I finally got to see Joe Montana blow it. As a devout Cincinnati Bengals fan, I've waited for this moment for more than 20 years. I just wasn't expecting to see it here. This past Friday in Fort Worth, Texas, Montana choked away the National Cutting Horse Association World Championship Futurity.
My enjoyment of Joe Cool's demise was slightly tempered by the fact that I hadn't heard of cutting horse until the day before. Probably because it doesn't involve lassos or bucking bulls, cutting horse is watched and practiced almost exclusively by equine sports nerds. It's a simple event: A cowboy or cowgirl rides through a herd of 64 cattle, "cutting" it down to a more manageable size. Once horse and rider separate a cow from the herd, they play tight man-to-man defense to prevent it from returning to its bovine friends. The horse digs deeply into the sandy floor of the pen with its hind legs, then explodes out of a crouch to cut off the cow as it jukes and parries. Watching in person, a cutting horse's agility is more impressive than the pure speed of thoroughbreds—no wonder everybody here calls the horses "athletes."
Fort Worth is the Kentucky of cutting horse and Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum the Churchill Downs. Tonight's show isn't only about competition. Much of the crowd is here to buy and sell potential sires and dams—they wear jackets that say "2002 All-American Quarter Horse Congress," "Flowmaster SuperStakes," and "Mr. Skyline Peppy." A few people smoke on the arena floor, exhaling right in the face of the horses. Most stick to smokeless, though, expectorating between the seats and in the breezeway. I count about 20 dead ringers for Sam Elliott, right down to the handlebar mustache and voice deep as the ocean floor. Then you have the men who look like they've eaten their fair share of the state's livestock population and the local youths here on dates—it is Friday night, after all.
Since he took up the sport in 1996, Montana has graduated from competing in "celebrity cutting" events alongside the likes of Tanya Tucker, Bernie Taupin, and Marilyn Quayle. Montana now competes in the amateur class, but he's still small-time compared to the other Hall of Famer in the building. Former Pittsburgh Steeler Mel Blount, who has competed in cutting horse for three decades, rides in the strangely named "non-pro" division. As a defensive back, Blount claims an advantage over fellow NFL-bred cutting horse devotees Montana and tight end Jay Novacek. "You have to mirror the cow as you would a receiver," he tells me while sitting on his horse, High Brow Doll. "Wherever the head goes, the body will follow." After imparting some more cowboy wisdom—"Like I always say, the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man"—he lets fly with a massive plug of chaw. Blount finishes third in his class.
While I've come exclusively to watch Joe Montana ride around on a horse, the thousand or so people in the half-filled arena seem disinterested. When the PA announcer says "Joe Montana," the golden-boy quarterback gets no louder reception than the Cogdell brothers, Blaze and Cooper. As he takes the floor, the people around me chat away and head to the concession stands. Perhaps Montana alienated some of the crowd when he was the only rider to lose his 10-gallon hat during the ceremonial pre-competition sprint. Or maybe everyone's still pissed about The Catch.
Contestants get two and a half minutes to cut two or three cows. Five judges rate horse and rider based on things like aesthetic appeal and degree of difficulty and give out an assortment of penalties that cut into the final grade. Montana, riding a horse foaled on his California ranch and bred specifically for this event, has performed well up until now, qualifying for the final 16 in third place.
In Montana's final ride, he leads his mount, Lookwhatthecatdrugin, into the calmly mooing cattle and sections off about a dozen. The judges are looking for the rider to dart in decisively and cut a specific cow, but Joe is moving slowly. He separates one, then pulls off her before she stops shucking and jiving. That's called a "hot quit," at least according to the two cowboys sitting behind me, and it'll probably cost him a couple of points. Riders can only use their legs to prompt their mounts, but Montana appears to use the reins a couple of times, further lowering his score. The worst moment comes when he gets too deep while cutting off a particularly energetic heifer and backs into the edge of the herd. It's a bad ride, and he knows it. Montana shakes his head as the buzzer sounds. He's fallen from third to 13th, proving once and for all that he's nothing without Jerry Rice.
Montana quickly bails out a side door. When I trail him to the stables, I find the greatest quarterback ever struggling to work his jeans over his boots without stepping in horse shit. "The adrenaline I get from being out there is more than anything I've experienced, even football," he says. "I'm disappointed. I made every mistake in the book. But I gotta bunch of horses, so I'll be back." And then the three-time Super Bowl MVP skulks off into the Texas night. Maybe next year he'll finally win the big one.