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"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 Boiling 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."