Ballcarriers feared John Lynch's big hits on the field, but his peers also respected him immensely for his approach to the game and the community
A story from 1996 came out of the vault and was passed around last January when Tampa Bay Buccaneers great Mike Alstott announced his retirement from the NFL.
The tale springs from Alstott's first training camp with the Buccaneers. To paraphrase the storyteller, then-Defensive Backs Coach Herm Edwards pulled one of his men off to the side and pointed across the field to Alstott. "Stay away from him," said Edwards. "He's a clavicle-breaker."
It's a neat story, probably true, but here's the weird part: The man upon whose shoulder Edwards laid his hand as he passed on that advice, that man just might have been the immovable object that could have taken on Alstott's unstoppable force.
That man was safety John Lynch, who may even end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Alstott and Lynch managed to avoid creating any earth-shaking collisions on the practice field, instead joining forces to help turn a floundering franchise into a champion. Lynch's career — which also included four strong seasons in Denver — had many, many great moments, but none better than when he hoisted the Lombardi Trophy after Tampa Bay's victory in Super Bowl XXXVII.
On Monday, Lynch will once again join his former teammate, this time off the field, as he plans to announce his retirement from the NFL in the same One Buccaneer Place meeting room in which Alstott uttered those difficult words in January. The entire press conference will be carried live on Buccaneers.com, beginning at 3:00 p.m. ET.
Wide receivers and running backs will surely rejoice, but it will be a bittersweet day for Lynch and Buccaneer fans, as another of the team's enduring stars hangs up his cleats for good. In 15 seasons with the Buccaneers (1993-2003) and Denver Broncos (2004-07), Lynch racked up 1,277 tackles, intercepted 26 passes and built a well-deserved reputation as one of the most devastating hitters of his era.
It is that legacy, more so than any statistic, that is sure to stick with Lynch in his retirement. During Lynch's last few seasons in Denver, Sports Illustrated compiled its list of the 25 hardest hitters in the history of the NFL. Lynch made the list, smack dab in the middle of such legends as Ronnie Lott, Lawrence Taylor and Jack Tatum.
"It was an honor and a privilege to have played with John for so many years," said Alstott, who was drafted by the Bucs three years after the team took Lynch in the third round. "I was just glad to have been on his team because of the punishing blows he inflicted on opposing running backs. John was the true definition of a leader, hard worker and punishing hitter, but more so a great human being. The NFL and the game of football won't be the same without number 47 lurking in the defensive backfield."
Lynch never shied away from contact — it was clear that he enjoyed delivering the devastating hit. He was technically sound, not vicious. Lynch used to describe his method of tackling a player as trying to hit through three players at once.
But he was more than just a hitter. At one point in his prime, Lynch developed the nickname, "The Closer," due to a sudden penchant for making game-clinching interceptions. For instance, his pick in the closing seconds at St. Louis in 2001 put an end to a 24-17 Buccaneers victory in what had turned into a thrilling rivalry between two of the league's top teams. Lynch had 23 interceptions in his 11 Buccaneer seasons and was remarkably consistent in that regard, going eight straight years with at least two picks in each campaign.
He was, in short, a critical piece of the puzzle for a franchise that was trying to turn 15 straight losing seasons into perennial success. Lynch eventually became part of what was known as "The Big Three," along with Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp, at the center of the most consistently excellent defense of the last two decades.
Tampa Bay's defense ranked among the league's top 10 units for an amazing nine straight years beginning in 1997, seven of those with Lynch in the middle of the action. The Bucs' pass defense ranked second in the NFL in both 1998 and 1999 and then was far and away the league's best in 2002 en route to the Super Bowl title. The numbers that year were almost ridiculous: 10 touchdown passes allowed, 35 interceptions, 50.8% of passes completed against them and a combined opponent passer rating of 48.4
"John Lynch was in the perfect system at the perfect time," said former teammate Dave Moore. "He could come up and run support, was smart enough to read pass routes on defense to be able to pick off balls and was really an invaluable guy to Tampa and its success when it really needed him."
Lynch's success earned him five Pro Bowl berths as a Buccaneer, and four more after he went to Denver. That total of nine Pro Bowls is more than every other safety in NFL history other than Hall of Famer Ken Houston, who was an all star 10 times. More importantly, it helped his team reach the pinnacle of the profession, as the Buccaneers' defense keyed a successful run to the Super Bowl XXXVII title in 2002.
At least one of his teammates (and certainly many more) thinks all of that should translate into a spot in the Hall near Houston.
"It was an honor and a pleasure to play four years with John Lynch," said Denver's Pro Bowl cornerback, Champ Bailey. "I learned a lot from him. John was one of the most intense players I have ever played with, and he is a definite Hall of Famer."
Lynch's hard-hitting persona on the field earned him respect around the league, but no more than his tireless work outside of football did. Few NFL players did more for their communities or were more gracious off the field than Lynch, who formed his own Foundation in 2000 with a mission to develop young leaders.
In 2006, Lynch won the Bart Starr Award, which is voted on by players throughout the league in order to recognize a player who shows outstanding character and leadership in the home, on the field and in the community. He was also presented with the Byron "Whizzer" White Award, which is given annually to the NFL player who serves his team, community and country in the spirit White established during and after his career.
Lynch's community work, through his foundation and more, will go on, of course. But on Monday Lynch officially brought his on-field career to an end. Though his four years in Denver definitely added to that great career, it is a treat for Buccaneers fans that Lynch will return to Tampa Bay to make his announcement. NFL fans — unlike wide receivers with middle-of-the-field assignments — would prefer to see Lynch still patrolling the field. Getting to see him off in style will be the next best thing.