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Lott, Ronald Mandel ("Ronnie")

LOTT, Ronald Mandel ("Ronnie")

(b. 8 May 1959 in Albuquerque, New Mexico), All-Pro football player at three different positions, considered by many the finest defensive back in National Football League history.

Lott's father, Roy D. Lott, was a career noncommissioned officer stationed at Sandia (now Kirtland) Air Force Base in New Mexico when his son was born. Lott's mother, the former Mary Carroll, was a stay-at-home mother. Fortunately, Roy Lott was stationed in the continental United States throughout his career. Lott, his brother, and his sister were always together. When he was four, the family moved to the Washington, D.C., area when the senior Lott was assigned to Bolling Air Force Base in Virginia. Young Lott quickly became a Washington Redskins fan. He fantasized that he was the Redskins' star receiver, Charley Taylor, and wore Taylor's jersey number (42) throughout high school, college, and with three National Football League (NFL) teams.

When Lott was nine, his father, by this time an Air Force recruiter, was transferred to San Bernardino, California. The family settled in nearby Rialto. At age eleven Lott was the star quarterback of the San Bernardino Jets Pee Wee League team, which was undefeated in ten games and outscored the opposition 377–22. Lott became immersed in sports, reading all he could and watching everything from archery to water skiing on television. He remarked that "had ESPN existed then, I probably would never have made it out of junior high."

Lott developed his fierce tackling style in junior high. He wasn't satisfied with just knocking an opponent off his feet. He said, "I had to drive my helmet into him, keep my feet moving, and lift him into the air before dumping him on his butt." This is the way every defensive coach teaches tackling, but few master the technique as well as Lott did. At Rialto's Eisenhower High School, Lott lettered all three years in football, basketball, and baseball. He earned honors in each of the sports—perhaps the most significant being a Parade magazine High School All-America selection in football. He graduated from Eisenhower High School in 1977.

The University of Southern California (USC) promised Lott jersey No. 42, which contributed to his choice of the Trojans as his college team. His career at USC was storied. He started some games as a freshman and was never out of the starting lineup thereafter. While a Trojan, Lott built his reputation as a hard-hitting, ball-hawking defensive back. He earned All-America mention as a sophomore and junior and was a unanimous choice as a senior in 1980, when he was also voted the team's Most Valuable Player (MVP) and most inspirational player. He graduated from USC in 1981 with a B.S. in public administration.

Lott was the San Francisco 49ers' first draft choice—the eighth player chosen overall. After a brief holdout he reported to camp and made an immediate impression. Not much was expected of the 49ers in 1981—they had been 6–10 the year before. But with the maturing of the quarterback Joe Montana and Lott and two other rookies in an inexperienced secondary, the 49ers won their first-ever Super Bowl, defeating the Cincinnati Bengals 26–21. Lott collected the first of his four Super Bowl rings that year. After the game coach Bill Walsh hailed him as "the best athlete this club has had at this point in time." Lott quickly became the unquestioned leader of the 49ers' defense, if not the entire team. He was simply awesome as a rookie. Although he missed out on Defensive Rookie of the Year honors (they went to Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants), he tied a rookie record by returning three of his seven interceptions for touchdowns. He made All-Pro and received the first of an eventual ten Pro Bowl invitations.

Opponents soon recognized—and felt firsthand—the obstreperous Lott's warrior-like temperament. He studied martial arts, specializing in Tae Kwon Do. In his autobiography, Total Impact, Lott said of his style of play, "If you think you want to play in the NFL, and if you want to find out if you can handle being hit by Ronnie Lott, here's what you do: Grab a football and throw it in the air, and before you catch it, have a friend belt you with a baseball bat. No shoulder pads. No helmet. Just you, your friend, and the biggest Louisville Slugger you can find. Wham!"

In Super Bowl XXIII, a rematch with Cincinnati that the 49ers won, the Bengals' Ickey Woods was ripping off big gains early in the game. Lott said, "Don't worry about Ickey. I'm gonna put his fire out." Ray Rhodes, the 49ers' secondary coach, described the results of a savage Lott lick: "It just knocked the spark out of [Woods]. The game turned right there. Ickey just didn't run with the same authority after that."

Unselfishly, Lott moved from cornerback to free safety in 1985. Dallas coach Tom Landry, whose Cowboys were often pitted against the 49ers in postseason play, said, "[Lott] is a middle linebacker playing safety." It was a testament to Lott's physical style of play. Lott, though, was more than just a heavy hitter. He twice led the NFL in interceptions and finished his career with sixty-three steals—a total that was fifth best in NFL history as of 2001.

Lott also lost a little something in 1985. He dislocated and tore the tip of his little finger on his left hand. It didn't respond to treatment. In order to minimize lost playing time, Lott had part of his pinky amputated.

After moving across the San Francisco Bay to the Oakland Raiders in 1991, Lott returned to his college position of strong safety. It was with the Raiders that year that he rung up his second league-leading interception total (8). On 2 March of that year, Lott and Karen Collmer were married.

Lott moved on again after two years with the Raiders, the victim of salary cap considerations, and played the 1993 and 1994 seasons with the New York Jets. In his final season he was presented the Dennis Byrd Award as the team's most inspirational player. That same year Lott was named to the NFL's 75th Anniversary All-Time team. Former NFL coach Bill Parcells said of Lott at the time, "That guy's going to Canton on roller skates," a reference to Lott's surefire qualifications for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In 2000, the first year he was eligible, Lott was taken into the Canton, Ohio, gridiron shrine. Always at his best in money games, Lott made nine interceptions, returning two for touchdowns, in twenty postseason games.

Since retiring as an active player, Lott can be seen on Fox Sports Net during football season. He, his wife, and three children live in Cupertino, California, where he is involved in an automobile agency and a venture capital organization.

Lott's accolades—the NFL's 75th Anniversary All-Time team and the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction—are prima facie evidence of his greatness. Giants' assistant coach Zev Yaralian summed up Lott's career, saying, "He intimidated receivers and could play the nasty role. He seemed to say, 'You come through my area and I'll knock your head off.' He moved to safety because of his ability as a hard hitter. He may have been a better safety than a cornerback—but he was about the best at either position." Pound for pound, the NFL may never see a more intimidating player. The six-foot, 203-pound Lott once said, "To analyze a player, you have to watch him in slow motion." He always seemed to be playing at fast forward himself.

Lott's autobiography, written with Jill Lieber, is entitled Total Impact (1991). His life and career are also discussed in Michael W. Tuckman and Jeff Schultz, Team of the Decade (1989); Dennis Pottenger, Great Expectations (1991); and Ron Smith, Football's 100 Greatest Players (1999).

Jim Campbell

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