John Lynch played in the very first game at Raymond James Stadium, before there was a single Ring of Honor name on the stadium façade. He played there before there was a single postseason game in the building, before tens of thousands of 'battle flags' were waved, before a Super Bowl championship banner was raised.
The Buccaneers won that game, on September 20, 1998, over the Chicago Bears. Lynch had five tackles and a pass defensed, and he also forced and recovered a fumble by Curtis Conway that was a key part of a 27-point rally after the Bears had taken a 15-0 lead into halftime. There were 64,328 fans packing the Raymond James Stadiums stands that day, in full throat, and they created an instant home field advantage.
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Lynch played exactly 50 games that counted in Raymond James Stadium as a Buccaneer, 48 in the regular season and two in the postseason, and every one of them was a sellout. That was the result of a massive franchise turnaround in the mid-'90s, in which Lynch played a major role, thrilling a community that had waited a long time to see the team succeed.
"What I think I remember even more is that when we were 4-12 and 5-11 there were still about 40,000 strong that were passionate fans," said Lynch, thinking back to his early days in Tampa, which began when he was drafted in the third round in 1993. "It's probably those people that you appreciate the most. Monte used to always say, when we started to get good, 'Come on, jump on the bandwagon. We don't care. Jump on.' But we also I think, all of us – particularly the guys who had been here for a while – were aware that there were some fans who stuck with us through thick and thin, when things weren't so pretty."
On Thursday night, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Atlanta Falcons and seek to pull within a half-game of first place in the NFC South, Lynch will be honored during what is sure to be an emotional halftime ceremony. His name and #47 will be added to the wall as the ninth member of the Buccaneers Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium. He will join some of his former teammates during that Super Bowl era – Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, Mike Alstott and Paul Gruber – as well as Lee Roy Selmon, John McKay, Jimmie Giles and Doug Williams.
And when the fans packing Raymond James Stadium on this particular night let Lynch know how they feel about him, it will feel like he's surrounded by tens of thousands of close friends.
"I think once we started to turn it around, the connection that this team had with the community, I think it was really rare and unique," said Lynch. "We felt like we really knew the fans. We had guys that not only played at a really high level and competed at the highest of levels, but we had guys who did things in the community, led by our head coach, Coach [Tony] Dungy. There was a connection with the fans. They saw us grow up and they felt like they knew us."
Lynch's first three Buccaneer teams won a total of 18 games, and as he'll readily admit, he was not personally an instant hit on the field. That was partly circumstantial, as (Lynch believes) Defensive Coordinator Floyd Peters wasn't exactly enamored of his skill set. When Lynch did get on the field in the early years, it was often in sort of a hybrid linebacker role, and it didn't produce outstanding results. Obviously, he did eventually settle into the safety position, to put it mildly, earning five Pro Bowl invites as a Buccaneer and four more in four seasons in Denver. He is still known as one of the hardest hitters in league history, and he's been a Hall of Fame finalist the past two years.
Lynch's own rise began in 1995 under Defensive Coordinator Rusty Tillman and really took off when Dungy and his staff arrived in '96. Defensive Backs Coach Herm Edwards showed Lynch tape of Denver's Steve Atwater and told him that's what they wanted Lynch to be. The Buccaneers broke a 15-year playoff drought in 1997, made the NFC Championship Game in 1999 and won it all in 2002.
Through it all, Lynch and his teammates felt a growing connection with the Bucs' fan base.
"They saw us go through mistakes early on and then start to figure things out," he said. "I think it really created that unique atmosphere, that feeling from player to fan and fan to player, in that era was something special. You hope they can find that again. I don't know if you can ever recreate that again, but it certainly made playing so fun. And I think when we eventually did turn it all the way around – I only won one, so I imagine winning a Super Bowl would be great anyway – but I think it made it even a little bit more special for us because of where we had been."
In addition to the fans, Lynch will have another cheering section on Thursday night, as many of his former Buccaneer teammates are coming back to share in his big evening. That's important to Lynch because he feels like his individual honor, his name going up on the stadium for posterity, should be shared with many others.
"This is one of those deals that you won't know what to expect until you experience it," he said of the Ring of Honor ceremony. "You kind of feel like you're taking [with you] a lot of those people who helped change the reality of who we were as an organization and the perceptions. I feel like I'm taking them up there with me. With my name up there, I think it represents [all of them]."