The moment John Lynch found out he had been voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame was nothing like the way he had imagined it would be. And he had had plenty of time to let his imagination ponder that moment.
Lynch, a hard-hitting and heady safety who played 11 seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and four with the Denver Broncos, was one of 15 modern-era finalists for the Hall of Fame's Class of 2021. Usually that would mean a vote by the Selection Committee at the Super Bowl site the day before the game, a long afternoon wait in a hotel room and, if the vote went in your favor, a knock on your room door from David Baker, President and CEO of the Hall. Those not selected would get a phone call instead. Lynch knew that drill well. This was his eighth consecutive year as a finalist.
But the pandemic had significantly altered that procedure. The meeting by the committee members was virtual and votes were submitted well before Super Bowl weekend. The candidates were not on hand, and they were told not to expect the results until after the Super Bowl. As the general manager of the San Francisco 49ers, Lynch had plenty of other things to occupy his mind as the 2020 season neared its end.
Thus, when Baker showed up and knocked on the door of his house in San Diego on January 24, shortly before the Buccaneers would take on the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game, Lynch was completely and delightfully shocked.
And in that moment his long wait for that knock suddenly became worth every second.
"It was just pure joy, it really was," said Lynch, who will be formerly enshrined in the Hall with the rest of the Class of 2021 this Sunday at the Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio. "It was kind of disbelief – well, not 'disbelief' because I felt like the time was coming – but I just had no idea it was about to happen because it was a COVID year."
Lynch answered the door and didn't immediately understand the implication of what he saw until Baker took off his mask. When he understood what news was coming, he stepped back into his house and bent over with his hands on his knees. Behind him was a good deal of his family, including his wife Linda who had received the news early in order to help plan the surprise. Somehow, and it must have taken a Herculean effort, she managed to keep the secret so that Lynch could have the purest of moments.
"I've always believed that things happen at the exact right time," said Lynch. "That's the way God does things. So when they're supposed to come, they do. I don't know why God made me wait eight years as a finalist but I'm glad he did because I think one of the cool byproducts of that is, number one, I got to be completely surprised. Number two, I got to be surprised while I was with not only with Linda, who had been there with me every other time, but all four of my kids, my parents, my brother, my sister. The people I work with at the 49ers were in on it, so they came down after I initially heard the news. Some other friends came by. So it was really a special deal to be able to share it with that many people.
"[Baker] got on a plane and kind of went around the country to all the guys who were selected. That's how they told people. They did a great job of keeping it a secret, and Linda did as well. They completely kept it a secret from me. I think the Hall did a good job because they told us we would find out at a later date. When they showed up it was a wonderful knock on the door."
Lynch was first chosen as a finalist in 2014, one year after he first became eligible following his retirement in 2008. His Tampa Bay teammate, Derrick Brooks, was also a first-time finalist that year, as was one of his former coaches, Tony Dungy. Another Buccaneer great, Warren Sapp, had been voted into the Hall the year before in his first year of eligibility. Brooks would make it into the Hall that year as a first-ballot selection and Dungy would later get his Canton invite in 2016. As the years passed, every single finalist from 2014 would eventually get the call, too, leaving only Lynch on the outside.
But now those doors in Canton are open to one of the greatest safeties in the history of the game. And it's a game Lynch has always loved, as he showed way back in 1993 when he gave up a promising baseball career in the Marlins organization to come to Tampa as a third-round draft pick.
"I'm a team guy and this is an individual honor, but the reality of this honor is that there are so many people who are responsible," said Lynch. "I think you'll hear that in my speech, the gratitude that I have for all the people who played a role in me being on that stage in Canton. And I really believe that – that's not lip service. You can't do this alone. It starts with your family, it goes to teammates, it goes to coaches, it goes to support staff and there are so many people who played an integral in me receiving this honor. I hope I do a good job of communicating that, though it's tough in the six to eight minutes they give us. It's hard to get anything in in six to eight minutes.
"I worked hard to make this speech a reflection of a couple of things: How grateful I am for those people and how much I love the game of football. My actions reflect that. I played the game, then I moved into broadcasting and now I'm doing another whole career. I've been blessed in that regard, but that's because I love this game and want to be a part of it. I think it's the greatest game in the world. Hopefully all those things are reflected that night but I know this – we'll have a great time."
Lynch earned nine Pro Bowl invitations as a player, five with the Buccaneers and four with the Broncos. He won four Associated Press All-Pro awards and was known as one of the most fearsome hitters in league history, as well as a clutch player whose turnovers tended to come at the biggest moments. He won a Super Bowl with the Buccaneers in January of 2003 in his hometown of San Diego and has since been inducted into the Rings of Honors for both the Bucs and the Broncos. His entry into the Hall on Sunday night will be a cause for celebration for three different franchises. That makes the honor even more special for Lynch.
"My heart has been touched by just how wonderful the Glazers has been in terms of their support in this," he said. "They're covering a lot of the costs and want me to make it a great and big celebration. I probably caught them at a good time coming off the Super Bowl, but I think moreso they're just good people. And the same thing with the Niners. Even though I didn't play here I'm part of this family now and they're treating this business as such. Yes, we have another job, but this is one of the greatest honors in our game and I think everyone understands that. The Broncos as well have gone out of their way to make this a special celebration and I'm very grateful for that."
Lynch will be presented at his enshrinement by his eldest son, Jake, who followed in his footsteps as a football player at Stanford. Lynch wanted to make sure his family was represented on the stage, so Jake was the natural choice, but he'll also have a co-presenter in a special video presentation starring Herm Edwards.
Edwards was Lynch's position coach in Tampa from 1996-2000, a stretch that included Lynch's first three Pro Bowl selections and his two seasons as a first-team All-Pro. In that era, the Buccaneers were building a defensive dynasty that eventually checked off the last box on its resume with a dominant performance in Super Bowl XXXVII. Lynch is now the third member of that defense to make it into the Hall; a fourth, cornerback Ronde Barber, was also a finalist for this year's class. Lynch believes he won't be the last player on that defense to make it to Canton.
"I think it's one of the great defenses ever and I don't think you'll get much argument there," he said. "We did it. I remember back when we were playing at that high of a level. Before the Super Bowl, people would say, 'Well, they've done it and they've done it at a high level. They've done it for a long time and they have future Hall of Fame players, but they haven't won a championship.' And we won a championship. There were a lot of 'buts,' but I think ultimately this is another representation of how good that defense was, and I think there's more to come. I know Ronde belongs and I think there are other people who have extremely strong cases, like Simeon [Rice]. I hope that happens for all of them because they were great teammates and they were tremendous players and the more the merrier in the Hall of Fame.
Indeed, the Hall may not be done calling on former Buccaneer greats. But this is Lynch's weekend, and it's one that has been a long time coming. In the end, that long journey only made that knock on his door sweeter.