Professional athletes have to sacrifice a lot in order to be successful.
This can include lost time with family due to training and games and diminished skills due to injuries, which affect long-term health.
However, it’s not every day that an athlete sacrifices an actual piece of themselves to continue playing their sport.
Ronnie Lott did such a thing during his playing career.
The former San Francisco safety chose to amputate part of his pinky finger in order to contribute to his team.
Lott was willing to chop off part of a digit rather than miss any playing time.
His dedication to the sport and to his team is still talked about today.
Ronnie Lott is the greatest DB of all time. 4 pro bowls as a CB and 6 as a safety. Ridiculous to leave him out of any great safety convo. pic.twitter.com/Q20Y3gZDGy
— Buddy X (@MikeTroy81) March 25, 2020
This is the story of Ronnie Lott.
Early Life and High School
Ronald Mandel Lott was born on May 8, 1959 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Lott’s father was an officer in the Air Force and moved the family throughout the country depending on where he was stationed.
When he was four, Lott and his family moved to Washington D.C.
It was during his time in D.C. that Lott became a fan of the Washington Redskins.
His favorite player was ‘Skins receiver Charley Taylor, who wore number 42.
Taylor’s number became Lott’s number throughout his athletic career.
Just saying Ronnie Lott 💥 pic.twitter.com/uFsDseF7Gn
— Paul Howard (@PaulHoward_IMIT) September 21, 2021
When Lott was nine, his father was transferred again, this time to San Bernardino, California.
The family settled in nearby Rialto, California.
Lott immersed himself in football, especially his Pee Wee team, the San Bernardino Jets.
Lott’s Jets crew outscored their opponents 377-22.
In middle school, Lott developed a passion for explosive collisions which would become his forte.
As a defender, Lott did not want to simply tackle his opponent to the turf and call it a day.
“I had to drive my helmet into him, keep my feet moving, and lift him into the air before dumping him on his butt.”
This technique served Lott well as he matriculated to Eisenhower High School In Rialto.
During his high school career, Lott lettered in football, baseball and basketball.
Future college teammate and Cincinnati Bengal All-Pro, Anthony Munoz, played against Lott in high school and remembers his athletic skills vividly.
“Ronnie Lott and I competed for two years in high school. We were in the same conference. I competed against him in football, basketball and baseball. I knew what kind of athlete he was. He was a QB/DB, a point guard and a shortstop. I don’t think I ever threw him a fastball because he couldn’t hit a curve, but he could hit a fastball. I wasn’t surprised with the type of player he became,” said Munoz.
Norv Turner, USC’s receiver’s coach in 1978 and future NFL coach, scouted Lott numerous times and was convinced of his future talent.
“I went with (former USC DB coach) Bob Toledo to watch Ronnie play basketball his senior year. If that was one of your guys, you were gonna be there at every Tuesday and every Friday night game. They were gonna know you were there. You were gonna bump into their parents. Ronnie couldn’t shoot, but he was big, strong and unbelievably fast. He was the most tenacious defensive player you’ve ever seen on a basketball court,” said Turner.
Lott received honors in all three sports he played at Eisenhower including an All-American designation by Parade Magazine in 1977.
The result of being one of the most heralded high school athletes in the country means you have your choice of colleges.
Lott sorted through his options and chose USC.
He couldn’t have picked a better program in preparing himself for his future career as a pro.
Ronnie Lott with the USC Trojans pic.twitter.com/Qdb3VwZgbn
— SportsPaper (@SportsPaperInfo) September 21, 2016
On the Trojans roster during Lott’s time in LA included Munoz, Marcus Allen, Bruce Matthews, Dennis Smith, Joey Browner, Chip Banks, Don Mosebar, Charles White, Keith Van Horne, Jeff Fisher and Riki Ellison.
Every one of these athletes played in the NFL and some became Hall of Famers and Pro Bowlers.
