Work in Sports
Hitter With Heart
San Francisco's All-Pro safety, Ronnie Lott, is as generous with his time as he is with his tackles
Issue date: January 23, 1989
By Jill Lieber
Bob and Marie Burcina, a vivacious middle-aged couple, were two of the friendliest people on Cadiz Drive in San Jose, Calif. They organized neighborhood ice cream socials, opened their kitchen for breakfast get-togethers and set up a hot dog stand in their driveway for the street's annual June garage sale. When their neighbor Toni Scurti had a baby, Bob welcomed her home from the hospital with a large banner that read IT'S A BOY.
So when Bob was diagnosed as having lung cancer, Scurti surprised him with a real-life get-well card -- a visit from her friend All-Pro safety Ronnie Lott of the San Francisco 49ers. "We walked in, and Bob was hunched over in a chair, his arm in a sling," recalls Scurti. "The radiation treatments had taken a lot out of him, but when he saw Ronnie, he sprang up and said, 'I'm going to walk across the room to shake this man's hand.' "
For two hours Lott shared stories about his teammates and life in the NFL. Bob reminisced about old-time 49ers and critiqued the current team's losses to the Phoenix Cardinals and the Los Angeles Raiders earlier in the season. After Lott's visit, Marie couldn't get Bob to wear anything but his red-and-gold 49er sweatpants and cap. On Sundays he watched the Niners' games from his bed, often with tears in his eyes. When he died two days before Christmas, at 57, he was surrounded by the people and things he loved most -- his family and his 49er mementos.
"Ronnie gave him energy," says Marie. "The cancer was wearing on him at all times, but for those few hours Ronnie gave my husband peace of mind. That was something no one else was able to give."
Lott, 29, is forever comforting those in need. To them he's more than just the best free safety in the NFL -- he's a patron saint in blue jeans and a baseball cap. A few months ago a woman Lott had never met knocked on his door and asked him to visit a friend who had recently broken his neck. No problem, said Lott, and while he was at the hospital, he also consoled a man with a crushed hip. One morning a friend of Lott's phoned to request an autographed football for a sick colleague. By early afternoon the ball was on his friend's desk. Lott also donates money to two San Francisco churches to help feed the homeless, and he is planning to organize food drives at several 49er games next season.
"It's easy to help others, to give them some hope, some belief that they can make it," says Lott. "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."
Lott gives as much of himself on the field, but in a much different way. He 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. "Ronnie slams into guys full force, straight up," says Jack Tatum, the former Oakland Raider All-Pro defensive back. "But he has to refine his style. He does as much damage to himself as he does to the other guy."
Lott estimates that he has been knocked unconscious at least six times making tackles. "I'm dinged and dazed, like a boxer who's trying to wake up," he says. "On the sidelines, I'm always trying to trick the doctors into believing I'm all right. When they say, 'You're out of the game,' I say, 'The hell I am.' "
Lott has separated or dislocated his right shoulder twice and separated the left one once. He has pinched a nerve in his neck and broken or sprained three of his fingers. In 1985 he got his left pinkie caught between his shoulder pads and the helmet of Dallas running back Timmy Newsome. The bone at the tip of the finger was shattered, and when the bone failed to heal, Lott had the tip amputated. He has also played with torn cartilage in his right knee and with a cracked tibia in his right leg.
Lott is such an intimidating force that scouts contend some wide receivers cringe at the thought of running routes into his territory. They sometimes fail to reach up for passes, opting instead to stay low and protect their bodies from Lott's devastating blows. Ray Rhodes, San Francisco's defensive-backfield coach, likes to call these hard hits "woo licks" because they make stadium crowds -- and opponents studying game films -- let out cries of wonder at every crunch. Wooooooo!
"When you see Ronnie taking out guys on film, it puts thoughts in the back of your mind," says Dallas Cowboys tight end Doug Cosbie. "You know he's going to hit you, and it's not going to be a whole lot of fun. It's like a prizefighter who has to face Mike Tyson; he can't flinch every time Tyson throws a punch."
At the moment of contact, Lott says he can gauge how hard his hit is but not how effective it will be. The world around him goes silent, and he claims he never hears his victim grunt, groan or squeal. "That's because he knocks the wind out of each one of them," says Dennis Thurman, who coaches the Cardinals' defensive backs.
Lott laughs when asked about his hardest hit, a head-on collision with Atlanta Falcons running back William Andrews in 1982. "I ran 10 yards straight at him, as hard as I could," he recalls. "He didn't see me. The whole time I was saying to myself, This is it! Then, boom. I slid off of him like butter. I hit the ground, and he didn't go down. I was thinking, What?
"People are always asking where I'll be 10 years from now, if I'll be able to walk," continues Lott. "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."
