Hitter With Heart

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

Bob and MariaBurcina. A vivacious middle-aged couple, were two of the friendliest people onCadiz 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 intheir driveway for the street's annual June garage sale. When their neighborToni Scurti had a baby, Bob welcomed her home from the hospital with a largebanner that read IT'S A BOY.

So when Bob wasdiagnosed as having lung cancer, Scurti surprised him with a real-life get-wellcard—a visit from her friend All-Pro safety Ronnie Lott of the San Francisco49ers. "We walked in, and Bob was hunched over in a chair, his arm in asling," recalls Scurti. "The radiation treatments had taken a lot outof him, but when he saw Ronnie, he sprang up and said. I'm going to walk acrossthe room to shake this man's hand.' "

For two hoursLott shared stories about his teammates and life in the NFL. Bob reminiscedabout old-time 49ers and critiqued the current team's losses to the PhoenixCardinals and the Los Angeles Raiders earlier in the season. After Lott'svisit, Marie couldn't get Bob to wear anything but his red-and-gold 49ersweatpants and cap. On Sundays he watched the Niners' games from his bed, oftenwith tears in his eyes. When he died two days before Christmas, at 57, he wassurrounded by the people and things he loved most—his family and his 49ermementos.

"Ronnie gavehim 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 wassomething no one else was able to give."

Lott, 29, isforever comforting those in need. To them he's more than just the best freesafety in the NFL—he's a patron saint in blue jeans and a baseball cap. A fewmonths ago a woman Lott had never met knocked on his door and asked him tovisit a friend who had recently broken his neck. No problem, said Lott, andwhile he was at the hospital, he also consoled a man with a crushed hip. Onemorning a friend of Lott's phoned to request an autographed football for a sickcolleague. By early afternoon the ball was on his friend's desk. Lott alsodonates money to two San Francisco churches to help feed the homeless, and heis planning to organize food drives at several 49er games next season.

"It's easy tohelp 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 camefrom and that you should help people. The rewards you get from that are betterthan any others."

Lott gives asmuch of himself on the field, but in a much different way. He plays the gamewith passion, throwing his six-foot, 200-pound body at running backs, widereceivers and tight ends with abandon. He is not only one of the hardesthitters in the NFL but also one of its most respected players. "Ronnieslams into guys full force, straight up," says Jack Tatum, the formerOakland Raider All-Pro defensive back. "But he has to refine his style. Hedoes as much damage to himself as he does to the other guy."

Lott estimatesthat 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 believingI'm all right. When they say, 'You're out of the game,' I say, The hell I am.'"

Lott hasseparated or dislocated his right shoulder twice and separated the left oneonce. He has pinched a nerve in his neck and broken or sprained three of hisfingers. In 1985 he got his left pinkie caught between his shoulder pads andthe helmet of Dallas running back Timmy Newsome. The bone at the tip of thefinger was shattered, and when the bone failed to heal, Lott had the tipamputated. He has also played with torn cartilage in his right knee and with acracked tibia in his right leg.

Lott is such anintimidating force that scouts contend some wide receivers cringe at thethought of running routes into his territory. They sometimes fail to reach upfor passes, opting instead to stay low and protect their bodies from Lott'sdevastating blows. Ray Rhodes, San Francisco's defensive-backfield coach, likesto call these hard hits "woo licks" because they make stadiumcrowds—and opponents studying game films—let out cries of wonder at everycrunch. Wooooooo!

"When you seeRonnie 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 hasto face Mike Tyson; he can't flinch every time Tyson throws a punch."

At the moment ofcontact, Lott says he can gauge how-hard his hit is but not how effective itwill be. The world around him goes silent, and he claims he never hears hisvictim grunt, groan or squeal. "That's because he knocks the wind out ofeach one of them," says Dennis Thurman, who coaches the Cardinals'defensive backs.

Lott laughs whenasked about his hardest hit, a head-on-collision with Atlanta Falcons runningback William Andrews in 1982. "I ran 10 yards straight at him, as hard as Icould," he recalls. "He didn't see me. The whole time I was saying tomyself, This is it! Then, boom. I slid off of him like butter. I hit theground, and he didn't go down. I was thinking, What?

"People arealways 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 tobe known as someone who hits hard. It's important to be thought of as a guy whogives his all. Sure, I'm taking a risk of getting injured or being burned. Butone thing you don't do is sell out on your heart."

