What makes a champion?

What makes a champion?

By Jerry Smith & Ronnie Lott

Hall of Famer: Former 49er Ronnie Lott. Photo courtesy Ronnie Lott
Football Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott in conversation with Jerry Smith, head coach of SCU women’s soccer, on what makes an athlete courageous. Here is an excerpt of their Oct. 9 conversation from the 2014–15 President’s Speaker Series.

Jerry Smith: So Ronnie, to start us off, you certainly are one of my heroes, and a hero to many of the people in the audience and anyone who knows anything about football and anyone who knows about helping communities. Who are some of your heroes?

Ronnie Lott: Who are some of my heroes? I got to start off with my dad. My dad is an incredible hero. [Applause] And the great thing about my dad is that there are things that he stands for, and things that he believes in, and I think one of the great things for me is, how do you exhaust life, and then what’s this thing about having respect and getting respect? And to me, those type of attributes and understanding that when somebody comes to your funeral, they’re coming to pay their respects, an incredible way of looking at life. We, my family, we’re thinking about the dash recently, and when you look at the dash in your life, what does it mean? Well, you have to have respect and then of course [my dad] would say that you have to exhaust life. But my dad’s a hero.

Safety: Ronnie Lott helped the 49ers win four Super Bowls in the 80s. Photo by Manny Rubio/USA Today Sports

Obviously, there are great coaches that I’ve been associated with. Bill Walsh, of course, would be right there. John Robinson. A number of people who are heroes. Some of the folks who are in this audience. My wife is my hero. [Laughter] [Applause] And, yeah. There are a lot of heroes that I look up to and I’m always constantly trying to find out what makes them special, what makes them tick, and what do they bring each and every day that allows them to be a hero?  Because that’s hard, being a hero. It is very difficult to carry that mantle.

Jerry Smith: And Coach Walsh, who is known as an offensive genius, and I think 49er defenses of the Super Bowls certainly played as big a role—if not a bigger role—than the offense, how was it being part of a defense when you had a head coach who was an offensive genius?

Ronnie Lott: It was great. [Laughter] The thing that you got to think about—and you know this as a coach—everybody has a skill that they accentuate, and if you think of Bill and things that he brought to the table, he was phenomenal in terms of game plans, phenomenal in terms of understanding how to get people in certain positions. But what he really was great at was that he was great at picking people and he was great at identifying talent, and he was great at really building a team.

And one of the things that I loved about him was he would pull one aside, and every once in a while you would talk to him about why would you take that guy and [not] take another, more talented guy? And Bill would say, “Ronnie, don’t you understand that that guy from Stanford knows how to fit in?” I’d say, “Well, what do you mean by that?” He was like, “He’s not gonna be a player that’s gonna be on the sidelines, upset that he’s not getting playing time. That he’s gonna be an asset to the organization.”

And so you would sit there and you would hear these stories. And yet, we all believed that talent—and all of us in this room, we all believe that talent trumps everything. And yet, I think character trumps talent sometimes. And he would tell you that it meant a lot to him to have guys who have character on the sideline because they were gonna play an incredible role at some point in the game.

Jerry Smith: Ronnie, I think the audience would love to know what football has taught you about life.

Ronnie Lott: Well, I would say that my quarterback—my wife and my kids—teaches you how to get along. It teaches you how to understand how to serve another human being. And one of the great lessons in life is that all of us in this room at some point were really athletes. At some point, if you really believe it, you—I was talking to one of the ladies here and she brought a picture of her kids when they were really young, and she was telling me the story about the kid sitting on my lap. And she pulled out the picture. [Laughter] And she said, “Do you remember this picture?” I was like, “Yeah. Right.” [Laughter] 

But the things that I thought were more important about the conversation were her thoughts about what the 49ers meant to her. And she’s a teammate and she’s a fan, and she’d root as far as anyone out here about being a part of an incredible family. And so you have to have teammates like that to do your job and to be successful at it. People who care like that are what I think make sports so special.

And I used to come here, guys, when I was, I think 21 years old, and I used to go watch the basketball team, and I would sneak up in the back and I would sit there and watch Coach [Carroll] Williams coach, and identified early on what a great teammate you have to be just watching him work with … Harold Keeling ’85 and some of the other guys involved with the team, Nick Vanos ’85 and Scott Lamson ’85. So I became a teammate of theirs and started learning how to play basketball, because great teammates are people who care, who give a lot of themselves each and every day.

