NFL

49ers Safety Ronnie Lott Sacrificed a Finger to Keep Playing: ‘I Felt Sick’

To be successful in the NFL requires courage, grit, and tenacity. Pouring your heart and soul into a 16-game schedule takes a toll both physically and mentally. Nobody personified toughness more than Ronnie Lott. Throughout his NFL career, he was one of the most dominant safeties. However, one injury put Lott in NFL lore forever.

Ronnie Lott’s pinky injury

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During the final game of 1985 season, Lott injured his left pinky while tackling a Dallas Cowboys running back. The San Francisco 49ers won the game and finished the season 10-6 and qualified for the playoffs. However, Lott’s pinky required surgery and eight weeks of recovery. With the playoffs looming, he faced a decision. 

Lott knew he was an integral part of the 49ers defense, so missing the playoffs was not an option. Instead of invasive surgery and rehab, Lott decided to amputate his pinky. Doing so allowed him to participate in the 1985 playoffs. Sure enough, Lott was out there next week against the New York Giants in the wild-card game.

Unfortunately, the 49ers lost to the Giants 14-3 in the playoff matchup. Two weeks later, doctors removed Lott’s cast. He was shocked and sickened by the sight of his pinky finger. If the 49ers made a deep playoff run or a Super Bowl appearance, this might’ve justified Lott’s decision. However, the loss to the Giants begs the question of whether Lott’s decision was worth it.

Lott’s career after the injury

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Lott’s pinky injury did not seem to slow him down. He had a career spanning over 14 seasons, the bulk with the 49ers. Lott made a name for himself by terrorizing quarterbacks and receivers. He was named first-team All-Pro five out the six seasons following his pinky injury and had eight total in his career.

Lott also had the luxury to play with the NFL’s fabled quarterback Joe Montana. Together, Montana and Lott amassed four Super Bowl championships en route to cementing a 49er’s dynasty still revered to this day. Lott finished his NFL career with 1,146 tackles, 10 Pro Bowl selections, 63 interceptions, and five touchdowns.

The 49ers of the ’80s were a force to be reckoned with, both offensively and defensively. Whenever Lott was on the field, offensives always had to mind his defensive presence.

Ronnie Lott’s retirement and legacy

Lott retired from the NFL in 1995. Many consider him to be one of the greatest defensive players ever, frequently compared to other NFL greats like Lawrence Taylor, Rod Woodson, and Deion Sanders. He was a first-ballot Pro-Football Hall of Famer and inducted in 2000. The NFL also named Lott to the 75th anniversary All-NFL Team. However, the NFL was only the beginning for Lott.

Following his football career, Lott made an incredibly successful transition into the business. He currently owns and operates a private-equity investment firm worth over 2.4 billion, which began with a $40 million fund. He owns a Mercedes-Benz and Toyota dealership as well as a sports cafe in California, too. 

In 2004, the NCAA introduced the Lott IMPACT Trophy. The Lott IMPACT Trophy represents the defensive IMPACT player of the year. Notable recipients of the award include Jabrill Peppers, J.J. Watt, and Luke Kuechly. IMPACT is an acronym for Integrity, Maturity, Performance, Academics, Community, and Tenacity, all of which Lott exemplified on and off the field. Despite his controversial decision, Lott’s pinky injury was only a minor fork in the road for a career as successful as his.