Lott, Ronnie 1959–
Ronnie Lott 1959–
Professional football player
Throughout the 1980s, Ronnie Lott was one of the most feared tacklers in professional football. A nine-time Pro Bowl attendee who has spent his career in the defensive secondary, Lott was part of the reason the San Francisco 49ers became the dominant team of the 1980s. Many pro football players never see game time in a single Super Bowl. Lott—who combined a deep understanding of football with the ability to hit like a ton of bricks—owns four Super Bowl rings from his days with the 49ers. According to Jill Lieber in Sports Illustrated, Lott “plays the game with passion, throwing his six-foot, 200-pound body at running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends with abandon. He is not only one of the hardest hitters in the NFL, but also one of its most respected players.”
Lott’s style of play has taken a toll on his body over the years. He has suffered injuries to his shoulders, neck, fingers, knees, and legs but has continued to play well into his thirties. “People are always asking where I’ll be 10 years from now, if I’ll be able to walk,” the player told Sports Illustrated. “I’m just thankful to be here today. It’s not important to be known as someone who hits hard. It’s important to be thought of as a guy who gives his all. Sure, I’m taking a risk of getting injured or being burned. But one thing you don’t do is sell out on your heart.”
Demonstrations of Lott’s “heart” are not confined to the football field. As a 49er, and more recently with the Los Angeles Raiders and the New York Jets, Lott has devoted his time and money to numerous charities and has visited the sick and the homeless on a regular basis. Not one to be uncomfortable with his role model image, Lott I told Sports Illustrated: “It’s easy to help others, to give them hope, some belief that they can make it. You’ve got to share yourself. You can’t forget where you came from and that you should help people. The rewards you get from that are better than any others.”
Children whose parents are employed by the armed services quickly learn that they will move frequently, often from coast to coast. Lott, whose father was a U.S. Air Force master sergeant, was uprooted several times as a youngster. He was born in 1959, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and was the oldest of three children. When he was five the family relocated to Washington, DC and lived in a rough neighborhood. For Ronnie Lott, sports provided a means to make friends and to prove a certain mental and physical toughness. “When I was growing up, everybody I watched seemed to play really hard, really all out,” he told Sport magazine. In the nation’s capital
Born May 8,1959, in Albuquerque, NM; son of Roy (a U.S. Air Force master sergeant) and Mary Lott; married Karen (a model) Collmer, March 1991; children: Hailey, lsaiah. Education: University of Southern California, B.A., 1981.
San Francisco 49ers, San Francisco, CA, cornerback, 1981–85, safety, 1985–90, free safety, 1990; Los Angeles Raiders, Los Angeles, CA, free safety, 1990–92; New York Jets, New York, NY, member of defensive backfield, 1993—. Also owner or co-owner of several restaurants and a health club in California.
Selected awards: Named Most Valuable Player and Most Inspirational Player by University of Southern California, 1980; consensus All-American and All-Pac-10, 1980 and 1981; member of Pro Bowl team, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1997; named “defensive back of the year” by NFL Alumni Association, 1983.
Addresses: Office— New York Jets, 1000 Fulton Ave., Hempstead, NY 11550.
Lott and his brother played football together in the street. Lott persuaded his parents to let him play Little League baseball by promising to wash and iron his own uniform.
The family moved again when Lott was nine, this time to San Bernardino, California. The youngster’s sense of rootlessness continued. “I never really had a best friend until my freshman year [in college],” the player told Sports Illustrated. “I couldn’t get close to anybody because we were always leaving town. My parents were like my friends.” At Eisenhower High School in Rialto, California, Lott made All-League in football, basketball, and baseball. Basketball was his favorite, but he realized that his skills were more suited to football. Lott told the Knight Ridder wire service: “If I had the slightest indication that I could have played basketball in the NBA [National Basketball Association], you’d never see me playing football.”
Lott was awarded an athletic scholarship to the University of Southern California, home of the highly-respected Trojan football team. He made All-America and All-Pacific Ten in both his junior and senior seasons and was also named the Trojans’ Most Valuable Player in 1980. In his senior year he led the Pac-10 with eight interceptions, and he compiled 250 tackles in his four-year stint with the Trojans. Remarkably, Lott also played varsity basketball as a junior—and he managed to earn his bachelor’s degree in four years. Recalling his days studying public administration at USC, Lott told the Knight Ridder wire: “Worked all day, went to school all night. It was well worth it to walk that path in my cap and gown and have my parents there.”
Lott was selected in the first round of the 1981 football draft by a team that sorely needed his skills. The San Francisco 49ers had only won ten games over the previous three seasons and were struggling under new head coach Bill Walsh. The year Lott joined the franchise, its fortunes turned dramatically. Once hardly competitive, the 49ers rode a 13–3 regular season record into the playoffs and won Super Bowl XVI against the Cincinnati Bengals. Lott’s contribution to this accomplishment was significant. He finished the 1981 season with 89 tackles, seven interceptions, and three interceptions returned for touchdowns. His efforts earned him a runner-up berth as the NFL Rookie-of-the-Year.
