A new ESPN Films documentary titled “30 for 30: Elway to Marino” sent a shock to Niner fans everywhere on Tuesday night. In the documentary, it is said that San Francisco 49ers head coach Bill Walsh almost traded Joe Montana for John Elway in the 1983 draft.
The “Elway to Marino” documentary details the history of the 1983 NFL draft that saw three future Hall of Fame quarterbacks selected in the first-round. Much of the documentary focuses on Elway and Dan Marino, and it details the deals that were struck leading up to the draft. The Baltimore Colts had the No. 1 overall pick in the 1983 draft and Elway was widely considered to be the best player available. Problem was, Elway refused to play for the Colts and wanted to play for a West Coast team. Ultimately, a deal was worked out between the Colts and the Denver Broncos that changed both franchises for decades.
The documentary debuted on Tuesday night and, like all ESPN programming, will probably re-air 100 times a day over the next week. Well, it will seem that way, but it will officially re-air on ESPN2 on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. Check your local listening’s for times.
There were plenty of surprises in the film, but I was left shocked by the bombshell that Walsh had considered trading Montana. One reason was because I had never heard anything about the possibility of Montana ever being traded at any time in the 1980s, especially one season after The Catch and the Niners first Super Bowl championship. At first I thought it was well known and I just didn’t know about that part of 49ers history. But apparently it was not well known and, as far as I can tell, it was the first time the trade talk was made public.
Elway’s agent, Marvin Demoff, kept a detailed diary of all the trade discussions leading up to the 1983 NFL draft. On April 6, 1983, Demoff wrote in his diary: “Discussion with Bill Walsh. Would be interested in Elway if he could trade Montana.”
At the time there were plenty of teams aiming to trade for Elway as he refused to play for the Colts. While it was surprising to hear Walsh considered trading Montana, it kind of made sense because he was the one who recruited Elway to Stanford when he was head coach at the university and made him into a college star. Also, the 49ers followed up their first Super Bowl title by not making the playoffs in the strike-shortened season in 1982. In the documentary, Demoff speculated what Walsh was thinking at the time:
Bill always was thinking four steps — four years — ahead. The ’82 49ers were (3-6), so in April of ’83 Bill wasn’t as excited about anyone at the 49ers as he was before or later.
This led to Ernie Accorsi, who was the Colts general manager at the time, to talk with Walsh about the trade. However, Walsh was no longer interested in trading for Elway. Accorsi said in the film:
I called him. And I didn’t offer, but I explored the Montana thing. And the kind of person he really is – his stature and how he lived up to it – he said to me ‘I could just never trade him.’ That’s what he said to me and I think it was, at that time, he was not through winning championships with Montana yet.
Indeed, Walsh was not done winning NFL titles with Montana as they would go on to win two more together with the 49ers. Not to be outdone, Elway won two championships as well, but none while Montana was an active player.
Could you imagine how much would have changed for each franchise had Walsh pulled the trigger to make the trade? Can you picture Montana playing in orange and blue? Or Elway playing in red and gold? I can’t. Thankfully Walsh pulled back and stayed with Joe Cool as the 49ers quarterback
Apparently, Montana never knew of the potential trade either until Tuesday. He tweeted this on Wednesday:
Can”t wait to watch 30 for 30 when I get home.Heard I was almost traded for Elway. #NflDraft one more day.
— Joseph Montana (@JoeMontana) April 24, 2013
Here was Elway’s reaction:
It’s crazy to me that was even a thought. To me, it would have been a good fit. I would have loved to have been able to play for (Walsh). But looking back 30 years later, that would have been a tough situation (to step) into.