Van Horne, Fisher and Ellison also won at least one Super Bowl.
Despite the crowded roster, Lott started a few games as a freshman.
The Trojans finished the 1977 season with a 7-4 record and a victory in the Bluebonnet Bowl.
In 1978, USC was nearly unbeatable, losing only one game.
The team won the Rose Bowl and finished the season ranked first in the country, leading to a national title.
1979 saw an undefeated season and ‘SC went 11-0-1.
Despite zero losses, the Trojans were edged out for the national title by Alabama.
— InsideUSC (@InsideUSC) June 16, 2015
Lott kept blowing people up through 1980.
He also picked the pockets of opposing quarterbacks with eight interceptions, which tied him for first in the NCAA.
Lott and friends created issues for John Elway and his Stanford squad during the year.
In their November matchup, the Trojans crushed the Cardinal 34-9.
After the game, Lott relayed the Trojans defensive game plan to the media.
“We took it to them. Whether they were catching or blocking or running, we hit them. That was our defensive theory.”
The Trojans finished the ‘80 season 8-2-1.
Lott wrapped up his USC career with 250 tackles including 22 tackles for loss, 37 passes broken up, 14 picks and 10 fumble recoveries.
He received All-American mentions in 1978 and 1979 and was a unanimous All-American after the 1980 season.
In 2015, Lott was named the Pac-12’s Defensive Player of the Century.
49ers in Super Bowl XVI
“Can’t miss” prospects have an unfortunate habit of falling short in the NFL.
However, where Lott was concerned, that was not the case.
With the eighth overall pick in the 1981 NFL Draft, San Francisco selected Lott and immediately put him to work.
During training camp in ‘81, it was obvious to 49ers coaches that Lott was playing at a different level than most of their rookies.
Ronnie Lott. 1980s 49ers are one of my favorite uniforms. So perfect. pic.twitter.com/TTJDHua5JT
— 𝙃𝙚𝙡𝙢𝙚𝙩 𝘼𝙙𝙙𝙞𝙘𝙩 (@HelmetAddict) July 23, 2019
He was placed in the starting lineup at the left corner position.
Lott’s fellow backfield mates included Dwight Hicks, Carlton Williamson and Eric Wright.
The four bonded and were affectionately known as “Dwight Hicks and the hot licks.”
Astoundingly, Lott, Williamson and Wright were all rookies.
Fortune smiled on San Francisco that season.
The franchise had fared well in the early 1970s, making it to the 1970 and 1971 NFC Championship games.
Both games ended in defeat to Dallas and San Fran fell on hard times thereafter.
In 1979, the 49ers hired Bill Walsh and things started to come together.
The team drafted quarterback Joe Montana from Notre Dame the same year and the two men began plotting to take over the league.
A two win season in ‘79 gave way to a six win season in 1980.
In 1981, with the addition of Lott and his fellow rookies, the 49ers promptly lost two of their first three games.
Then, they caught fire.
San Francisco only lost once more on their way to a 13-3 record.
The franchise beat the Giants in the Divisional round and finally overcame their nemesis in the NFC Championship game.
With the assistance of an amazing, leaping catch by Niners receiver Dwight Clark in the final minutes, the 49ers beat the Cowboys 28-27.
San Francisco entered their first Super Bowl opportunity and faced off against a tough Cincinnati Bengals team.
The Bengals had finished ‘81 with a 12-4 record.
One of the players for the Bengals was Lott’s former USC teammate, Munoz.
By halftime, the Niners were firmly in control and led 20-0.
That was the largest lead in Super Bowl history at that point.
It was a different story in the second half.
The Bengals fought and clawed their way back and scored a touchdown in the third quarter.
They were driving for a second touchdown late in the quarter and were one yard away from pay dirt.
However, on 4th and one, Cincinnati running back Pete Johnson was stuffed by Lott and Jack “Hacksaw” Reynolds.
