Passion Play: Ronnie Lott's road to the Hall


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Lott had a stellar career with the Trojans. His 14 career interceptions were fourth best in the school's history. His eight interceptions in 1980 were second most in the nation. In addition to his MVP honors that year, he was voted the team's Most Inspirational Player.

Understandably, expectations ran high when the 49ers drafted him. He was even hailed as the "finest athlete" on the team's roster as early as draft day. "He may just be the best athlete this club has at this point in time," then-49ers' coach and general manager Bill Walsh said upon Lott's selection.

Known throughout his career as a vicious hitter, 
Lott (42) lays one on Dolphins ballcarrier Mark Higgs

The talented rookie was named the starting left cornerback from his first day in training camp. Two other rookie defensive backs, cornerback Eric Wright and strong safety Carlton Williamson also earned starting berths. The rookie trio, along with veteran safety Dwight Hicks, soon established itself as the cornerstone of a much-improved San Francisco defense. But, without a doubt, it was Lott who emerged as the true leader. "Ronnie is a perfectionist and he demands that everyone plays at his level," Wright stated.

The 1980s were a remarkable decade for the 49ers. After having won only 10 games during the previous three seasons, the surprising 1981 San Francisco team posted a Cinderella-like 13-3-0 record in 1981. They defeated the Dallas Cowboys 28-27 in the NFC championship game and then squeezed out a 26-21 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XVI.

Equally remarkable was the play of the USC rookie. Seven times he picked off passes from opposition quarterbacks. He returned three for scores, a feat that only one other rookie, Detroit Lions Hall of Famer Lem Barney, ever accomplished. His outstanding play earned him All-Pro honors and the first of his 10 Pro Bowl selections. He also finished as runner-up for NFL Rookie of the Year honors behind Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor. "If anything, I think the key to my rookie year was that as the season went on, my confidence level increased proportionately," Lott said.

Although the 49ers, in the strike-shortened 1982 season, never quite found their stride, finishing just 3-6, Lott was again selected to play in the Pro Bowl. In just his second season, the talented defensive back established a San Francisco team record with his fourth career interception returned for a touchdown. It was a record he would increase to five in 1986.

The 49ers roared back in full force in 1983, advancing all the way to the NFC championship game. Lott, for his part, led all defenders with 108 tackles, which were nearly 30 more than any other Niners' defender. And, with each tackle, his hard-hitting reputation grew, reaching near legendary status.

"Nobody's ever tried to hit a guy harder than he does, and he does it on a regular basis," remarked then-Jets head coach Pete Carroll. "It's an extraordinary facet of his game - his courage and warrior-like attitude."

Lott was proud of his reputation and unapologetic for his physical style of play. In the book Total Impact: Straight Talk From Football's Hardest Hitter, which he co-authored with Jill Lieber, Lott described what it would be like to have to absorb one of his hits. "If you think you want to play in the NFL, and if you want to find out if you can handle being hit by Ronnie Lott," he wrote, "here's what you do: Grab a football, throw it in the air, and before you can catch it, have your best friend belt you with a baseball bat. No shoulder pads. No helmet. Just you, your best friend and the biggest Louisville Slugger you can find."



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