To properly know who Ronnie Lott is, and what he has become, it is important to know who he was.
Also, it needs to be established that Lott will be 52 on May 8, which makes him, in the ongoing discussion of the long-term impact of NFL injuries, a tweener. He is between the days when the crippling hits occurred and the days they actually become crippling. He says he expects to really feel them in his 60s.
“I know what’s coming,” Lott says.
This is a hard subject for Lott because he is a hard guy. Raised in a military family and moving around as a child, he was perhaps the best football player to come out of Fontana, and Eisenhower High. He went to USC, played on a national championship team and became an All-American defensive back. He was a first-round draft choice (No. 8) of the San Francisco 49ers, played 10 seasons for them amidst their Super Bowl years and had 14 years in the NFL, which included eight All-Pro selections and 10 Pro Bowls.
They make the Hall of Fame for players such as Lott.
More specific to the topic is that Lott was not just a hard hitter, but a fearless warrior. The stories are legendary:
• Lott tackling Washington Redskins star receiver Art Monk, in Monk’s 15th season, so hard that, as Monk told the Sporting News, the hit “pretty much messed me up for my career.”
• Lott coming to the sidelines in the 1989 Super Bowl against the Cincinnati Bengals and telling teammates he would put a stop to Ickey Woods running all over the 49ers. That he did, according to 49ers defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes, with one massive hit that took the steam out of Woods the rest of the way.
But the pinky finger story remains the image that has stuck.
Late in the 1985 season, he was involved in such a brutal hit on running back Tim Newsome that it literally tore off parts of Lott’s left pinky. Legend has it that part of his skin and bone fragments were left on the field. He played the rest of the game, taped it up for the next (and final) game of the season and played that one too.
Then, in the off-season he faced the choice of intricate finger surgery and possibly missed playing time, or amputation of the tip of his finger. He chose amputation and played on for six more years.
“I have regrets,” he says on the pinky finger topic. “My kids look at it and say, ‘Why?’ ”
Lott lives in Cupertino. He is a successful businessman, owning several auto dealerships under the umbrella of Lott Automotive, and also does investing and consulting work.
He is also the namesake of a relatively new college award fittingly called the Lott Impact Trophy. It is in its eighth year and honors, at a dinner in December in Newport Beach, the defensive player who had the biggest impact on his team. It also distributes money to charities and has given out just shy of $850,000. It begins each season with 42 nominees, because Lott wore No. 42 in the pros.
They announced the 42 names last week at a luncheon and Lott attended. He also did so a year ago, but in pain from a sciatic nerve that was hurting his back. He had surgery shortly after that.
“I’m sure football had something to do with it,” he says.
He also says he is feeling fine, and adds, “When most people say they are feeling fine, they mean 100% pain free. For us [former football players], fine is about 90%, at best.”
He carries the cause of the old NFL retirees now, partly because he has seen the light and certainly because he will soon be one. He says the Dave Duerson suicide was stunning and says, “You never thought you’d see somebody like that — successful, prominent, happy — take his own life.”
Lott has been a member of the NFL Safety Committee. He says those who say that all these old guys knew what they were signing up for and are merely whining now are only partly correct.
“I did know what I signed up for,” he says. “But we didn’t know all the danger signs then. The signs are pretty dramatic now.
“The old players played a role, took a risk, and I think some restitution for that is fair. We need to give those guys a sense of peace. There seems to be plenty of money there.
“Some guys don’t have a chance to have a quality of life as they get older, and that’s not right. We’ve got to find a way to take care of our own. If I’m an NFL owner, I think of these guys as the pillars of what’s been built.”
At the luncheon to announce this year’s 42 nominees, a former nominee was asked to speak.
Jim Leonhard is 28, starting safety for the New York Jets. His Cinderella story began when he was a high school player from tiny Ladysmith, Wis. With no scholarships offered, he walked on at the University of Wisconsin, became All-American and has made it in the pros as an undrafted player.
Leonhard is 5 feet 8 and 190 pounds, friendly, well spoken and looks like a choirboy.
In his remarks, he said, “The only goal in an NFL season is to get that championship ring. If you don’t, you’ve failed.”
As Lott and others a bit older would tell him, he might ponder another goal: being able to spend quality time with his grandchildren.