— J Schear (@BlueElection) June 29, 2019
In the fourth quarter, the Bengals scored two touchdowns, but the Niners made two field goals.
The 26-21 difference proved to be all San Francisco needed.
They were Super Bowl champs.
After the game, Walsh couldn’t have been more proud of his team, especially his rookie, Lott.
Looking at the cameras, Walsh declared that Lott was, “the best athlete this club has had at this point in time.”
During his first season, Lott had seven interceptions for 117 return yards, three touchdowns, two fumble recoveries and 89 total tackles.
He was named to the first of ten Pro Bowls and was selected to the first of eight First-team All-Pro teams.
Lott would have been a shoe-in for NFL Rookie of the Year, but that award went to the very capable Lawrence Taylor of the Giants.
Another Ring in ‘84
The floor dropped out from the Niners in 1982.
A year after winning a Super Bowl, the organization fell flat and finished with a 3-13 record in ‘82.
They got back on track in 1983 with a 10-6 record and an appearance in the NFC Championship game.
San Fran lost the game to Washington 24-21.
During those two seasons, Lott had six interceptions, a touchdown, a sack and 176 total tackles.
— allthings18 (@ALLTHINGS18) May 25, 2019
He was greatly feared by receivers and running backs alike.
In his autobiography, which was released in 1991, Lott tried to describe what it was like playing against him.
“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, here’s what you do: Grab a football and throw it in the air, and before you catch it, have a friend belt you with a baseball bat. No shoulder pads. No helmet. Just you, your friend, and the biggest Louisville Slugger you can find. Wham!”
In 1984, the 49ers were clicking on all cylinders.
Montana and running back Roger Craig (who joined the team in ‘83) paced the offense while Lott and friends continued to patrol the secondary.
San Francisco lost to Pittsburgh in Week 7 and that was it for losses.
The team’s 15-1 record helped them cruise through the playoffs, outscoring the Giants and Bears by a combined 44-10.
It was more of the same in Super Bowl XIX when Miami crumbled to the Niners 38-16.
Dwight Hicks and the Hot Licks — After shutting down the Marks (Duper/Clayton) in Super Bowl XIX they became the only same-team defensive backfield to take the field together in the Pro Bowl pic.twitter.com/yEOEFyvnPh
— Ｄｏｕｇｌａｓ Ｇｏｒｎｅｙ (@Gorneaux) March 12, 2020
Lott’s numbers during his second Super Bowl campaign were four interceptions, one sack and 51 combined tackles.
Lott Loses Part of a Finger for His Troubles
In 1985, the Niners moved Lott to safety.
This would provide an extra layer of protection in the defensive backfield and make opposing quarterbacks think twice before throwing anywhere on the field.
As San Francisco was slugging through a 10-6 season, Lott was pulling his weight with six interceptions, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and 104 total tackles.
During a game against the Cowboys in the last week of the season, Lott hit Dallas running back Timmy Newsome.
The impact crushed the tip of Lott’s left pinky finger.
Instead of seeking treatment and surgery for his finger, Lott wrapped it and played in San Fran’s Wild Card game against the Giants.
New York mercifully eliminated the Niners 17-3.
Once the season concluded, Lott consulted doctors about his finger.
The prognosis was bone graft surgery and rehab that would have meant a late start to the 1986 season.
Lott was against missing any playing time and chose instead to amputate the tip of his finger.
Hi Mr Mays, Ronnie Lott here. I once got my pinky caught in a face mask, and chose to have it removed so I could play ball the following week. And I still held my kids! #IAmNotAWuss #BeLikeRonnie pic.twitter.com/z4dxiTeGQa
— Allyson (@ally32250) January 20, 2020
After the amputation was complete and the doctors took off the bandages, Lott was mortified by what he saw.