Lott startedlearning that lesson very early in life. The oldest of Roy and Mary Lott'sthree 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 jobof chauffeuring generals between Boiling Air Force Base and the Pentagon.Growing up in the inner city toughened Ronnie. "You learned how tocompete," he recalls. "Either you were good or you didn't play."But city life also squelched the freedom and spontaneity he had enjoyed inAlbuquerque. The schoolyard was far from home, so Lott played baseball in anabandoned parking lot and football in the street with his brother, Roy Jr., andtheir friends, Richard and Stanley Walker. "I pretended I was CharleyTaylor." says Lott. "Richard called himself Daryle Lamonica. Stanleywas Larry Brown, and Roy thought he was Billy Kilmer."

At Christmas theLott brothers and their playmates begged their parents for Washington Redskinshelmets and uniforms. Ronnie also pleaded for a pair of P.F. Flyers, insistingthat those particular shoes would make him run faster and jump higher than therest of the kids. "To demonstrate how good the sneakers were, he jumpedfrom our second-floor apartment window to the first-floor landing," saysRoy Sr. with a laugh. "That landing was only four feet square. He hit itperfectly and didn't even hurt himself. That really shocked me."

When Ronnie wasnine, 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 theaggressiveness he had developed playing games on pavement. During one recessLott clobbered a fifth-grade teacher with a kickball while making a tag and wasordered to write and illustrate a booklet on sportsmanship, which his motherstill has.

Ronnie convincedhis parents to let him try out for Little League baseball by promising to washand iron his own uniform. And when he and Roy Jr. started playing Pop Warnerfootball, everybody in the family got involved. Roy Sr. was a leagueadministrator, sister Suzie was a cheerleader and Mary provided sandwiches andsodas after games.

Crisscrossing thecountry as a military family, Mary believes, brought the Lotts closer together."We were the only family we had," she says. "It was just the fiveof us. We made sure everybody shared, everybody gave. And we kept our focushumble."

Says Lott, "Inever really had a best friend until my freshman year at Southern Cal. Icouldn't get close to anybody because we were always leaving town. My parentswere like my friends."

At USC, Lott wasa consensus All-America at safety in both his junior and senior seasons. As ajunior he also played reserve point guard on the basketball team. Since beingselected by San Francisco in the first round of the 1981 draft, he has led theNiners in interceptions four times (twice sharing the lead with others) and hasbeen selected for the Pro Bowl in seven of his eight seasons—four times atcornerback, which he played until 1985, and three at safety. Only two otherplayers, Mel Renfro and Dave Grayson, have ever been named All-Pro at bothpositions.

Despite an annualsalary of $842,500, which makes him one of the highest paid defensive backs inthe league, Lott remains remarkably down-to-earth. He has owned a couple ofMercedes, but he now drives a Volkswagen Rabbit. He lives in a modesttwo-bedroom condominium in Santa Clara. Calif. On the tables in his den are hiscollege diploma (he graduated in four years from USC with a degree in publicadministration), Suzie's wedding picture and some handmade cards from young49er fans. The walls of his breakfast nook are covered with inspirational poemsand prayers collected by his mother. And his high school diploma is on thenightstand in the guest room.

During the seasonLott writes a weekly column for the San Jose Mercury News and does a weeklysports show for KNTV in San Jose. Part of his reimbursement for the show isfree commercial time for his restaurant, Sports City Cafe, which he created,and owns with several others, including teammates Roger Craig, Keena Turner andEric Wright. Lott also has become a devotee of Asian art and culture. "I'mintrigued by the peacefulness," he says. Since 1986, taekwondo has beenpart of his off-season conditioning program. Three times a week he performs aroutine that includes 700 sit-ups, 400 push-ups and hundreds of kicks andpunches.

Lott collectsphotographs of children who have written fan letters to him. Two of his buddiesare Tony and Matt Kelly, who are students at Santa Clara High. He met the boysseven years ago at a local park. Lott plays pickup basketball with them andtakes them shopping at the mall and out to dinner. For Christmas, the Kellysgave Lott a new basketball.

Lott has recentlyreceived letters from Bob Burcina's 15 grandchildren. Each thanked him forhaving 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 apoem he had written for the 49ers in 1982 that was read on the radio beforethey faced the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XVI. Marie says Bob sensed thathe might not make it to this year's Super Bowl, but he wanted to cheer on hisnew friend. Bob ended the poem this way:

God goes with youon 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.

PHOTOPETER READ MILLERPRACTICING TAEKWONDO HAS GIVEN LOTT EXTRA PUNCH PHOTOSTEPHEN DUNN/ALLSPORT USALOTT HAS LED THE 49ERS IN INTERCEPTIONS FOUR TIMES PHOTOPETER READ MILLERRESTAURATEURS (FROM LEFT) LOTT, CRAIG AND TURNER PHOTOPETER READ MILLERLOTT ATTRACTS MOBS OF KIDS WHEREVER HE GOES... PHOTOPETER READ MILLER...BUT HIS FAVORITES ARE TONY (FRONT) AND MATT

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)