assumed.

There were no Lombardi-esque motivational speeches from Joe.  When teammates made mistakes, dropped balls, missed blocks, or otherwise fell short, Joe greeted them not with criticism or with rah-rah pep talks but with a simple, “We’ll get it next time.”  And soon we did.

In spite of his role in developing the very offense we were learning, Joe was the first to show up at Arrowhead each day and the last one to leave after watching films each evening. His actions spoke volumes. Other players took note and stepped up their own efforts, and soon the level of intensity rose for the whole team.  

I’d be remiss if I painted a picture of Joe only as a focused leader whose exemplary behavior maximized our potential.  He was also quite a prankster, which further ingratiated him to the team in general but to the offensive line especially, since that group was most appreciative of a well-played prank.  My own fleeting career as an “eligible receiver” actually started out with a Montana prank.  We lined up at practice to run a pass play in which I was a screen and Keith Cash and J.J. Birden were the receivers.

When Joe dropped back, Keith and J.J. were wide open, but I watched a smirk appear as Joe brought his arm back to throw. With the force of a cannon, Joe fired the ball not at J.J. or Keith but instead at my chest, hoping I’d bobble it, fall over, duck, or otherwise embarrass myself and provide the team with a good laugh and a tension breaker.  When I instead caught the ball and then held it up to taunt him, Joe went nuts and Paul Hackett found inspiration for future tackle eligible plays.

That summer, when the team headed to River Falls, Wisconsin, for training camp, we were met with crowds of 5,000 people at every practice—literally 100 times more fans than had attended in previous years.  Somehow, Joe managed to become “one of the guys” in spite of intense media attention determined to single him out and separate him from the pack.  More than any other quarterback I played with, Joe went out of his way to spend time with the guys, joining the O-line on our annual hunting trip, singing with us at our raucous karaoke party, and inviting us all out to California to celebrate with him when he eventually retired. Unity on the offense was at an all-time high when Montana was at the helm.

Lessons about leadership from those years have stuck with me.  Joe’s recipe for success was a simple one:  Be serious and work hard, but know how to have fun and blow off steam. More importantly, climb in the trenches with the troops and show them by your own example what it takes to create success.

Actions, as Grandmom Valerio was fond of saying, do indeed speak louder than words.

Joe Valerio is available for public speaking and appearances at events such as keynotes, corporate events, charity events, and more.  

Go to www.gridironconcepts.com You can contact Joe at 610-476-1880 or: info@gridironconcepts.com

Follow Joe on Twitter at  @joevalerio73

Read Joe's previous article: You Never Know Who’s Watching

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Joe Montana photo: sportsillustrated.cnn.com