The will to win has been an intangible that experts have attempted to quantify for decades in an effort to recognize toughness, perseverance and the ability to do whatever it takes to succeed. Some players have it, others lack it—but it’s not a trait you can often label with a number grade.
Every once in a while, a player comes along that redefines this mold, setting a new standard for what it really means to sacrifice for the good of the team.
In April of 1986, Ronnie Lott had a decision to make. His pinky had been badly broken during a tackle the last week of the 1985 season and needed a pin inserted to heal the break. The only problem was, the pin meant Lott would miss the playoffs and several games to start the 1986 season.
The solution? Cut the pinky off at the first joint and get back on the field. This was the same man who had famously said “If you can believe it, the mind can achieve it,” a mantra Lott embodied wherever he went during his 14-year NFL career.
That was the type of will that helped the 49ers win in the 1980s, as Lott put his name on a shortlist of players with four or more Super Bowl rings during his time in San Francisco. He would later play for the, Raiders, Jets and Chiefs, but his legacy was forged in the city by the bay.
On the 31st anniversary of his that Super Bowl win, here’s a look at four of Lott’s cards that embody his career as one of the most feared defensive backs in the game—one for each ring.
1982 Topps Rookie Card
Ronnie Lott epitomized the prototypical hard-hitting, ball-hawking safety that patrols an NFL secondary in search of his next victim—yet many forget he was drafted as a cornerback and played his first few seasons at the position.
Drafted high in the first round out of USC, Lott started at corner for the 49ers in 1981 and was named to the Pro Bowl. He would finish his rookie campaign with seven interceptions—three of which he returned for touchdowns.
San Francisco moved Lott to safety in 1985, a position he would remain for the rest of his career. The 10-time Pro Bowler would retire having excelled at every position as a defensive back—first as a corner and spending time as both a free safety and strong safety.
His 1982 Topps rookie card is one of the top football cards of the 1980s. Gem mint graded examples have sold for more than $3,000, but you can still find plenty of options at a much lower level. His In-Action card from the same set is actually a better looking that’s generally very cheap.
1982 Topps Football saw Topps snare the NFL licensing that allowed them to use team logos. The set also featured another legendary rookie card of a Hall of Fame defender, Lawrence Taylor. It’s also home to second year cards of Lott’s fellow 49er greats Joe Montana and Dwight Clark.
1985 Topps Glossy NFL Stars Insert
Ronnie Lott played every regular season game of his career in the NFL wearing his iconic #42. He wore it at USC, too. Yet in its 1985 rack pack glossy insert set, he’s shown wearing #24. Was it some sort of mirroring effect? Is it really Ronnie?
According to a SF Gate blog post, it was neither, as Lott signed late with the 49ers as a rookie and didn’t immediately have his first pick of jersey numbers. Photos of Lott wearing #24 surfaced, but the writer points to a training camp scrimmage held in Rocklin, CA that year as their likely origin. What’s really odd is Topps choosing to use a four-year-old photo for one of his cards. By this time, he was a pretty big star.
It does beg the question—Did Lott ever wear #24 in a preseason game? The background of his 1985 Topps glossy rack pack card strongly resembles a scrimmage type environment with an abundance of empty seats, so maybe the image was taken at the same time the newspaper got its photos.
Whether or not Lott played with #24 in an actual preseason game is one of the questions the SF Gate writer poses, but this card seems to answer part of the question while posing more questions in itself.
We’d love to know if you can solve this riddle.
The 11-card Glossy insert set has a bunch of Hall of Famers including Walter Payton, Joe Montana and Dan Marino. Singles and complete sets are generally inexpensive. Packs with the Lott card on top surface occasionally.
Having already won two Super Bowls by 1986, Lott entered his prime with a San Francisco team that continued to add talent to an already accomplished roster.
In 1986, the 27-year-old had the best statistical season of his career, leading the league with 10 interceptions and posting personal bests in sacks (2) and return yardage (134)—all despite missing two games with injury.
The Niners also used a draft pick from New England to select an undersized receiver from a small college (Mississippi Valley State) named Jerry Rice in the middle of the first round in 1985, giving them an embarrassment of riches for the second half of the decade.
For 49ers fans, 1986 Topps offers a similar abundance of talent, featuring Jerry Rice’s rookie card and some of those other 49er greats. It also has Steve Young’s rookie card, albeit in a Buccaneers uniform.
But this classic set doesn’t stop there—offering rookie cards of Reggie White, Andre Reed, Bruce Smith, William Perry, Boomer Esiason, Bill Fralic, Bernie Kosar and more. It’s one of the more star-studded checklists of any set from the 1980s.
1992 Fleer Pro Visions
In 1991, San Francisco left Lott unprotected as a free agent—which at that time meant that if no team signed him before April 1st, he would be returned to the 49ers. Some, including the Washington Post, assumed no other team would be interested in signing the aging safety.
It was called “Plan B” free agency at the time, but Lott thought he had earned the right to be a part of Plan A with the 49ers. When the Raiders inquired, Lott saw the opportunity to go where he was wanted, taking with him the giant chip on his shoulder San Francisco had reinvigorated by leaving him out of their plans.
“I guess loyalty has an age limit,” Lott would remark after severing ties with the 49ers. But with father time seemingly having him beat, Lott responded with one of his best seasons of his career.
In his first year in the silver and black, Lott played all 16 games and led the NFL with eight interceptions—once again being named to the Pro Bowl. After missing 10 games the previous two seasons with injury, Lott was healthy again and showing that age was only a number.
Lott’s 1992 Fleer card illustrates his metamorphosis from a 49er to a Raider, artfully depicting him with both logos and colors. It’s a card you can usually pick up for a couple of bucks, but is certainly iconic when you consider the significance of him leaving the team where he had crafted his legacy.
The back of the card also points to the fact that “it was almost poetic that the game’s hardest hitter wound up with the Raiders, a team that thrives on its physical tradition.” It was the perfect place for Lott to re-establish himself as one of the game’s best players on defense.