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Alumni Spotlight: Ronnie Lippett

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Lippett had plenty of cause to celebrate when he was facing Dan Marino and Don Shula's Dolphins.

Looking at former corner back Ronnie Lippett today, it's tough to believe he's the same guy who started 111 of 122 games over nine seasons with the Patriots (1983-91). Almost too small at 5-11, 180-pounds, Lippett played big. He terrorized receivers and quarterbacks across the league and is still tied with Patriots Hall-of-Famer Nick Buoniconti as the eighth-leading interceptor in franchise history (24 picks).

Sitting in a dimly lit corner of Gillette Stadium with friends, Ronnie is easy going and relaxed. He's got a signature smile, and although he turned 47 this year, he doesn't look a day over 35. After he retired, Lippett chose to remain in New England rather than return to his home state of Florida. He currently lives in South Easton, Mass. with his wife, Sheryl. They have three grown children, and are active foster parents.

The Ronnie Lippett of Patriots lore, on the other hand was an aggressive defender, recognized not only for his closing speed, but also for his physical style of play and ferocity as an open-field tackler. Perhaps he wasn't intimidating in stature, but he made up for it with aggressive play – mostly directed toward the Miami Dolphins.

Lippett started three years at the University of Miami under coach Howard Schnellenberger. When he was a senior Ronnie attended a Dolphins camp at St. Thomas University, where they were practicing against the Saints. He and his teammates were unexpectedly asked to leave.

"They were allowing us to come over and watch, and that's what we did. We were standing on the sidelines and (then-Head Coach) Don Shula was having a bad day or something. He started telling us to get off the field and yelling at us. So we left and from that point on I wanted to be drafted by a team that would play against the Dolphins. I hated them after that."

Selected by the Patriots in the eighth round of the 1983 NFL Draft, Ronnie immediately had Hall-of-Fame-sized shoes to fill. His predecessor was All-Pro corner Mike Haynes, who left for the Los Angeles Raiders following a contract dispute during Training Camp.

Lippett started every game that year. The Patriots made it to the AFC Championship, their first playoff appearance since 1978, and Ronnie led the team in passes defensed (26), holding his own by focusing on not getting beat on deep routes.

When he joined the Patriots secondary, Lippett was playing opposite All-Pro corner Raymond Clayborn, who made the Pro Bowl that year, and again in '85 and '86. If forced to choose between the two, any quarterback in the league would obviously take his chances with the undersized rookie.

Teams like the Broncos and Dolphins game planned for the young corner. It wasn't always pretty.

"It's not as easy to pick on one man as it used to be," said Shula after Ronnie's first meeting with the Dolphins, a 34-24 loss at Miami. "But we'd obviously rather throw to Lippett's side than Clayborn's."

It wasn't always that way, however. Of his 24 career interceptions, 7 came from the hands of Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino.

"When we played against those guys, you had [wide receiver] Mark Clayton who would talk so much. He and I got into a verbal altercation that ended up spilling out onto the field," said Lippett, a hint of the old tenacity in his voice. "You don't want it to spill over to the point where you'll get a 15-yard penalty, but you do want to be jacked up to the point where you can use that adrenaline to help you run a little faster and hit a little harder."

Lippett's good friend and fellow Patriots alumni Fred Marion was also his teammate at the University of Miami. That's where the two defensive backs met Clayton.

"We were playing against (Louisville) and I had two interceptions in the game, one for a touchdown. Fred intercepted another ball and Clayton made the tackle. Clayton went and kicked Fred in the head," he said emphatically. "[Marion] had a concussion so bad he was walking around the dorm with a teddy bear one night. Ever since then we were trying to find a way to get at him. Then when he ended up being on the Dolphins, that was another reason for us to hate the Dolphins."

Playing opposite of Clayton was Mark Duper.

"I bumped into Duper two years ago up in New York at a golf tournament. We were supposed to be sitting at the same table and I was coming towards him. I thought, "Oh no. That's Duper, we're about to fight," said Lippett, only half joking. "We began to talk and he said, 'Man we used try to tell Mark (Clayton) to shut up, because he was going to get you started. We couldn't get him to shut up.' I said, 'Yeah man, that's over with.' We ended up being friends after that, but I never thought that could ever happen because I hated those two guys."

Lippett's favorite memory of playing against Dan Marino and the duo of Marks involves a bit of prediction.

"(Marino) called me and asked me if I would come on his television show and I said sure. When I came on his show, he was kind of joking around. I said, 'Well Dan, if you don't mind throwing me two interceptions, I'd really appreciate it.'" Lippett smiled thinking of the interview. "As it turned out, he did."

In an Oct. 5, 1986 meeting at New England, Lippett opened the game with an interception from Marino, stealing the pass away from Duper. In their previous meeting, the Patriots "Squished the Fish" in the divisional round of the 1985 playoffs on their way to Super Bowl XX.

"I just stayed with him and looked at his face," Lippett told reporters after the game. "He strained to stop in front of me, so I stopped and stepped in front of him. He started talking as soon as I had the ball and mumbled all the way off the field."

Ronnie grabbed a second interception before the 34-7 trouncing was through, this time from Clayton.

"It was an out move, so I went in and hit the ball," he said at the time. "[Clayton] started screaming at the official about interference even before I caught the ball. That was great."

Clayborn had another pick before the game was over, and Ronnie was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week for his performance. He finished the '86 season with a league-leading eight interceptions for 76 yards.

Lippett played in 13 games against the Dolphins, including their meeting in the 1985 playoffs. The rivalry was stronger then, and the Patriots stole eight wins in those games. As divisional opponents, the Pats and the Phins still meet twice a year. Ronnie always enjoys watching the rivalry play out.

"I think the best times I had were playing against the Dolphins and Dan Marino. I have seven interceptions from him. I took one of the balls around to the schools to show the kids I worked with in the D.A.R.E. program. One of the kids stole the football. Consequently, one of the teachers called down to the Dolphins. Dan sent me another football," chuckled Lippett. "Autographed."

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