“It took believing in myself when I felt a lot of people didn’t.” — John Lynch, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Denver Broncos safety
By GARY SHELTON
It goes so fast. It passes in the wink of an eye.
One moment, he is the boyhood quarterback, the one with John Elway’s poster on his wall. The next, he rides the bench as a backup safety for Stanford. The next, he is a rookie, one the Bucs saw as a linebacker in their nickel defense. Then he becomes a stRarter, and a star, and he is on the Super Bowl field calling out signals. Then he is released and goes on to make his final four Pro Bowls for the Denver Broncos.
John Lynch passed before our eyes in 15 too-quick seasons. One day, he was just another guy, and the next, he was great. He hit like a car wreck. He was always in position. He played with a fierceness that belied what a good guy he is.
He was there when it changed, you know, when they took the tags off of Raymond James Stadium, when the Bucs mattered. He was there when the Bucs went from a punch-line to a knockout team. He was there when reporters would ask him about the greatness of the Raiders’ offense, and something hard would flash in his eyes, and he would firmly remind the questioner than the Bucs thought they were pretty good, too. And they were.
He was there at the time it was best to be a Buc, when the defense was something ferocious. He was there when the stands were silly over their heroes. He was here with Derrick and Warren and Ronde and Simeon and Shelton and Greg and Dexter and Brian and all the rest.
After Thursday night, he will be there forever.
Lynch joins the Bucs’ Ring of Honor this week in another gentle reminder of what the Bucs were for a short time. Frankly, we never get weary of hearing about that team. I don’t know what it’s like in cities like Boston or Pittsburgh or San Francisco or Denver, teams that win Super Bowls all the time. This team won it one time, and people talk as if it happened the day before yesterday. The memories are so clear. The men were so superb.
It didn’t last, of course. I would have thought there was a year or two left in that dynasty, but success left as fast as it came. Still, if you were there, you will never forget.
And if you do, look at the Ring of Honor. Brooks is there. Sapp, too. Soon, Barber and Rice and Jon Gruden and Tony Dungy will be, too, giving life to that run, to that defense, to that title.
Here’s the thing, though. Sapp was drafted to be great. Brooks, too. Even Rice.
But Lynch became great while no one was looking. Nine Pro Bowls. A Super Bowl. The Broncos’ Ring of Honor. The Bucs’ Ring of honor. A Hall of Fame finalist.
Hard to believe, looking back, that the Bucs thought little of Lynch. The defensive coordinator, Floyd Peters, didn’t want to draft him at all. But head coach Sam Wyche had learned at the knee of Bill Walsh, and Walsh was a huge fan of Lynch. Drafting Lynch in the third round may have been the best move Wyche ever made as a Tampa Bay coach.
“I think the expections were more than meagur when I first arrived,” Lynch said. “Floyd didn’t want to draft me, and Sam told him he had to. I was a Bucco linebacker and trying to find my way. I don’t know if I ever on a bubble, but it sure felt I was. It wasn’t until my third year that Rusty Tillman gave me a chance to alternate with Barney Bussey. Things started to take off. It took a lot of hard work.
“It took believing in myself when I felt a lot of people didn’t. It took some encouragement from a lot of people. Bill Walsh. Ronnie Lott. Hardy (Nickerson) and (Martin) Mayhew.”
Lynch started 10 games his first three seasons. Even when Tony Dungy came in, Lynch didn’t start the first two games.
Look, Sapp was the heart of that Bucs, and Brooks was the head. But in some ways, Lynch was the soul. His open-field tackles of Barry Sanders were legendary. So, too, was the day he knocked out John Allred of the Chicago Bears. Uh, Allred was his brother-in-law.
He was a defining player of the 90s, a player whose shoulder pads held dynamite. He was smart and he was fierce.
Now, Lynch is knocking on Canton’s door. Maybe he gets in this year. If not , Troy Polamau and Ed Reid may make him wait for a long haul. Lynch’s biggest problem is that he’s a safety – kind of a silly argument since every team starts two of them.
For years now, Lynch has wondered why so few safeties get into the Hall.
“Yeah, and I haven’t found a good answer,” he said. “I’ll never campaign for myself. My resume was 15 years of film.
“I do campaign on behalf of the position. I think it continues to be important today. You can really make an impact on the game, because you get an opportuity to do a lot of everything. When there is a good one, they stand out.”
Lynch told the story, again, of knocking out Allred. He said he had been beaten on the play, and that he really didn’t hit Allred that hard. He just hit him in the wrong place. He thought nothing of it and jogged back to the Bucs huddle. Brooks looked at him and said “You aren’t even going to check on him?” Then Lynch turned and saw Allred on the ground.
So many stories. So many memories. When a scullery maid of a franchise marries the prince, it means a lot.
Thursday, Lynch remembers. He glances up at the Ring of Honor, and he sees his name (as he did recently in Denver). He remembers the teammates. He remembers the transition.
“There was a connection with the fans,” Lynch said. “They saw us grow up and start to figure things out. Feeling from player to fan and fan to player was something special. I hope they can find that again.”
Until then, Tampa Bay has 2002.
(Gary Shelton is one of America’s most-honored and distinguished sports journalists. Gary has been named the Associated Press Sports Editors’ No. 1 national sports columnist twice, has been a top five finisher five ot,her times and was chosen by sports editors in the top 10 columnists eight different years. He has been selected Florida’s Sportswriter of the Year six times. He was a columnist with the St. Peterburg/Tampa Bay Times for 25 years after joining the newspaper from The Miami Herald. Gary has covered 29 Super Bowls and 10 Winter and Summer Olympics, The Masters, the World Series, the Stanley Cup Finals and national championship in college football and basketball — all on multiple occasions over the past four decades. He currently has his own website — garysheltonsports.com — blanketing all sports in the Tampa Bay area. He is among the most creative and thoughtful and opinionated, and hard-headed, columnists you’ll ever read. And funny. And one of the good guys. Don’t ever miss his columns, interviews and stories on garysheltonsports.com. Gary has agreed to be an occasional contributor to woodypaige.com.)