TAMPA — His heart told him his playing days were probably over. But in his head, John Lynch kept thinking about the Super Bowl in Tampa after this season. If he could get with the right team and win a championship, he could announce his retirement where it all began, the perfect ending to a 15-year career.
After losing his starting safety job with Denver in July, he signed with the Patriots, who wanted to play him some at linebacker.
But buried on the depth chart and lost in the Patriots' thick playbook, Lynch, 37, finally went to coach Bill Belichick and asked if he could play the entire final preseason game against the Giants at the Meadowlands.
By the end of the game, Lynch estimates there were maybe 10,000 people left in the stands as the nine-time Pro Bowl player competed against college free agents, many of whom would never make an NFL roster.
"I finally just let it go, and I was playing some good football that night," he said. "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."
On Monday, a block east of Raymond James Stadium, across the street from where two of his four children were born, Lynch officially announced his retirement at One Buc Place.
Surrounded by family, friends and former teammates, Lynch gave an emotional speech, filled with as much laughter as tears, and recounted many of the highlights of a career that some believe could lead him to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Lynch, who played 11 seasons with the Bucs and four with the Broncos, said it was important for him to represent both organizations (Buc'n' Bronco?) during his retirement. In fact, he said when he arrived in Tampa on Friday, he even questioned whether he was doing the right thing.
But after standing on the field as an honorary captain before Sunday's game against the Vikings, he knew he had made the right choice.
"When I went out to Denver, when you're playing, you're so focused on trying to do things out there," Lynch said. "But sometimes you forget the past. In coming here (Sunday), it was good. When I got off the plane, I felt a little weird. Am I doing the right thing? I went to the game and it all felt like home again."
Lynch took everyone on a trip down memory lane, from his decision to choose football over baseball — he was the first player to throw a pitch in the Florida Marlins organization — thanks to some convincing by then-Stanford coach Bill Walsh. A converted quarterback, Lynch played only three games for the Cardinal as a junior, but Walsh showed him some film of his best plays compared to those of Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott, and the message was sent. "And I only had about 10 good plays that year," Lynch said.
A third-round pick by the Bucs in 1993, Lynch began a core of players that turned the laughingstock of the NFL into perennial playoff contenders and eventually Super Bowl champions.
"We were the Yucks," he said. "We were the worst franchise in football. But having a belief and looking each other in the eye and knowing we can change this thing and we will change this thing, I think it made it that much sweeter when we did."
Surrounded by former teammates such as Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber, Mike Alstott, Warrick Dunn, Shelton Quarles and Jermaine Phillips, Lynch revealed some of the private moments he enjoyed in his career.
Among them: He pulled a quad muscle before the final game of the 1998 season in Cincinnati during a Saturday morning field goal competition with nosetackle Brad Culpepper.
"This was one of those cold … days, about 30 degrees," Lynch said. "The guy makes a 50-yard field goal, so I've got to go back there and kick it. I snapped my quad. I tried to play the next day and on the first play realized I couldn't because of my quad. Coach (Tony) Dungy was nice enough to say on the first play of the game, John Lynch pulled his quad on a Corey Dillon screen."
Lynch retires ranked second among safeties with nine Pro Bowl selections. Hall of Famer Ken Houston had 10. He amassed 1,277 tackles, 26 interceptions, 13 sacks, 16 forced fumbles, eight fumble recoveries and 100 passes defensed.
"I remember my first tackle in 1993. … I made a tackle on Marcus Allen. And Marcus Allen was a guy I grew up watching him play high school football and I started jumping up and down, only to get swatted across the facemask by Hardy Nickerson, my good buddy and mentor. And he said, 'Act like you've been here before, rook.' And I was kind of shaken, but then he gave me a wink and said, 'Nice job.' "
Lynch will be eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in five years, but several voters told the Times there is a bias against true safeties. "If that were ever to happen, it would be incredibly humbling," Lynch said.
Politics might interest Lynch (he is a Republican), but he laughed at an erroneous report that he might run for governor of Colorado. He plans to remain in Denver for at least another year, maybe more, so his son and three daughters can attend their schools. He has been hired by Fox and will be the color commentator on the Jaguars-Vikings game Sunday.
For now, he wants to remain around the game.
"I talked to (Chiefs coach and former Bucs assistant) Herm Edwards the other night and he told me to stop for a second and ask yourself, 'Did you give back to the game?' " Lynch said. "I asked myself, 'Did you give back as much as the game gave you?' The game has given me so much, I can't answer that."