TAMPA — The man in a fine suit is saying goodbye. Going on 45 minutes now, he has been laughing and crying, telling stories and delivering perfectly timed punch lines.
He is thanking uncommon teammates and wonderful coaches. He is recalling magical moments and counting his blessings for lifelong relationships. On and on he goes, and the common thread never once occurs to him.
It is you, John Lynch.
You helped build it all.
Before Tony Dungy and Malcolm Glazer, there was Lynch. Before Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp, there was Lynch. Before filled stadiums, pewter-colored statues and the Lombardi Trophy, there was always John Lynch.
In the current community of Buccaneers football, Lynch was the earliest settler. The first guy to wander into, and somehow thrive, in what was once the NFL's black hole. And that, as much as anything else, is what we should remember now that he is walking away forever.
Lynch officially announced his retirement Monday after 15 seasons, nine Pro Bowl appearances and one indelible imprint on this market. His last four seasons were spent in Denver and his last few weeks were miscast in New England, but Lynch's name will always be linked with Tampa Bay.
This is where he first found fame, and this is where his impact was the greatest. It is not just that he became a star player or a team captain; it's how he embraced a community and how we loved him back.
"It was his presence, that's what I think about most," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "It was his ability to influence people by the way he played football and the way he lived his life. He just rubbed off on you.
"He had a huge impact turning this team around. Obviously, most of it was Tony's work, but if you're looking for a player, I can't think of anybody more so than John."
And so today, it is fascinating to think of how it might not have happened. How it might have gone a different direction or turned out in another city.
For in 1991, John Lynch was not much of an NFL prospect. A quarterback-turned-safety at Stanford, he started three games as a junior. A second-round draft pick of the Florida Marlins as a pitcher, Lynch had pretty much decided to give up football as a senior to concentrate on baseball.
"Then along comes Bill Walsh, and I'm ready to go off to spring training," Lynch said. "He tells me, not only can I help the Stanford team, but I can play in the NFL at Pro Bowl level at safety. I was trying to be as respectful as possible, but I said, 'What makes you think that? I've started three games in college.'
"Not only did he tell me, but he had a tape. I only had about 10 good plays, but he would show me a play of myself and then a play of Ronnie Lott. He was a good salesman because after that day I called the Marlins and said, 'I'm going to come, but I'm also going to play football my senior year.' "
The following spring Lynch had become a mid-level NFL prospect, but there was no real reason for the Bucs to have any particular interest in him. That is, until Walsh called then-Bucs coach Sam Wyche.
Wyche had been a player for Walsh in Cincinnati and an assistant coach for him in San Francisco, and his old boss was calling with a tip that would help change the course of a franchise.
"Bill called me and said, 'Don't let this guy get away. He's the best leader and the best hitter you can hope for,' " Wyche said. "At the time, our competition was baseball. He was a bit of a gamble in the draft, so we had to make sure John wanted to play football. I did a total recruiting pitch for him.
"John and his wife, Linda, are such a great couple, they're the kind of people you want in your life and in your community. They became like real-life angels living among us."
And so it was Lynch who lived through the orange uniforms, the half-empty bleachers and the losing seasons. He was here two years before Brooks and Sapp, and three years before Dungy.
He saw the Glazers buy the team, he saw players arrive, and he eventually saw a new stadium built. He began the John Lynch Foundation and has seen it help more than 50 high school students go on to colleges.
Along the way, he saw a franchise change its identity. With Sapp on the line, Brooks in the middle and Lynch in the secondary, the Bucs became one of the fiercest defenses in NFL history.
It is hard to imagine two more disparate personalities than Sapp and Lynch. They came from different coasts, different cultures, different worlds. Sapp is loud and obnoxious. Lynch is quiet and polite. From the time Sapp arrived, he worked on Lynch's last nerve. Their relationship finally came to a crossroads on a flight home after a loss when Sapp started flipping playing cards at the back of Lynch's head.
"I'd had enough of him, he was always egging me on," Lynch said. "I told him, 'Warren, I don't care how big you are, I will whup your you-know-what if you throw one more card.' And he did, he threw one more card. I got up, and (Trent) Dilfer and Brooks were there to catch my (punch) or I don't know what would have happened.
"But right then, Sapp said, 'Okay, now we can go to war together.' And we've been great ever since."
It would take another half-dozen seasons — and a collection of Pro Bowl appearances among them — but Sapp, Brooks and Lynch eventually took the Bucs to a Super Bowl title.
Wyche was long gone. Dungy had left, too. Hugh Culverhouse had died, and Tampa Stadium had been demolished. But Lynch was here to see a franchise go from nowhere to the top of the world.
"The fact he played a central role in all of it," said his father, John Lynch Sr., "he takes incredible pride in."
So, when it was time to leave pro football behind, John Lynch retired to the place where it began. And he marveled about the journey as much as the destination.
"I think about a lot of things," Lynch said. "If it wasn't for Bill Walsh, I was gone to play baseball. I wonder would I have made it? Or what if I had stayed at quarterback? There are so many things you think about. But this is the way it turned out, and I'm blessed that it did."
So are we, John.
So are we.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]