Boiled to its essence, football is about pain. You cause pain for others while trying to forget about your own pain. This truth makes the game utterly barbaric and fascinating, and it helps explain why the Baltimore Ravens and the New England Patriots won the two most recent Super Bowls¹. It is also the definitive reason why Ronnie Lott may be the greatest player ever.
Lott has separated or dislocated his right shoulder twice and separated the left one once. He has pinched a nerve in his neck and broken or sprained three of his fingers. In 1985 he got his left pinkie caught between his shoulder pads and the helmet of Dallas running back Timmy Newsome. The bone at the tip of the finger was shattered, and when the bone failed to heal, Lott had the tip amputated². He has also played with torn cartilage in his right knee and with a cracked tibia in his right leg.
Sports Illustrated, January 23, 1989
"He doesn't care about his own body, so why should he care about yours?"
49ers guard Randy Cross
One of Lott's most famous hits came in Super Bowl XXIII just after the preceding Sports Illustrated article was written. The opposing Cincinnati Bengals' top offensive weapon was running back Ickey Woods, a big and quick player who averaged an impressive 5.3 yards per rush that season. In the Super Bowl against Lott's San Francisco 49ers, Woods started well, gaining 27 yards on his first four carries. But on his fifth carry, Lott laid into him I mean, knocked him on his freakin' ass and that was it for Ickey. He only rushed for 59 more yards in the game. The 49ers won, 20-16, their third of four Super Bowl titles with Lott.
But Lott wasn't a big, slow-moving brute. He wasn't even a down lineman. Ronnie Lott was a defensive back a cornerback with the University of Southern California and initially with the 49ers, and later a safety with the 49ers, Los Angeles Raiders and New York Jets. These are the quick guys, people whose primary duty is to cover the wide receivers and guard against big offensive plays. Deion Sanders, for instance, was a great cornerback, a blazing-fast defender who could prevent a star receiver from ever touching the ball. But Sanders shyed away from contact; one wonders if he could have shoulder-tackled Stephen Hawking. Ask any NFL coach whether they'd rather have Lott or Sanders, and they'd all choose Lott.
He could do it all. Sixty-three career interceptions that's fifth in all-time NFL history. In January of 1990, in the NFC Championship game against the Los Angeles Rams, he streaked across the field to deflect a sure touchdown pass out of the hands of Henry Ellard. The 49ers won that game, 30-3. Two weeks later, they defeated the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl, 55-10. Lott deflected a pass in that game, too.
Lott was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000. Other than that, the most interesting phase of his post-football career was a Tivo television ad he starred in with ex-teammate Joe Montana. It was actually a "fake" ad for a "masculine itch" ointment, and right as Montana was about to put a handful of the balm on Lott's crotch with the camera zooming in on Lott's pink pants Tivo cut in to promote their ad-killing service.
Southern Cal (collegiate), 1977-1980
San Francisco 49ers, 1981-1990
Los Angeles Raiders, 1991-1992
New York Jets, 1993-1994
Sources, more info:
¹The Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV because they had the biggest, baddest defense on the planet. It didn't hurt that their middle linebacker, Ray Lewis, was charged with murder the previous off-season, which he plea-bargained down to a misdemeanor obstruction of justice. Meanwhile, the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVI because they did what no team up to then had been able to do beat up Rams quarterback Kurt Warner.
²The next week, Lott had a playoff game against the New York Giants; he got the finger taped up so that he could play. After the season ended, the finger didn't start to heal, so out came the guillotine, so to speak. (Some versions of this story say that Lott had the pinky-tip lopped off at halftime so that he could return to the game, but this doesn't make sense ... after all, the Cowboys stank that year.)
Merci to DoubleD.