After the Floods, the People of Kansas City Are Looking for Montana to Lead Chiefs to . . . : Higher Ground

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joe Yulich wanted to grab the flag, but there wasn't time.

The nearby Missouri River rushed in one morning in late July, and Vulich had to worry about more important things, such as drowning, so he ran.

The flag, flying from his back deck, remained.

The next day, his house was submerged, his 2,200 acres of farmland had disappeared, most of the things he had acquired in 34 years of living were beneath the swirling brown water.

The river soon invaded the rest of the Missouri town of Waldron, forcing most of its 60 residents to flee to friends' homes on a nearby hill.

From there, what they saw amazed them. For 10 days, one thing was clearly visible above the murky river, floating from one end of town to another.

It was Yulich's flag. A red-and-gold Kansas City Chiefs flag.

"One day somebody up the road would say, 'Saw your flag today Joe,' " Yulich recalled. "The next day, somebody down the road would say, 'Your flag made it down this way today, Joe."

When the waters finally receded, Yulich left the deck to rot in the mud. But he recovered the shriveled and stained flag.

Visit the parking lot outside Gate C at Arrowhead Stadium on Monday night, three hours before the Kansas City Chiefs' home opener against the Denver Broncos, and you can see it.

Yulich will fly the flag outside his tailgate party as he has done before every home game during the last four years. Only this time, it will be more than a symbol for a sports team.

It will be a symbol of survival for the thousands of flood victims who, after the one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, are counting on the Chiefs to help ease their pain.

This symbolism is not lost on Joe Montana.

The man many call the greatest quarterback in NFL history came here last spring as one who could lead the Chiefs to the Super Bowl.

But so much has happened since then. When he makes his first regular-season home start Monday night in front of 77,000 fans and a national television audience, he will be playing for a community's heart.

"During all these hard times, the Chiefs and Montana have given us something different to think about," Yulich said during a recent break from his rebuilding efforts. "Something, you know, to hope for."

Montana, who will start after sitting out last week's loss at Houston because of a wrist injury, recognizes this as easily as the rest of the world recognizes him.

"When a disaster like that happens, you have to give people something to cling on to," Montana said. "That's what sports are for. That's what we're here for."

And that, one senses, is what Montana is here for.

Yulich stared out at his small frame house filled with the sounds of hammering and sawing. He stared over at the miles of fields that have turned brown and useless, and wiped the sleeve of his T-shirt over his forehead.

"Gosh, I wish I had known you were talking to Montana," he said. "I could have gotten you to get me an autograph."

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The television cameras Monday night will show some of the NFL's most conservative fans wearing Joe Montana ties.

They will show those fans chanting, "Joe, Joe, Joe," while jingling Joe Montana key chains. There might even be a remote shot of the town of Joe, Montana.

But the cameras cannot show half of it.

They cannot show the woman who phoned the Chiefs' public relations office, crying, asking that Montana autograph her late husband's urn.

They cannot show the fan who ran on the field during pregame warm-ups carrying a helmet. He wanted Montana to sign it.

They cannot show the woman who interrupted a news conference to scream at Coach Marty Schottenheimer for not playing Montana in a preseason scrimmage.

And they cannot show Bob Moore, the Chiefs' veteran public relations director who is on the wildest ride of his life.

Because of Montana, Moore has been forced to add an employee merely to help sort the mail. He no longer has time to answer his constantly ringing phone.

When he is not taking calls from television broadcasters in Guam, he is speaking to the five networks that broadcast NFL games.

Producers from every pregame and halftime show have requested interviews with Montana in each of the first three weeks of the season. It is suddenly as if there are no other players in the league.

Moore is also in charge of turning down each of Montana's hundreds of public appearance requests for fear that fans will be injured in mob scenes.

This meant even saying no to the good people of Topeka, Kan., who wanted Joe to judge a cattle contest.

Surveys have shown that Montana is the second-most recognizable athlete in the United States behind Michael Jordan. Now imagine Jordan living and playing in, say, Sacramento.

"I knew what sort of storm this guy could create when he came here, but even I am continually surprised by the level and intensity of excitement," said Carl Peterson, the Chiefs' general manager. "I mean, this is a guy who had played one half of football in two years."

When Peterson was recruiting the quarterback before engineering the trade from the San Francisco 49ers last spring, he was having dinner with Montana and Schottenheimer in a curtained booth at a local upscale restaurant.

