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TO HELL AND BACK AFTER A DRUG-RELATED JAIL TERM, EX-NFL PLAYER EASON RAMSON IS RECLAIMING HIS LIFE

Sept. 02, 1996
Sept. 02, 1996

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Sept. 2, 1996

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NFL '96

TO HELL AND BACK AFTER A DRUG-RELATED JAIL TERM, EX-NFL PLAYER EASON RAMSON IS RECLAIMING HIS LIFE

The 1982 Super Bowl ring that Eason Ramson finally reclaimed
this year gleams brightly on his right hand. It's a
diamond-studded symbol of the lofty heights Ramson once attained
with the San Francisco 49ers--and a glaring reminder of how far
he fell. Fresh from 39 months in prison, Ramson is determined
never to part with that ring again.

This is an article from the Sept. 2, 1996 issue Original Layout

"Sometimes I find myself just staring at it," says the former
tight end, who played for San Francisco from 1979 to '83. "I
often wondered if I'd get it back, because there were times when
I didn't think I'd see tomorrow--times when I didn't want to see
tomorrow."

In 1989 Ramson handed over the size-15 ring to a friend for
safekeeping. Ramson's hunger for cocaine already had driven him
to rob several bank customers at ATMs, and he didn't want to be
tempted to hawk his lone valuable possession for drug money. The
ring remained with his friend until March 29 of this year, when
Ramson was released from California State Prison, Solano, in
Vacaville.

Ramson proudly proclaims that he has been "clean and sober" for
44 months. With the help of several strong supporters, including
his former coach, Bill Walsh, he is keeping his distance from
the reckless lifestyle that nearly killed him. Walsh, who
recently returned as a 49ers assistant, has played a key role in
Ramson's recovery--first by sending him inspiring letters in
prison and then by helping him land a job as a supervisor
trainee with Volume Services, a catering-concessions company
headquartered at Candlestick Park, home of the 49ers.

Ramson was a rookie with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1978 when he
first tried cocaine at the suggestion of a teammate. His usage
started slowly, but by the 1981 season, in San Francisco, Ramson
was constantly high, celebrating victories with what he calls
"the rich man's high." He used cocaine in the locker room before
the kickoff of the 49ers' Super Bowl victory over Cincinnati,
26-21. In 1985, when he played for the Buffalo Bills, Ramson was
at the height of his addiction, routinely blowing $1,000 a night
on drugs and hotel rooms. "Back then I looked upon cocaine as a
status symbol," he says. "If you could afford it, it was a sign
of success."

But cocaine made him a poor man. At 29, in 1986, Ramson was out
of football. He kicked around his hometown, Sacramento, and
watched his life unravel. He lost his wife and two sons, he was
shot by a drug dealer, and, in another incident, he was beaten
and nearly killed in a drug-related attack.

In 1991 Ramson was robbing ATM customers to feed what he now
calls the Monster. He was arrested, convicted of robbery and
given a nine-month term in a drug counseling program. Finally,
in 1992, he was sentenced to seven years and eight months in
prison after he was caught stealing six bottles of rum and
whiskey from a convenience store. It was his fourth felony
arrest since leaving the NFL.

The Monster had won. "I fell flat on my face," Ramson says. "It
was the loneliest time of my life. I'm extremely embarrassed
when I think about those crimes. The Eason Ramson off drugs
wouldn't do something like that. I was always a giving and
generous person."

Fortunately there were people who remembered the old Eason
Ramson. Tamara Joiner, a dental assistant in the Bay Area who
had dated him before his marriage, heard about his downfall. "I
had always wondered what happened to him," she says. "I always
thought he was a very extraordinary person. I thought, Oh my
god, I want to see him." She began visiting him in prison. They
were married on March 30, the day after Ramson was released.

"Relationships so often start out as a sex thing," Ramson says.
"But because of my situation, we got to know each other as
people. Before we became lovers, we became best friends. I look
at her as my buddy--my partner for life."

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 sportscaster, 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."

Among them is Walsh. "As a player, I had an impression of Bill
that, I think, a lot of people did--a little distant, a bit of
an ego," Ramson says. "But now I see a real compassionate side,
a person with a heart, who cares about me. I often think how
tough it is for people in trouble who don't have someone like
that in their corner."

Walsh, in turn, is proud of Ramson. "It took a while, but he
dealt with the problem," the coach says. "He didn't give up on
himself. He had the intelligence and presence to know that he
had to get through something that was a self-imposed sentence."

Now Ramson is pursuing that elusive happily-ever-after. He says
he has developed a relationship with "a higher power that keeps
me sane." He finds comfort in rigorous weight training, as his
chiseled 6'2", 230-pound frame attests. He sees his sons, Eason
Jr., 21, and Joshua, 18, and he plans to devote time to Pros and
Cons for Kids, a nonprofit drug-awareness program aimed at
adolescents that he founded while in prison.

When the baseball Giants play at Candlestick, Ramson can hear
the roar of the crowd through his office walls. He eagerly
anticipates football season, when the stadium will be packed on
Sundays.

"That's the greatest thing, to hear that Aahhhhhhhhhh again," he
says, smiling. "I get an energy from that. I really get goose
bumps. It's the right kind of high."

Chuck Barney, who lives in Vacaville, Calif., is a staff writer
for the Contra Costa Times.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BURGESS These days Ramson works at Candlestick, scene of his glory years with the 49ers. [Eason Ramson]COLOR PHOTO: RON MODRA [Eason Ramson playing football]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BURGESS Walsh lent a hand to his former player both when Ramson was in prison and after he was released. [Eason Ramson and Bill Walsh]