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Joe Montana: 'I'm probably more fortunate than most'

Heart disease, which is still the leading cause of death is the U.S, is a personal matter for four-time Super Bowl winner Joe Montana.

Joe Montana is far from the most outgoing former NFL superstar. He is not a ubiquitous presence in commercials or on talk shows. And even though he is still widely regarded as the greatest quarterback of all time, he doesn't get caught engaging in debates about the skills of the players who have emerged in his wake.

He is, however, stepping into the spotlight now for a good cause -- to raise awareness about heart disease.

The NFL legend, along with his wife, businesswoman and former model Jennifer Montana, are hoping to change bad attitudes and habits by teaming up with the AHA, Amgen and Schwinn bicycles to promote a Breakaway From Heart Disease initiative, which encourages people to investigate their own family histories and to take action in a potentially fun and innovative way -- through a series of cycling events:

Heart disease, which is still the leading cause of death in the U.S. (about 610,000 people every year, or one in every four deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control), is a personal matter for the four-time Super Bowl winner. It has run in his family for years, and when he discovered that he had high blood pressure and high cholesterol (early indicators of the disease) soon after he retired in 1994, he knew he too had to make some significant changes in his lifestyle.

"After I retired I figured I didn't have to work out as often and I could still eat like I was playing," Joe Montana told MSNBC on Wednesday. "I think everybody thinks, like I did, it's not going to happen to me."

RELATED: NFL can't make up its mind about CTE

But the reality is that by 2030, more than 40 percent of Americans are projected to have some form of cardiovascular disease, according the American Heart Association (AHA). The good news is that it's largely preventable.

"People don't like to make changes in their life. They love the way they exercise, they think they're getting the right amount; they love the way they're eating. For me, I won't lie ... I was one of those guys. And then you stop playing and you realize you can't do that," said Montana.

Montana's own health has been the subject of concern and speculation after he revealed in an interview with USA Today, prior to flipping the coin at the start of Super Bowl 50 in February, that since he retired from the NFL he has battled severe aches and pains and seen his own mobility dramatically hampered by the residual effects of injuries from his playing days.

“My hands have been, oh my gosh, in the middle of the night they hurt like crazy,’’ Montana told the publication at the time. He also said he had a knee that failed to respond to several operations. “They kept saying I’ll need a knee replacement when I can’t walk,’’ he told USA Today. “I can’t really run or do much with it.’’

Although in person, the 59-year-old Hall of Famer looks like the picture of health, he has nerve damage in one eye, arthritis in his joints, has had at least three neck fusions and recently underwent elbow surgery.

"After playing football for 31 years, since I was 8, it’s almost impossible to come out of there and not have certain things. I’m probably more fortunate than most, or than a lot of guys out there," said Montana. "I can still get around, I’m still pretty active in my life."

The ex-quarterback said he thought about returning to play "another year or so" prior to his decision to retire, but opted out to spend more time with his family and stave off any further punishment to his body. Today, he is cycling and doing less strenuous workouts to stay in shape without exacerbating his old injuries. 

"Unfortunately it’s an impact game, and there are going to be injuries," he added. "I think the thing that most players don’t like to see is on occasion you’ll see guys who are intentionally trying to hurt people. Those are things that are not necessary in the game and ... back when I was playing, there were a lot more that did that. And even before me it was even more prevalent."

Still, for the modern NFL it is both the best and worst of times. Fan interest, ratings and revenue have never been higher, but concerns over the proliferation of concussions have led to early retirements by marquee players and parents steering their kids away from youth football, which could drain the talent pool for future generations.

"I think it's reasonable to a certain degree," said Montana. "At some point and time a couple kids develop more than others ... and that's when the impacts change, because they're moving a different speed than the other kids."

RELATED: Ex-wife of NFL player who had CTE: 'Nobody said death was an option'

"I can understand their concern, but you can look at soccer and almost every other sport and you can see kids getting hurt there," he added.

Jennifer Montana sees a real "correlation" about the ongoing conversation around safety in pro-football and her family's dedication to the fight against heart disease.

"Now we can know these things in advance and the NFL is finally coming around to discover different things that are preventative," she told MSNBC on Wednesday. "Here too [with heart disease] it is preventable. If you get educated and you know your family history."

"If you can save one person's life and make a difference, then that's the best," said Joe Montana, before adding with his signature competitive spirit. "We're hoping for a lot better than that."