Suddenly, a very drunk fan burst through the curtains and demanded Montana's autograph. Montana said he would sign after they finished eating, but the fan would not leave.

Schottenheimer finally grabbed the fan and said, "Listen, if I give you my autograph, will you leave?"

The fan stared at NFL's fourth-winningest active coach.

"Who the hell are you?" he said.

In a town where there are lights above a freeway that blink if you are driving too fast, where radio stations broadcast public-service announcements urging families to eat dinner together, Montana fits like an old work boot.

Since Peterson brought Montana here from the 49ers on April 20, the Chiefs haven't sold any more tickets. They couldn't. Arrowhead Stadium was already sold out for the season.

The Chiefs also didn't sell any more scoreboard advertising time. They couldn't. Every minute was already accounted for.

What Montana has added, with his resume as the only three-time Super Bowl most valuable player and the top-rated passer in NFL history, is another reason for locals to throw out their chests.

Phil Thomas, the Chiefs' director of promotions, got that feeling during a summer vacation to Hawaii.

"At a remote cottage on Maui, the bellhop found out where we were from and asked about Joe Montana," Thomas said. "We're at a coffee shop on the edge of a volcano, and people are asking us about Joe Montana."

Thomas, who sees Montana regularly because the unassuming quarterback sneaks candy bars from a nearby office, shook his head in wonder.

"Used to be, you mention Kansas City and people would say, 'Toto' or 'beef' or 'barbecue,' " Thomas said. "Now they say, 'Oh, Joe Montana.' "

This pride became especially important this summer, when 2,208 homes in western Missouri and eastern Kansas were destroyed in what is being called the Great Flood of '93.

Another 2,905 homes in the area suffered major damage, and 6,333 people were forced to seek shelter provided by the Red Cross.

Although the Chiefs were training in River Falls, Wis., when the flood waters struck their town, they reacted.

After a pre-practice pep talk from Peterson, the players contributed about $38,000 to relief efforts, a figure that was matched by the Chiefs' founder, Lamar Hunt

After they returned home in late August, kicker Nick Lowery organized 15 players who traveled throughout the community assisting the Red Cross.

"The Chiefs were lifting spirits as the waters were receding," said Erick Swenson, Red Cross spokesman. "It has been like what happened in San Francisco during the (1989) earthquake. They continued to play the World Series there, because, if only for a couple of hours, the people needed a chance to come together and forget."

Montana was not among those players who passed out sandwiches, again because of concerns for public safety. Where he can best serve this community, it is agreed, is on the football field.

"When I'm out here putting my house back together, I'm thinking about the Chiefs," farmer Yulich said. "I remember, the whole month before Montana played in that first preseason game here, we were planning for that game."

When Yulich attended that nationally televised exhibition against the Buffalo Bills, it was the first time he had left his rebuilding project since the flood. Many others there were like him. No wonder Arrowhead Stadium was so loud.

"Cheering for Montana, for the team, that takes some stress off of us out here," Yulich said. "If you sit here and think about what's happened to you, you'll never make it. I can only imagine how good it will feel if they have a great year."

The people here like Montana not only because of his statistics, although he had three touchdown passes in leading the Chiefs to an opening-game victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before being injured.

"I like the way he looks, the way he conducts himself on TV, seems like a regular old guy just like everybody else," Yulich said. "We don't only want him to play here, we want him to retire in this town."

Their perceptions are accurate. Montana is 37 but continues to act like an unassuming college kid.

While few athletes offer to shake hands with clubhouse visitors anymore, Montana not only offered his hand first to a recent guest, he offered his sore right hand.

"I told him to shake with the other hand, but he won't listen," Peterson said.

"The recognition still surprises me, because, well, this is still like Pop Warner football to me," Montana said, motioning around the Chiefs' meeting area in the basement of the stadium. "You walk into the locker room and you feel 8 years old again. It's still a game. It will always be a game.

"You never think of your popularity outside of here until you are confronted with it. You just don't."

Montana can handle it here, he said, because, unlike in the Bay Area, he doesn't need to live behind a gate. His four children can play in the street in front of his house. There is more space, and it is safer.

And besides, away from Steve Young, he can be a starting quarterback again, if only for the three years of his contract.

"More than anything, that is the best part about being here," he said. "Just being able to play again."

The fans agree.

"I'm already planning for Monday's game," Joe Yulich said. "We're going to have brats (bratwurst) and butterscotch Schnapps at the tailgate party. When they open the gates, my car will be first in line. Engine running."

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