01/14/1991 at 01:00 AM EST
Ronnie Lott is in the middle of a pileup, a not-unfamiliar predicament for one of the most feared tacklers in pro football. But this time his foes are all pint-size—patients of the children's cancer ward of the hospital at the University of California, San Francisco. It's Tuesday, and the San Francisco 49er safety isn't demolishing enemy ball carriers; he's lifting spirits. As he leaves the ward, a 7-year-old boy rushes up and wraps his arms around Lott's legs. The 6', 200-pounder gently picks up the child and says, "That's just how Coach tells me to do it." The boy beams. Explains Lott, 31: "My parents raised me to help people."
Lott, who makes weekly rounds of local hospitals and homeless shelters, knows the value of human contact. As an Air Force brat, he changed addresses frequently and found sports a way to make childhood friends in each new town. He won a football scholarship to the University of Southern California (where he fathered a son, now 11) and was drafted by San Francisco in 1981. Today the safety, who has been named to nine Pro Bowls, leads the 49er defense with his take-no-prisoners style of play, but off-field he has begun to mellow. In March the bachelor will marry model Karen Collmer.
Since early last month, Lott has been nursing a torn ligament and sprains in both knees with "acupuncture, aspirin—everything you can imagine." But on Saturday, when his 14-2 'Niners start their second season—the playoffs—he will return to his turf in Candlestick Park, ready to challenge anyone foolhardy enough to step between San Francisco and a record third-straight Super Bowl title.