S John Lynch had the crowd at his retirement press conference laughing with his behind-the-scenes memories
Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety John Lynch spoke for nearly 40 minutes at his retirement press conference on Monday afternoon, but it felt more like 10. The time flew as Lynch, reading from prepared notes but clearly speaking from the heart, was alternately funny and touching, light-hearted and melancholy.
Lynch had the packed team meeting room at One Buccaneer Place in laughter and tears on Monday. He had witty quips, never-before-told stories, heartfelt thank-yous and a generous air of humility.
What he didn't have was the answers to the two big questions he has asked himself during quiet moments this fall while contemplating his next move.
And that's okay, for now at least.
Lynch played the most formative years of his 15-season NFL career under Herm Edwards, now the Kansas City Chiefs Head Coach and previously the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defensive backs coach from 1996-2000. Edwards told Lynch that, when it came time for him to end his playing career, he should ask himself this question: Did you give back to the game as much as it gave to you?
"Did I do that?" said Lynch. "I'm not sure yet, because the game has just given me so much."
The other question comes from within. After pouring his heart and soul into the game for a decade and a half – and be assured, Lynch was that sort of player every day of his career – he wonders this: Is there another vocation out there that will stir the same passion in him as football did?
The answer to the first question may eventually become clear with the perspective that will come from a few years away from the game, or it may not.
However, Lynch knows the second riddle will eventually be resolved, thanks to a lesson he learned during his NFL career: The journey is as important as the destination.
That's a lesson of which he was reminded very recently during a presentation at his son Jake's school. One of the presenters read from a poem entitled "Be Thankful" by an anonymous author. The poem begins:
"Be thankful that you don't already have everything you desire. If you did, what would there be to look forward to? Be thankful when you don't know something, for it gives you the opportunity to learn."
Lynch quoted Edwards frequently during his speech and subsequent question-and-answer session with the assembled media. And he did so again when contemplating the wisdom of that poem and what may lay ahead for him.
"I don't know what the future brings," said Lynch with a big smile, "but I've got my family, and as Herm always said, 'It's all good!'"
Indeed, things are good for Lynch even if his football playing days are now officially over. He has a new gig at Fox Sports that will begin with his first game-calling assignment this weekend. He has a long list of charitable endeavors, many of them through the John Lynch Foundation, that require his time and give him wonderful returns. And, most importantly, he has his wife Linda and four young children, Jake and daughters Lindsay, Lillian and Leah Rose.
His young family has enjoyed all the additional daddy time of the last few months, and so has he. Mike Tomlin, the Pittsburgh Steelers' head coach and Lynch's position coach from 2001-03, wanted to make sure Lynch realizes the value of that sudden family time.
"Mike Tomlin sent me a text today saying that if I was thinking about getting into coaching to call him so he could talk me out of it," said Lynch with a laugh. "He said to spend time with my family and I am really looking forward to doing that. I am coaching little league, the Tigers here, and we are having a lot of fun doing that. I am looking forward to coaching some soccer and things like that."
Lynch said he started to consider retirement late in the 2007 season, when he first began to wonder if his heart was still fully in the game. He went into the 2008 season still trying to find a spot in the league, prompted by his still-burning competitiveness and the desire to experience one more championship season, especially one that would end up in Tampa. That pursuit took him to New England, where he had a brief but eye-opening stay.
Lynch played in several preseason games for the Patriots but both sides soon realized that it wasn't a perfect fit – New England had actually brought him in thinking he might be able to offer some help at linebacker. Still, he was given the start in the Patriots' preseason finale in the Meadowlands against the Giants and, after specifically requesting to be allowed to do so, played the entire game. By the fourth quarter, there were about 10,000 people in the stands, by Lynch's estimate, and this 15-year veteran was running around with a field full of rookies and less established players.
Believe it or not, that was a perfectly good way for his playing career to end, Lynch says.
"I don't think I have ever had so much fun playing football," he gushed. "We had a goal line stand, I made three tackles and I was out there with rookie free agents and I had more fun playing football that day. I played the first real good football I had played that preseason because I just let it go. I had so much fun and I remember walking off that field thinking if that was the last time it was all right and that was an awesome experience."
Lynch's open talk about such hidden moments in his career was one of the reasons his retirement press conference was such a treat. It is the collection of such memorable moments, the fun times spent with lifelong friends behind the scenes, that made his career so enjoyable, he said. One such time occurred in 1998, at the end of what was a near-miss playoff season for the Buccaneers.
After breaking out of a 15-year postseason drought in 1997, the Buccaneers had gone into '98 with high hopes but stumbled to a 4-7 start. Tampa Bay rallied to win four of its last five and actually went into the final weekend with slim playoff hopes remaining. The Bucs had to win at Cincinnati and have several other results go their way to sneak into the final wild card spot.
The Bucs did beat the Bengals, 35-0, despite being without Lynch for most of the game. According to Lynch's media guide bios throughout the years, Lynch sustained a thigh bruise on the game's opening series and was unable to return to the game. He still enjoyed the Bucs' victory but the team's playoff hopes were dashed during their flight home when the Arizona Cardinals got the final spot with a last-second victory over San Diego.
The thing is, the explanation in Lynch's bio, he confessed on Monday, was a convenient bit of misdirection. Lynch did get hurt, but not at the beginning of the Cincy game. The injury actually happened two days earlier, when he and former road teammate Brad Culpepper were goofing around after the team's Friday practice.
The two were trading field goal attempts and Culpepper kept nailing his. Both players hit from 20 yards, then 30 yards, then 40 yards. Amazingly, Culpepper, the defensive tackle, then nailed a 50-yarder. Lynch couldn't let it go unchallenged so he wound up and tried to blast his own long-distance shot.
And felt a pop in his quad. A bit of practice-field tomfoolery, and suddenly the team's starting strong safety and a reigning Pro Bowl safety was out of commission! Lynch tried to gut it out but knew after one play in Cincinnati that he was no good. He recalled Head Coach Tony Dungy's disappointed stare – he can laugh about it now – and admitted that a small part of him was relieved when the Cardinals won because he knew he wouldn't be able to play the next week, either.
As Lynch recounted such stories, his daughter Lillian fell asleep in Linda's arms. His youngest, 19-month-old Leah, had been carried out of the room earlier by grandma because she kept calling for daddy. A row behind Linda and the children were John's parents, who Lynch tried to thank for their support but had to stop to compose himself. Former teammates such as Derrick Brooks, Shelton Quarles, Ronde Barber and Mike Alstott dotted the room. A representative from the Broncos was on hand, as were members of the Bucs staff who had worked closely with Lynch for years. There was an appreciative crowd of media members who had always appreciated Lynch's professional approach on and off the field. Buccaneer Executive Vice Presidents Bryan, Joel and Ed Glazer were in the first row, and Joel gave a rousing introduction to one of the Glazer family's all-time favorite players.
It was, in every way, a celebratory afternoon, even if there were a few tears mixed in. That was perfect for Lynch, who wanted to remember the good times of the past and contemplate the ones to come.
"As I thought about what I wanted to say, of course you get nostalgic but really I wanted it to be about what this game has meant to me and why it has been so special to me," he said. "That is kind of what I feel on this day. I really feel like it is the end of one phase but again it is just starting is so many things, I am looking forward to it."