SANTA CLARA -- Ronnie Lott is worried it's coming, just like opponents once fretted when the fearless 49ers safety charged toward them to lay down one of his patented bone-jarring hits.
Lott, 54, understands he is a prime candidate to suffer from degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy that researchers say is the result of the kind of concussions the former NFL star suffered during an illustrious 14-year career.
But physicians currently can't give the healthy Lott definitive answers.
"I'm hoping that I do know that I have CTE and not speculate," he said. "Right now I've got to speculate and because of who I am, because of the hits, I probably have it."
Lott, who lives in Cupertino, doesn't obsess about his long-term brain health. But he joined a group of medical experts Thursday at Santa Clara University to discuss one of the most pressing issues facing sports today.
Some of the country's biggest names in head-trauma research spoke at the all-day symposium sponsored by the school's Institute of Sports Law and Ethics in an effort to bring attention to a medical issue that recently led to the NFL agreeing to a $765-million settlement in a lawsuit involving thousands of former players.
The fact that Lott isn't experiencing any lasting side effects from his playing days underscores the complexity of the issue, said Cindy Chang, a UC-Berkeley sports medicine specialist who also spoke Thursday.
"That's why you're not a bad parent if you let your kid play Pee Wee football," she said. "We still don't know so much. But what we do know, we have to spread that gospel."
Lott was one of the headliners Thursday after a career that included eight All-Pro selections and 10 Pro Bowls. He also won four Super Bowls during his decade-long tenure with the 49ers.
Lott was the ultimate football warrior known for putting hurt on anyone in his way. Perhaps his most legendary moment came in 1985 when he hit running back Tim Newsome so hard it tore off parts of Lott's left pinky finger.
In the off-season, Lott chose to amputate the tip of his finger instead of having surgery so he wouldn't miss any time. The defensive back played for six more years.
He has no regrets about the way he played, despite the fact Lott estimates he suffered at least 20 concussions, most of them undiagnosed. Would he play differently today based on new research about the long-term effects of head injuries?
"What I do know is I would be the same passionate, the same destructive, maniacal competitor I was then," he said. "I'd just do it within the confines of the rules."
While some panelists at Santa Clara called for more scrutiny of pro football, Lott is encouraged by the changes recently implemented by the NFL that have limited big hits to the head.
But he wants to see a trickle-down effect that leads to more precautions in high school and youth competitions -- as well as other sports such as soccer and hockey. (A panel Thursday moderated by former U.S. star Brandi Chastain of San Jose addressed problems in soccer).
As a father whose son once suffered from a concussion while playing football at St. Francis High, Lott now discourages fans from cheering the kind of big hits he once inflicted on others.
He added that fan attitudes about what makes a player courageous also needs adjusting. Lott said it's no longer acceptable to encourage a player to stay in the game to prove his or her toughness.
"Sitting out is not a sign of weakness," Lott said. "Now everybody says it's OK."
Staff writer Mark Emmons contributed to this report.