With Lott’s help in the defensive secondary—as comerback and later free safety—the San Francisco 49ers clawed their way through the 1980s to be named Team of the Decade. En route the franchise won four Super Bowls, including back-to-back victories in 1988 and 1989. Lott played in all of those Super Bowl games and rarely missed a regular season appearance. He told Knight Ridder wire how he managed to keep focused through all those glory years: “We’ve had to prove ourselves every year. Even after we’ve won a Super Bowl, you hear guys on other teams saying, ‘They’re not that tough; I don’t respect them.’ Every year we’ve had to show people how good we are. We go out there to go toe-to-toe with you.”
While flashy players like Joe Montana and Jerry Rice grabbed most of the headlines in San Francisco, Lott quietly made a name for himself both on and off the field. He holds the 49ers record for interceptions, and he was invited to the Pro Bowl nine times between 1982 and 1991. He also earned a reputation as an accessible superstar who would visit hospitals and help to raise money for charities. In the off-season he invested some of his earnings in restaurants and a health club in the Bay area.
Feared on the field for his total impact hits—some of which could be heard clearly in the press box over the roar of the crowd—Lott was perceived as an easygoing man at home. He told Knight Ridder wire: “What’s good about understanding the brutal side I have is recognizing I have a soft side, too. One side helps me understand the other…. When I walk on the field, I’m the meanest I’ll ever be in my life. I would not want to use that emotion anywhere else.” He added: “What’s sad about guys who carry the macho image around is, it shows how one-dimensional they are. They’re afraid to find out what their other side is like. If they weren’t afraid of it, they could handle it.”
In the spring of 1991 the 49ers management exposed Lott as a Plan B free agent, seeking to remove him from the team. All of San Francisco was astounded. Lott had been a hero, the anchor of the 49ers defense, a league-leader in interceptions and a regular terror as a tackler. Executives with the 49ers hinted that Lott had become a disruptive influence and that he was slowing down due to age and injuries. Lott left the team he had played for through ten long seasons and signed a two-year contract with the Los Angeles Raiders to play strong safety.
“When I left the 49ers and came to the Raiders, it was a real challenge,” Lott told Sport. “It was a different system, and I was playing a different position…. A lot of players can’t make an adjustment from one system to another. It was a little scary, to be honest. The 49ers had a tradition of cutting veteran players even when the players thought they could keep going, and the club had always been right. It was pretty obvious they thought I was through.”
Determined to prove his former team wrong, Lott studied the Raiders’ system and turned in his ninth Pro Bowl season. He led the NFL with eight interceptions in 1991, and proved that he was more than just a tough hitter; he was an avid student of football. Asked how he would adjust to playing for a team that had little chance of making the Super Bowl, Lott told the Knight Ridder wire: “The Super Bowl is not the measure of a season. I’ve never said, ‘We made it to the Super Bowl, I’m a bitchin’ guy.’ Win or lose, I try to play hard all the time and not make mistakes. I know the only way I’m going to get any respect out there is by taking care of my position better than anybody else in the league.”
Lott added that he wanted to play football not for the salary but for the sheer love of the game. “For me, that’s the difference,” he said. “You get the hits because you learn the angles and you learn the angles because you’re so immersed in the game, so in love with it, you’re always learning. You end up understanding things other players don’t understand, seeing things other players don’t see. I’ve been to… Pro Bowls and believe me, you don’t make All-Pro unless you are thinking about the game.”
When his two seasons with the Raiders were completed, Lott signed a two-year contract with the New York Jets, expected to pay him $1.8 million per year. Lott was not terribly enthusiastic about leaving his California home to work in New York, but he did sense that the Jets were taking steps to put a winning franchise on the field. Lott told Sport that his many injuries were finally beginning to take a toll and that he could finally see his playing career coming to an end. “How much longer can I play?” he asked rhetorically. “Well, I’m already past the point where everybody thought I was through. I’ve signed a two-year contract, and I think I can play it out.”
The future looks promising for the superstar defender. Having married and put down roots in the Bay area, he has invested in several restaurants and a jazz club, and he has further business ambitions when time permits. Football still beckons, however. “I’d like to come back and either coach or work in the front office for the 49ers,” Lott told Sport. “I feell I’ve learned a lot about this game, and when I can’t play anymore, I’d like to be able to use that knowledge.”
Knight Ridder wire stories, August 28, 1989; September 26, 1991; March 11, 1992.
People, January 14, 1991, p. 122.
San Jose Mercury News, January 8, 1989; October 1, 1992, p. 1D; December 31, 1992, p. 1F.
Sport, August 1993, pp. 14–15
Sports Illustrated, January 23, 1989, pp. 44–8.
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