Jerry Smith: Did you, in addition to playing football at USC, did you play basketball?

Ronnie Lott: I played one year of basketball [laughter] and I had a bucket-list moment. [Laughter] You won’t believe it. It’s a great moment for me. And I haven’t shared this with anybody, but I grew up as a [UCLA] Bruins fan. [Laughter] [Applause] I was sitting there in Pauley Pavilion, and they put me in the game. [Laughter] And I’m playing at Pauley Pavilion … and you know it was like a reality TV show. [Laughter] So, I’m playing and I’m having a great time, and I was just bouncin’ all over the place. I steal the ball. I got a breakaway layup. I go up and I jump so high that I don’t know what to do. [Laughter] I don’t know if I should dunk it or lay it off the backboard. I smashed it off the backboard. I didn’t score. [Laughter]

But that was a bit of—that was an incredible moment to play, where so many great athletes had played, and watching them over the years and having that experience. It was unbelievable. So yeah, that was—and by the way, when I got on the team, the record was 13 and 2, and at the end of the year, we were 14 and 16 or something like that. [Laughter] So we only won one game, and I think we beat Stanford up here. It was the last game of the year.

Jerry Smith: So you’re really happy I brought this up?  [Laughter] 

On a more serious note, you’ve been outspoken in your support of more efforts for player safety in the NFL. And the NFL has been in the news a lot lately and that’s one of the areas where they’ve been in the news. I think what I’m interested in and what the audience is interested in hearing is, I think the defensive war is called the impact war and you were known as one of the hardest hitters. What would Ronnie Lott the player think about everything that’s going on with concussions and the new rules?

Ronnie Lott: Well, Ronnie Lott the player would understand that there are things that we have to do, and … I would encourage all kids, and all of us, to continue to learn how to learn. One of the great opportunities that I had [was that] I had a coach one time tell me that if he had to do one thing all over again, he would learn how to learn. He would learn his players. He would learn how to get better. He would learn how to find himself, at least trying to situate himself where he could be a greater coach. And for me, that’s how I see myself.

And so if I was playing today and I was playing under the rules and the understanding of all the things that come along in the sport today, I would learn how to play the game the way that you should play the game. I would learn how to keep my head out of the situation of tackling. I would learn how to do that because I know that my mother, my mother would not allow me to lose $50,000, right? [Laughter] 

And I know for a lot of you out there, I don’t understand how you could play in the NFL and say that you can lose $50,000 and be OK with it. I don’t get that. I don’t. And I’ve heard that a lot of guys will say to the fans and to all of us, “Well, it’s OK because that’s who I am.” No. That tells me that you’re not a professional. A professional is a person who evolves. A professional is a person who gets better.

And I think that if I were playing today, even though the rules changed recently, that I would evolve. I would get better. And we see a lot of great players play the game who played like I did five years ago who are now changing and playing within the guidelines of the rules.

Jerry Smith: And is that going to filter down? Is that going to filter down to [college football] and, probably more importantly, to high schools?

Ronnie Lott: Yeah. I think it’s filtering down quickly. I think you’re starting to see the NFL trying to take stances [and] trying to create an environment where the kids are learning how to tackle differently. I know that Pete Carroll recently did a video where he is teaching guys how to tackle differently, that [the Seattle] Seahawks have a different way of how they tackle. You see USA Football, they have programs they’ve put in place where it’s called Heads Up Football. They’re teaching kids how to tackle differently.

So I think you’ve got to start from the bottom and you’ve got to work the young kids. At the same time, you’ve got to do it with the NFL and you’ve got to do it with college football. And we’re seeing it in college football now, where you’re ejected from the game if it’s a targeting hit. You’re seeing it at the high school level, where you’re seeing those [players] that are getting ejected if it’s a targeted hit. I think all of this leads to us hopefully continuing to play the game of football.

I think it’s a great sport, a sport that a lot of fans love. To me, it’s one of the greatest sports because one of the things that I think that we don’t do enough of is really appreciate how to be men. And I think, we become men, we learn certain skill sets. We learn certain skill sets by working with other men. And one of the great books—a buddy of mine wrote this book about the idea of teaching young men how to love each other. And we don’t do that. And obviously, we’re starting to see our moral compass getting off track.

And so I think we need to understand that there are other qualities that come out of the game other than just hitting somebody and that you do care and that you do love and you do get to serve and you do get to hang out. And I know that football is just an incredible sport and there are so many things that you get out of the sport of being around incredible people.


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