Passion Play: Ronnie Lott's road to the Hall

General Published on : 1/1/2005

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In Super Bowl XXIII, Ickey Woods, the Bengals' powerful running back, found out just how hard a Ronnie Lott hit could be. Early on, Woods was running for big gains against the San Francisco defense. After the Bengals' first series, Lott came to the sidelines and announced, "Don't worry about Ickey, I'm going to put his fire out." According to Ray Rhodes, who coached San Francisco's secondary, Lott hit Woods with such force that "it just knocked Ickey's spark right out of him. The game turned right then because Ickey just didn't run with the same authority after that."

Of course it wasn't simply a matter of his trademark big hits that made Lott so effective. His game went deeper than just the physical aspect. He was a student of the game. His competitiveness and intensity were unparalleled. He even studied the Korean martial art form tae kwon do, in an effort to improve his flexibility and self-discipline.

A versatile player, Ronnie always put the good of the team before his own considerations. "Ever since I was a kid, it had never been I, always we," he said. "The word team has always been so sacred to me that I'll go toe-to-toe with anybody just to let them know that's all that matters to me on Sunday."

It was his unselfishness and versatility that enabled the 49ers coaches in 1984 and again in 1985 to play Lott at both cornerback and free safety. In 1985, he made the switch prior to the fifth game of the season. He went on to record an impressive 80 tackles and team-high five interceptions after the switch. Still, Lott was not satisfied with his performance.

"Playing free safety takes a different type of discipline," he explained. "You have to be more disciplined and more patient, you can't vacate the middle as much. The 1985 season was like on-the-job training for me."

Apparently, the on-the-job training worked. The following season, Lott, playing free safety, led the league with 10 interceptions. He was again named All-Pro and voted to the Pro Bowl.

Always a student of the game, Lott had the uncanny ability of being able to sense the direction a play was about to take and then somehow disrupt it. "To break a play down," he said, "you have to see it in slow motion."

Remarkably, Lott earned All-Pro honors at yet a third position in 1991 as a member of the Raiders, who signed him as a Plan B free agent. This time the veteran defensive back - who again led the league in interceptions with eight - earned the post-season honor as a strong safety, a position he hadn't played since his days at USC.

Ronnie played two seasons with the Raiders before joining the Jets as a free agent for two final seasons. Still effective as a player, Lott was the starting free safety both years in New York. Although his numbers were not equal to those he accumulated during his heyday, Lott's leadership both on and off the field was immeasurable. In fact, in 1994, his final season, he was awarded the club's Dennis Byrd Award, as the team's most inspirational player. That same year, Lott was named to the NFL's 75th Anniversary All-Time Team.

Hall of Fame coach Tom Landry once said of Lott, "He's like a middle linebacker playing safety. He's devastating. He may dominate the secondary better than anyone I've seen."

"That guy's going to Canton on roller skates," commented then-New England Patriots head coach Bill Parcells. "I've seen my share of him first-hand. He's one of the best guys that has ever played . . . He epitomizes what a defensive player should be and he has an effect on everyone on his team."

Throughout his career Lott was more than just a great player. He was a student of the game, a teacher, and a team leader. He loved and had a respect for the game. Ronnie Lott played hard. He played clean. And most importantly, he always played with passion.