The Old Testament tells the story of Lot’s wife, who, upon escaping from Sodom and Gomorrah, disobeys God by turning to observe the destroyed city. She is turned into a pillar of salt.
The modern Lott, as in Ronnie Lott, was and remains to this day a pillar of greatness, a rock upon which all 49ers championship teams and star players can find strength, inspiration, and something to measure themselves against.
Okay, Joe Montana was the greatest of all 49ers—the face of the team, their glamour boy—but Lott was his equal. Whereby Montana was the best quarterback, Lott was the best defensive back on this, perhaps the best team.
Hopefully 49ers fans savored and respected what they had, because the kind of talent that played before their eyes was once-in-a-lifetime rare. It was a collection of talent, character, and winning attitude that few are ever lucky enough to witness, much less have stay together as this team did.
Lott was not the greatest of all athletes. He was not the biggest, the fastest, or the strongest. What he had, above all else, was a willingness to hit that few football players have. The game is, of course, a contact sport, but no matter how tough these gladiators are, they still must adhere to the rules of human psychology. Those rules will always include the axiom: “Avoid pain.”
It is one thing to lay a perfect, center-mass hit on an opposing ball carrier. When done correctly, it makes a loud noise, excites the stadium, and lays out the opponent. Like hitting a home run, it is a rare connection with the “sweet spot,” and comes with no pain received, only that which is doled out.
But most hits in a football game are not like that. When the other guy knows it is coming, he defends himself. Blockers and other tacklers impede. Over the course of a game, a season, a career, the hits add up, and each one hurts more than the previous one.
Despite this, despite his own human frailties, Lott was willing to hit with full force every time. He called it Total Impact, the name of his 1991 book.
“Right before impact, my adrenaline rises,” he said. “I can actually feel it surge. I can taste it. An inner force tells me to push harder. Something deep inside says, ‘Let everything go into this hit. Bring it from your toes.’”
An athlete can lift weights, he can pop pills, he can run drills, and he can go through utter histrionics—yelling, clawing, pounding—but he cannot be taught to hit like Lott was willing to hit. Surely he had good coaches and the like, but what he brought to the green plains of the Candlestick turf was instinctual, animalistic. He was born to play football.
Lott grew up in Southern California, but not on the sunswept strands of Beach Boys mythology. His Southern California was more hardscrabble, the sandy canyons east of Los Angeles. Rialto was and is a little blue-collar town in what is known as the Inland Empire, stretching from San Bernardino to Riverside and beyond, from the deserts of Palm Springs and Death Valley to the Arizona border.
Located some 50 miles east of L.A., it is a different world, especially in his day. A fair number of the citizenry work the oilrigs. High school football is taken seriously. The attitude towards sports is more like Texas, or the Midwest, than what people think of when they envision laid-back Southern California.
Lott grew up with discipline. He was patriotic, respected the uniform, and toed the line. It stands to reason, since his father was an Air Force officer and his high school was named after Dwight D. Eisenhower. Lott was a spectacular athlete at Eisenhower High. He hit a home run off of Santa Monica’s Tim Leary, who later won 17 games for the 1988 world champion Los Angeles Dodgers. He considered basketball his best sport. He was a Parade magazine All-American in football.
The football coach at Eisenhower High fired his team up by playing the opening speech from Patton before games.
“I can still hear the words of George C. Scott: ‘Americans don’t tolerate losers,’” recalled Lott. “‘You’ve got to grease the guns with their guts.’”
Prep football was enormously competitive. The game with rival Fontana drew 8,000 people. A loss in his senior year came at the hands of Chaffey High School from Ontario. They featured Anthony Muñoz, Lott’s future teammate at USC, an All-Pro with Cincinnati (and twice an opponent again in Super Bowls XVI and XXIII), now a fellow Hall of Famer.
Lott wanted to play for the best, and at that time this meant USC, ’SC, Southern Cal, or Southern California. He was there during a golden age of Trojan football.
“There was a Camelot quality to USC at that time,” said his coach, John Robinson.
Lott took over from All-American defensive back Dennis Thurman. As a sophomore in 1978, he anchored a USC defense that bottled up Joe Montana for the better part of three quarters in the Notre Dame game at the Coliseum. Montana brought the Irish back before USC captured victory on a 37-yard Frank Jordan field goal. When USC defeated Michigan in the Rose Bowl, they secured their third national championship of the decade.
Lott claims that the 1979 Trojans, despite being denied a second-straight national title because of a tie with Stanford, were “arguably the greatest college football team of all time.”
As a senior captain and All-American, Lott experienced disappointment. USC was hit with NCAA probation, and the game against UCLA, also penalized, was dubbed the “Probation Bowl.”
That game featured the two best secondary players in the country, Lott and the Bruins’ Kenny Easley. Just as there is a myth that Bill Walsh almost drafted Steve Dils ahead of Joe Montana, so too is there a myth that two years later he came close to choosing Easley over Lott.
“There’s no way I was going to take Kenny Easley over Ronnie Lott,” Walsh exclaimed years later. “Are you kidding me?”
Regardless of how close Walsh may have come to turning the 1980s into the Dils-Easley decade, he made the right picks in the form of Montana and Lott. It is also true that for two years, with Walsh in command and Montana assuming controls of the quarterback position, the team finished under .500. It is further true that when Lott arrived in 1981, they immediately became a winner, a champion, a Super Bowl victor. He was the final pillar in their monument.
Lott played cornerback and free safety. He changed the nature of the position. Just as Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants made the linebacker an all-purpose defender who could morph from an onrushing lineman into an agile pass-interceptor, Lott changed the perception of the safety from a “finesse” player who went for the ball into a field hawk who went for the ball carrier, with everything he had.
Lott explained his ability to hit, and withstand pain, this way:
<block quote>Engaged in action during a game, I’m lucky, in a sense, because my body will help me deal with pain. My neurological system works on overdrive, secreting hormones to enable my body not only to repair itself but to speed up the healing process. I’m in a survival mode that I call fight or flight. It’s my theory that injuries sustained in the early stages of the game hurt more than those that happen after halftime. In the first quarter, there’s not as much adrenaline flowing through the blood stream.</block quote>
If Lott felt more pain early than he did late in games, he was truly unique. Lott won four Super Bowls and made nine Pro Bowl appearances. Eventually, he was allowed to leave, just as Montana would be let go. Lott went with the Los Angeles Raiders, where he played in his college stadium, the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. He also played under Pete Caroll with the New York Jets. In 2000 he, Montana, and former 49er linebacker Dave Wilcox were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Lott has maintained a residence in the Bay Area, where he is an entrepreneur. He is regularly interviewed and lends his name to charities. Both the 49ers and USC Trojans jealously hold onto him. He maintains equal loyalty to both organizations, attending Southern Cal games with his son while staying close to the Niners.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism