A long way to, and from, shaking off a shadow
Ryan Nece, who signed with the Bucs this week as a free agent, had a solid career at UCLA. But he's most associated with one player from USC - his dad, Ronnie Lott.
By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 26, 2002
TAMPA -- It's a paradox of his life, to be sure. But the more the son tries to distance himself from the father, the closer they become.
He took his mother's maiden name, always lived in a separate city, chose the rival college and turned down offers from NFL teams his Hall of Fame dad played for to sign with one 3,000 miles away.
Eventually, he hopes, the shadow will not reach him.
"My father was a great player and a Hall of Famer. I love my father. But since I was young, it's been very difficult to escape those comparisons and be my own man," Bucs rookie linebacker Ryan Nece said. "This allows me another opportunity on the other side of the country.
"In high school, I really didn't understand it. I'd have an unbelievable game, and the story would say, "the son of Ronnie Lott, the former star of the 49ers, had a great game Friday.' That was hard to accept."
Nece, who signed this week as an undrafted free agent from UCLA, turned down similar offers from the Niners and Oakland Raiders.
It was a shrewd move for many reasons. First, Nece will not be perceived as cashing in on an opportunity that had more to do with bloodlines than linebacking.
And, face it, there is no better place for a rookie to try to make a roster at his position than with the Bucs, who have little depth at linebacker.
"I'm not surprised he chose Tampa Bay," Lott said. "He knows I'm not going to be looking over the fence. If he makes it, he's got to make it on his own terms. That's Ryan. If he makes that team, it's because he knows how to play to the standards of the Bucs."
Nece was born Feb. 24, 1979, seven weeks after Lott's Trojans beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl to clinch their last national title (the UPI half of it).
While Lott was embarking on a career that saw him win four Super Bowl rings with the Niners, Nece was growing up without him in San Bernardino, Calif., with his mother, Kathy, and helping to raise his three younger sisters.
"I wanted to make a name for myself and people were always talking about him," Nece said. "I'd go to my friends' houses and their fathers were around. I wished mine was around more."
When they were together, football became their conversation and expression of love. Nece didn't have to be taught about the history of the NFL; he was living it, running around Niners camps and Pro Bowls with Joe Montana and Jerry Rice.
"How can you be in awe of anything when you've been around Jerry Rice and Joe Montana and all these greats?" Lott said. "They didn't treat him like, "That's Ronnie's son.' It was, "That's Ryan.' That's how he's always carried himself. Ryan decided early on, I've got a dad who plays football but my dad just wants to be a dad and I want to be a son that makes it his own way."
Nece always has done just that, starring at quarterback and safety at Pacific High.
His football career nearly ended after a serious car accident before his senior year. Nece was on his way to the beach with his girlfriend in the passenger's seat and two buddies in the back when he lost control of his Mustang convertible around a curve and careened over the divider and across four lanes.
Although his passengers survived with mostly minor injuries, Nece woke up in a Santa Ana trauma center where he spent 10 days and had nine hours of plastic surgery to reconstruct his face and part of his head. He has a scar under his hair that runs from ear to ear and still wears a shield on his helmet to protect his cheekbones.
"To have an accident like that and come back and play football, it was really all in God's hands and refocused my priorities," Nece said.
Although courted by nearly every Pac-10 school, Nece had no interest in following Lott to Southern Cal, the last to recruit him after he showed an interest in rival UCLA.
By then, Nece considered Southern Cal elite, cocky and arrogant.
"My hatred for SC developed from the inside out," Nece said. "I was part of that lifestyle, part of being a Trojan growing up. I saw what they were about and I didn't agree with it."
Ironically, Nece wound up playing for Bruins coach Bob Toledo, Lott's position coach at USC. He finished his career as one of the top-15 tacklers in school history and a semifinalist for the Butkus Award, given to the nation's top linebacker.
Nece also excelled in the classroom, making the honor roll five times (3.0 GPA) and receiving his undergraduate degree in business economics before his final season.
"I think any time when you're a kid who played four straight years at UCLA, playing as a true freshman, you've got to be pretty damn good," Bucs linebackers coach Joe Barry said. "He's not one-dimensional. He can rush the passer and has played zone and man coverage. If he hustles, learns the defense and works hard, he has a legitimate chance to make this team."
As Lott watched Nece's career blossom, so has their relationship. He has been careful not to become the focus at UCLA games or practices. And last season, he actually was seen wearing a Bruins cap given to him when Nece was a freshman.
"I've seen it when he had a moment of greatness," Lott said. "We've all had them or we wouldn't be at this level. But there comes a point when you see if you can be that way on every given play. Being around the John Lynches, the Warren Sapps, the Derrick Brookses, hopefully he'll rise to the occasion."
A few weeks ago, Nece visited Lott in Palo Alto, Calif., in preparation for a private workout. The son saw the father through new eyes.
"Our relationship as son and father has flourished and I've grown to the point where I respect my father and love my father," Nece said. "I had a workout for a team and went to see him and he was showing me drills. He was barefoot and in jeans and went through the drills better than anyone I'd ever seen. He still is amazing."
The father knows by letting go, the bond strengthens.
"A lot of things he does, I wish I'd been smart enough to do," Lott said. "I look at him and I see qualities I admire and I wish I'd have had.
"Now we have a chance to share lot of things maybe I didn't get a chance to share because I wasn't around as much as I should've been."
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