Ramson found another unexpected partner in Walsh, the man who traded him to the Denver Broncos in 1984. At that time Ramson was bitter and dejected, feeling that Walsh was passing his problem to someone else.
In August 1993 Walsh, then coaching at Stanford, learned of Ramson's incarceration from a story in the Contra Costa Times, and he felt compelled to act. " Walsh started writing to me. I was shocked," Ramson recalls. "Here I am in the state penitentiary, and they slide this letter under the door. I picked it up and read Bill Walsh. I didn't believe it."
Walsh continued to write Ramson, and he also telephoned. His messages were usually brief. The coach spoke of the hardworking, friendly and intelligent player he once knew. He urged Ramson "to get back in the game." Walsh also encouraged other former 49ers on his Stanford staff—Keena Turner and Tom Holmoe—to contact Ramson.
" Bill Walsh could have overlooked me, but he gave me a lot of encouragement and inspiration," Ramson says. "He showed more concern than my own brother, who didn't talk to me for years because he was embarrassed by me."
Walsh insists his interest was only natural. "Eason was one of the really fine players we had as we were just starting to roll in San Francisco," he says. "He was a heckuva good guy. He played a part in making the 49ers what they are, so there's a natural bonding that occurs."
But Walsh admits that his actions were also prompted by pangs of regret. "Part of it, no doubt, was that my conscience was bothering me, because I wasn't able to help him earlier," the coach says. "The problem was that back then none of us understood much about cocaine or could identify the warning signs. And, of course, you get caught up in the winning...."
The 1981 season was a turning point for the 49ers. Once a perennial loser, the club was laying the foundation for an NFL dynasty. "The more we'd win, the more we'd party," Ramson says. "In 1981 we won 16 games, and we partied a lot." He estimates that 25 to 30 players on that team, which won the 1982 Super Bowl, experimented with cocaine. Walsh, looking back, doesn't dispute it. "That's very possible," he says.
Mike Shumann, now a Bay Area sports-caster, was a wide receiver on that team and Ramson's close friend. "Eason's downfall, I think, was due to a combination of things," he says. "It was the experimental times, the lack of knowledge [about drugs] and the remarkable success of the 49ers. The players were heroes. Guys who experimented either got past that stage and were able to lead fruitful lives, or they fell into a trap. Eason fell into the trap."
What may have saved Ramson ultimately was the loss of his mother, Delphine, in September 1993. Two days before she died of cancer, Ramson—clad in prison blues and accompanied by an armed guard—visited her in the hospital. He broke down in shame. "She was in a coma, but I wanted to let her know I was going to be O.K.," Ramson recalls. "I squeezed next to her and said, 'You're going to be proud of me. I'm going to make a comeback.' I meant it with every fiber in my body.
"Then I saw a tear roll down her cheek, and I think she knew she could go and rest. Now she has sent me some guardian angels."