October 25, 2013 Updated: October 26, 2013 at 4:19 am
Air Force halfback Jon Lee smiled when I started telling him about the day Joe Montana came to Falcon Stadium in 1975.
"I heard this story," Lee said. "I heard it from General Gould."
Lt. Gen. Mike Gould, recently retired Air Force Academy superintendent, often tells the sad, happy story of Montana and the Notre Dame loss. Gould played safety for the 1975 Falcons.
Gould cherishes this heartbreak game. He saw the loss then, and he sees it now, as a confirmation that virtually anything is possible.
"You fight your hardest," Gould said. "And you can win."
When Notre Dame arrived in Colorado Springs on Oct. 18, the Falcons had last won a game 364 days earlier, a 19-16 win over Navy. They were in the midst of the excruciating conclusion to the Ben Martin era, which ended with 36 losses in the coach's last 44 games. In better days, Martin directed the 1958 Falcons to an unbeaten (9-0-2) record.
The Falcons had no logical chance against the Irish, but in practice Martin told his players Notre Dame was vulnerable.
"Hey, I would tell you if we didn't have a prayer," Martin told his players 38 years ago this month. "We can beat these guys."
This was, no doubt, optimistic. The Irish had pulverized the Falcons, 38-0, to end the 1974 season.
But Martin developed a strong scheme. So strong that the Falcons seized a 30-10 lead in the early minutes of the fourth quarter.
A backup sophomore quarterback named Joe Montana.
According to legend, Montana entered the game against Air Force in the fourth quarter. This legend isn't true. Montana departed the bench in the second quarter and was a prime reason the Irish trailed by 20.
But with his Irish in severe peril, Montana suddenly became, well, Montana. He led the Irish to the 1977 national title and the 49ers to four Super Bowl titles. This rally at Falcon Stadium was his first show on national TV.
Montana quickly led the Irish on a nine-play, 66-yard scoring march. Notre Dame trailed 30-17.
Then came the crucial sequence. With 6 minutes left, Montana looked for tight end Kevin McAfee. Air Force defensive back Jim Miller read Montana's eyes and intercepted the pass at the 50. The Falcons victory was secure, or so it seemed.
Miller was engulfed by Irish tacklers. He fumbled, and the Irish recovered at their own 15. At the corner of the pile, Montana was slamming his hands together while shouting to himself.
Given a fresh chance, Montana delivered. On the second play after his interception, Montana threw into quadruple coverage to running back Mark McLane. It was a reckless decision. It also was a perfect throw. McLane took the ball 66 yards to the Air Force 6-yard line.
Martin wore a fedora to games. While he watched McLane race down the sideline, Martin tossed his fedora to the ground and stomped on it. He knew his Falcons were doomed.
Injured Air Force captain Randy Spetman, later to become Air Force's athletic director, watched Martin as he stomped.
"I'll never forget that in my life," Spetman said this week. "That pass just totally devastated us."
The Irish scored two plays later, cutting the lead to 30-24. After a short Air Force punt, Montana marched Notre Dame straight to the winning touchdown.
For Gould, the loss, though crushing, serves as a constant reminder anything is possible. It was possible for Air Force to grab a 20-point lead. And it was possible for Montana to erase that lead in a few minutes.
In October 2001, a few weeks after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, Montana invited Gould to speak to a group of celebrities in the Bay Area. Montana wanted Gould to assure his frightened friends it was safe to fly.
Gould delivered a speech, which ended with loud, appreciative applause. Montana stood and gestured for silence.
He laughed as he thought back to Oct. 18, 1975.
"On a personal note," Montana said, "I want to thank General Gould for helping launch my Hall of Fame football career."