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Hitter With Heart
Jill Lieber
January 23, 1989
San Francisco's All-Pro safety, Ronnie Lott, is as generous with his time as he is with his tackles
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January 23, 1989

Hitter With Heart

San Francisco's All-Pro safety, Ronnie Lott, is as generous with his time as he is with his tackles

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Bob and Maria 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!

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