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'Backbone and courage'

Defensive back Lott's NFL legacy a lasting hit

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Latest: Thursday July 27, 2000 06:09 PM

  Ronnie Lott During his 14-year career Ronnie Lott earned 10 trips to the Pro Bowl. Dave Stock/Allsport

ATLANTA ( -- Need a leader? Ronnie Lott is your man. Need a leader to step-up in a big game? It's Lott. Need a mentor for a young team? Again, it's Lott.

During a 14-year career with San Francisco, the Los Angeles Raiders and New York Jets, Lott was a 10-time Pro Bowl selection, earning trips to Hawaii at three different positions -- cornerback, free safety and strong safety.

Ronnie Lott will be presented with a life-sized bronzed bust of himself on the steps of the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.

It will be a change for Lott, since he spent his entire NFL career handing other guys their heads.

A ferocious hitter, whose part in building the San Francisco 49ers into a dynasty during the 1980s is sometimes overlooked, Lott will be enshrined into the Hall this Saturday along with former teammate Joe Montana, Howie Long, Dave Wilcox and Dan Rooney.

"If Joe Montana was the heart of the team," said Cleveland Browns president Carmen Policy, an executive with San Francisco for almost 15 years, "Ronnie Lott was the backbone and courage."

And although he'll be best remembered for his monster, helmet-on-helmet collisions, Lott finished with 63 career interceptions, fifth on the all-time list, and twice led the league.

"He's like a middle linebacker playing safety," Dallas head coach Tom Landry once said. "He's devastating. He may dominate the secondary better than anyone I've seen."

The Lott File
Name: Ronnie Lott, Defensive back, San Francisco, 1981-90; Los Angeles Raiders, 1991-92; New York Jets, 1993-94.
  • 6-feet, 205 pounds. First-round draft pick [8th overall] of 49ers from Southern California in 1991, played on four Super Bowl winners with San Francisco.
  • Started as cornerback and then became one of game's top safeties.
  • Had 63 career interceptions and was named to 10 Pro Bowls and the NFL's 75th anniversary team.
  • Considered the hardest-hitting defensive back of his era.
  • A fierce competitor who once had part of his little finger amputated so that he could play. 
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    Ronnie Lott looks back with pride at his career. Start
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    As a free safety, Lott had the luxury of roaming the field in search of a ball carrier to unload on. And when he found his target, the 6-foot, 203-pound Lott rarely missed delivering a teeth-chattering hit.

    Games often turned in San Francisco's favor following one of Lott's bone-jarring tackles.

    "It's always more satisfying to lay a lick on somebody," Lott said in a recent interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "Anybody that's played the game knows when they first invented this game, the game was meant for that to happen."

    Lott made big hits from the moment he walked on the 49ers' practice field in 1981 following an All-American career as a strong safety at Southern California.

    He was named the club's starting left cornerback on his first day in training camp. In his rookie season, he intercepted seven passes and returned three for touchdowns to tie an NFL rookie record.

    The 49ers won their first of five Super Bowls that season and Lott, who was named to the league's 75th anniversary team, finished second to Lawrence Taylor in Rookie of the Year voting.

    Lott had his best season in 1986. Despite missing the final two games because of injury, he still led the league with 10 interceptions, recorded 77 tackles, forced three fumbles and made two sacks.

    Later in his career with the Niners, Lott made the Pro Bowl as a free safety and then on the strong side with the Raiders.

    "That's a sense of pride, because it just shows you that I loved playing the game of football," said Lott, who will be presented by his father, Roy. "To me, it didn't matter where I played, I just wanted to play well.

    "Most people would say safety was my best position. To me, the biggest challenge and most gratifying thing I got out of playing football was playing corner, because it was a bigger challenge than playing safety. Playing corner provided me my biggest thrills and my biggest headaches."

    Dwight Clark was thankful he was on the same sideline with Lott in San Francisco and never had to worry about catching a ball over the middle and absorbing No. 42's golden helmet in the ribs.

    Clark, now the Browns director of football operations, realizes it's unlikely he'll ever find another Ronnie Lott.

    "Ronnie Lott is what I model all the defensive players that I go after," Clark said. "He was one of the greatest all-time people off the field. He's classy. He's nice. He treats people well. On the field, he tries to rip their heads from their shoulders. He was as physical as you could get."

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