“I was trying to laugh it off, but I felt sick,” Lott told the AP in 1986 of first seeing the nub. “I tried to stand up, but I broke into a cold sweat. It was just a total shock. I thought, ‘Oh, man, I should have had the pin put in.’ … We are losing the compassionate side of sports. We’re becoming gladiators. If I ever become a coach, I hope I never lose sight of the fact that players are people. They feel. They have emotions. I could have all of Eddie DeBartolo’s corporations and it isn’t going to buy me a new finger. It has given me a new perspective on life.”
Back-to-Back Super Bowl Victories
Despite missing two games in 1986 due to an injury, Lott led the NFL in interceptions with 10.
He also had a touchdown, three forced fumbles, two sacks and 77 total tackles.
1987 should have been a banner year for San Fran after the team finished 13-2.
However, Minnesota upset the Niners in the Divisional round 36-24.
Lott had five picks, two fumble recoveries and 55 total tackles for the season.
Everything came together in 1988 for San Francisco.
After a 10-6 regular season, the team vanquished the Vikings and Bears in their first two playoff games by a combined score of 62-12.
Super Bowl XXIII was a rematch of Super Bowl XVI and the result was the same as seven years prior.
Early in the game, Cincinnati rookie sensation Ickey Woods was having a good day rushing the football.
Very similar to Ronnie Lott’s Superbowl hit that ended Ickey Woods.
Lott came in so fast you can barely see him 😂 pic.twitter.com/5flWCHML7b
— hellaYeah! (@49ersAK) May 21, 2021
The 49er defense, and Lott specifically, had enough.
“Don’t worry about Ickey. I’m gonna put his fire out,” declared Lott.
On the Bengals next possession, Lott put the hammer on Woods that sent a message.
“It just knocked the spark out of [Woods]. The game turned right there. Ickey just didn’t run with the same authority after that,” said then Niners secondary coach Ray Rhodes.
Lott and the Niners beat the Bengals 20-16.
The following season was more of the same as San Fran went 14-2 (losing only to the Rams and Packers).
In the postseason, the Niners took out the Vikings then got revenge against the Rams in the NFC title game 30-3.
In Super Bowl XXIV, the 49ers whipped the Broncos 55-10.
It was the first time a team had won back-to-back Super Bowls since the Steelers in 1979 and 1980.
Lott was one of just five Niners to win the franchise’s first four titles.
— 49ers Los Angeles (@49ersLosAngeles) October 7, 2014
The other four were Montana, linebacker Keena Turner, Wright and receiver Mike Wilson.
Lott’s two-season totals during the Super Bowl years were ten picks, three forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and 116 tackles.
A Missed Three-peat and a Move to LA
In 1990, San Francisco was still a buzz saw.
Once again, the team finished 14-2 (losing to the Rams and Saints) and defeated the Redskins 28-10 in the Divisional round.
— HIGH VOLTAGE MEDIA ⚡️ (@HigherVoltages) May 8, 2021
During a tight, hard fought NFC title game against the Giants, Montana was injured on a brutal hit by New York defender Leonard Marshall and had to leave the game.
Steve Young replaced Montana and was leading a drive late in the game.
With 2:36 remaining, Craig fumbled the ball, which was recovered by New York.
The Giants drove down the field and Matt Bahr won the game on a 42-yard field goal.
That ended the 49ers quest for a three-peat championship.
The NFC Championship game also ended Lott’s time in San Francisco.
The franchise he had played with for ten years chose not to bring him back.
So, Lott headed south to Los Angeles and signed with the Raiders to continue his career.
A Raider and a Jet
If the Niners thought that Lott was over the hill by 1991, they were sorely mistaken.
During his first year in LA, Lott pulled in a league leading eight picks.
It was the second time in his career where Lott led the NFL in interceptions.
— Raiders Report (@raiders_fanly) March 13, 2017
He also had 93 total tackles, a fumble recovery and a forced fumble.
Even better, during Week 5, Lott and the Raiders beat the 49ers 12-6.