Lott started learning that lesson very early in life. The oldest of Roy and Mary Lott's three children, Ronnie was born in Albuquerque, then moved to Washington, D.C., five years later when his father, who was in the Air Force, was given the job of chauffeuring generals between Bolling Air Force Base and the Pentagon. Growing up in the inner city toughened Ronnie. "You learned how to compete," he recalls. "Either you were good or you didn't play." But city life also squelched the freedom and spontaneity he had enjoyed in Albuquerque. The schoolyard was far from home, so Lott played baseball in an abandoned parking lot and football in the street with his brother, Roy Jr., and their friends, Richard and Stanley Walker. "I pretended I was Charley Taylor," says Lott. "Richard called himself Daryle Lamonica. Stanley was Larry Brown, and Roy thought he was Billy Kilmer."
At Christmas the Lott brothers and their playmates begged their parents for Washington Redskins helmets and uniforms. Ronnie also pleaded for a pair of P.F. Flyers, insisting that those particular shoes would make him run faster and jump higher than the rest of the kids. "To demonstrate how good the sneakers were, he jumped from our second-floor apartment window to the first-floor landing," says Roy Sr. with a laugh. "That landing was only four feet square. He hit it perfectly and didn't even hurt himself. That really shocked me."
When Ronnie was nine, the Lotts moved to San Bernardino, Calif., 50 miles east of Los Angeles, and a year later settled in nearby Rialto. Ronnie had difficulty channeling the aggressiveness he had developed playing games on pavement. During one recess Lott clobbered a fifth-grade teacher with a kickball while making a tag and was ordered to write and illustrate a booklet on sportsmanship, which his mother still has.
Ronnie convinced his parents to let him try out for Little League baseball by promising to wash and iron his own uniform. And when he and Roy Jr. started playing Pop Warner football, everybody in the family got involved. Roy Sr. was a league administrator, sister Suzie was a cheerleader and Mary provided sandwiches and sodas after games.
Crisscrossing the country as a military family, Mary believes, brought the Lotts closer together. "We were the only family we had," she says. "It was just the five of us. We made sure everybody shared, everybody gave. And we kept our focus humble."
Says Lott, "I never really had a best friend until my freshman year at Southern Cal. I couldn't get close to anybody because we were always leaving town. My parents were like my friends."
At USC, Lott was a consensus All-America at safety in both his junior and senior seasons. As a junior he also played reserve point guard on the basketball team. Since being selected by San Francisco in the first round of the 1981 draft, he has led the Niners in interceptions four times (twice sharing the lead with others) and has been selected for the Pro Bowl in seven of his eight seasons -- four times at cornerback, which he played until 1985, and three at safety. Only two other players, Mel Renfro and Dave Grayson, have ever been named All-Pro at both positions.
Despite an annual salary of $842,500, which makes him one of the highest paid defensive backs in the league, Lott remains remarkably down-to-earth. He has owned a couple of Mercedes, but he now drives a Volkswagen Rabbit. He lives in a modest two-bedroom condominium in Santa Clara, Calif. On the tables in his den are his college diploma (he graduated in four years from USC with a degree in public administration), Suzie's wedding picture and some handmade cards from young 49er fans. The walls of his breakfast nook are covered with inspirational poems and prayers collected by his mother. And his high school diploma is on the nightstand in the guest room.
During the season Lott writes a weekly column for the San Jose Mercury News and does a weekly sports show for KNTV in San Jose. Part of his reimbursement for the show is free commercial time for his restaurant, Sports City Cafe, which he created, and owns with several others, including teammates Roger Craig, Keena Turner and Eric Wright. Lott also has become a devotee of Asian art and culture. "I'm intrigued by the peacefulness," he says. Since 1986, taekwondo has been part of his off-season conditioning program. Three times a week he performs a routine that includes 700 sit-ups, 400 push-ups and hundreds of kicks and punches.
Lott collects photographs of children who have written fan letters to him. Two of his buddies are Tony and Matt Kelly, who are students at Santa Clara High. He met the boys seven years ago at a local park. Lott plays pickup basketball with them and takes them shopping at the mall and out to dinner. For Christmas, the Kellys gave Lott a new basketball.
Lott has recently received letters from Bob Burcina's 15 grandchildren. Each thanked him for having visited their grandpa. Just before he died, Bob also sent Lott a note. Too weak to write, he dictated it to Marie. Along with the letter he included a poem he had written for the 49ers in 1982 that was read on the radio before they faced the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XVI. Marie says Bob sensed that he might not make it to this year's Super Bowl, but he wanted to cheer on his new friend. Bob ended the poem this way:
God goes with you on your trip to the bowl, and if for some reason you don't reach your goal; Come back to us with heads held high, for we surely know you gave it one hell of a try.
But on a sad note let's not linger.
You're coming home with that ring on your finger.
Issue date: January 23, 1989