“I’ve always been committed to winning,” Lott said earlier that season. “If that means playing strong safety, if that means playing cornerback, if that means bringing water to my head coach, that’s what I’m going to do.”
In 1992, Lott had only one interception, the lowest of his career at that point (although he led the team with 103 total tackles).
He was a salary cap casualty after the season ended and signed with the Jets.
“I can help them at the free safety spot,” Lott said of his new club. “And I’m looking forward to hopefully being able to persuade some other free agents out there to come and be a part of this organization.”
“Myself, added with some other free agents, I think we can make an impact,” Lott said at the time.
Lott was part of a New York team that indeed signed several free agents in an attempt to contend for a playoff spot.
Ronnie Lott in Jets "fauxbacks". 🤢 pic.twitter.com/LZcXLGJMsC
— Addicted to Helmets (@addicted2helmet) August 24, 2021
Former Giant, Marshall, joined the club along with Gerald Perry of the Rams.
“We hope this sends a signal to the other players we are after that we are seriously committed, from the ownership level on down, to improve this football team and to get it back on track where we started off the first couple of years,” General Manager Dick Steinberg said.
Unfortunately, the Jets did not get back on track.
In 1993, the team went 8-8, fired coach Bruce Coslet after the season and hired their defensive coordinator, Pete Carroll.
Carroll’s squad finished 6-10 in 1994 and he was let go as well.
During his two years as a Jet, Lott had three interceptions (all in ‘93) six forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, two sacks and 229 total tackles.
Lott signed with Kansas City as a free agent in early 1995.
He was injured during the pre-season and was released.
Lott then signed with the 49ers, but his nagging injuries from the previous few years had finally caught up with him.
Instead of trying to hang on, Lott retired.
In 14 years in the NFL, Lott had 63 total interceptions for 730 return yards, five touchdowns, 16 forced fumbles, 17 fumble recoveries, 8.5 sacks and 1,146 total tackles.
Today is Pro Football Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott's 61st birthday.
In 14 seasons with the 49ers, Raiders and Jets, Lott had 63 career interceptions, was a 10-time Pro Bowl selection, a 6-time 1st Team All-Pro and won 4 Super Bowl Championships pic.twitter.com/EpZ4dLPoIN
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 8, 2020
He was a four-time Super Bowl champion, eight-time First-team All-Pro, ten-time Pro Bowler, two-time NFL interception leader, a member of the NFL’s 1980’s All-Decade team, the NFL’s 75th and 100th Anniversary All-Time teams and 1990’s All-Decade team.
Lott’s number 42 was retired by the 49ers and he is a member of the team’s Hall of Fame.
Life After Retirement
Lott has been just as successful in retirement as he was in the NFL.
Former Giants, Jets, Patriots and Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells made a bold proclamation about Lott in the mid-1990s.
“That guy’s going to Canton on roller skates,” said Parcells.
Parcells proved prophetic (minus the roller skates) and, five years after retiring, Lott was a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame 2000 class.
— #Random49ers (@Random49ers) July 29, 2021
The quote from Lott on his Hall bio reads:
“The way I play is important to me, because I know I’m not gifted with great athletic ability or speed. But God always gives you the ability to do one thing, and that’s to try hard. That’s my attitude. If that means going out and running into somebody who’s bigger or faster or tougher than you, you just do it.”
Lott partnered with former Niner teammates Harris Barton and Montana to form HRJ Capital, a private equity firm focused on access to top tier venture capital, buyout, real estate and hedge fund managers.
He also owns Toyota and Mercedes-Benz dealerships in California and opened the World Sports Cafe in Fresno, California.
Lott and his wife, Karen, have three children.
One of his sons, Ryan Nece, played linebacker for Tampa Bay and Detroit from 2002-2008.
Because of his experience in business and professional sports, Lott takes time to help athletes transition from athletics to business.
Lott and his wife currently live in the Cupertino, California area.