John Lynch admits he’s not getting much sleep. The 49ers general manager is focused on training camp and evaluating an important quarterback battle between Jimmy Garoppolo and rookie Trey Lance.
But this week, he has been awake before dawn, rewriting the speech he will give Sunday night during his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“This job is vast. It never stops,” Lynch said. “You go from one issue to another. What you realize is as a player, is it hard? Yes. Absolutely. You’re playing against great players, and you’d better be on your game. But you really focus on your role. And everybody around in that organization does. I don’t think I always had a great perspective for that, how many people work so that you can be at your best each day.
“I think it’s pretty obvious I love this game, because I can’t leave it.”
In fact, his passion for football is what made Lynch one of the best safeties in the history of the game, a nine-time Pro Bowl player with the Bucs and Broncos known for bone-jarring hits and clutch plays.
His fire burned hot enough to ignite a Bucs franchise known for its futility to five playoffs appearances and a Super Bowl 37 championship.
But it was Lynch’s patience that was tested when he had to wait eight years as a finalist before getting elected to pro football’s most exclusive team.
In fact, the Hall call came somewhat unexpectedly. Due to the pandemic, David Baker, the CEO and president of the Hall of Fame, pounded on Lynch’s door in San Diego on NFL championship Sunday.
His wife, Linda, was in on the surprise.
“The way they did it was special,” Lynch said. “(Baker) knocking on my door and being completely floored. Then every time I turned, there’s another surprise because our Niners group, (owner) Jed (York) had brought a plane down and I said, ‘What are you guys doing here?’ It kept getting better. ... I didn’t necessarily agree with the wait (to get into the Hall), but that was out of my control and I do think the good Lord makes things happen exactly when they’re supposed to, and that was the time.
“I think I had managed to get myself to believe, you know, it really doesn’t matter. It would be a nice thing and a cherry on top, but it’s not going to change my life. And then all of a sudden, David Baker is there and I think when it really hit me is when he said you’re No. 350. He gave me some crazy numbers that 29,000 have had the privilege of playing in the NFL and you’re No. 350 to be in this Hall. That’s just like, wow.”
Navigating the detours
In fact, Lynch has learned to embrace the detours of his life that led to him being fitted for a gold jacket and clearing a space for his bust with the Class of 2021, which includes quarterback Peyton Manning, defensive back Charles Woodson, receivers Calvin Johnson and Drew Pearson, guard Alan Faneca, coach Tom Flores and scout Bill Nunn.
Lynch’s interest in football came from his dad, who was drafted in the 13th round by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1969.
“I think there’s a part of every little boy that wants to be like their dad,” Lynch said. “I think about it a lot. We had season tickets at the Chargers, but my dad was always working because he was in radio. He’d be up in the suites and he’d be working and he’d be entertaining clients, so my brother, my sister and me would sit in the general admission seats and we had our tickets and were around the same people.
“But early on, there’s always been something about me, I love bringing people together. I love people coming together for a common goal, and I love that about football. You would feel it. You would see it. Dan Fouts to Charlie Joiner and people you don’t know, you’re hugging them and stuff. I think I got the same feeling when I played. It breaks down barriers and it brings people together, and I think that’s always appealed to me.”
But just like a football can take some crazy bounces, so did Lynch’s career.
What if he had decided to play baseball and earn his living from the mound as the first player ever drafted by the Florida Marlins? Or if he hadn’t been moved from quarterback to safety by Stanford coach Bill Walsh? Or if Tony Dungy never came to Tampa Bay? What if Lynch had not made a call as a Fox NFL analyst to Kyle Shanahan asking if he would consider him as a candidate for the GM job with the Niners?
“I was taught as a kid to believe in yourself always, but that belief can get dinged, and we all need somebody to champion you,” Lynch said. “I had people along the way who, for whatever reason, saw something. Going back to my parents and Bill Walsh and Herm Edwards and Monte (Kiffin) and Tony and even Rich McKay for drafting me and Sam Wyche. There’s a lot of people along the way ... I really feel when I’m up there on that stage, I’m bringing a lot of people with me.”
Lynch’s son, Jake, a senior outside linebacker at Stanford, will present him, along with Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards.
Highlights of Lynch’s career will play, including his battles against other Hall of Fame players such as Barry Sanders, Brett Favre and Randy Moss.
“I would say the toughest for me was Barry, because he was just a man amongst boys in terms of his athleticism,” Lynch said. “Your game plan was focused to stop him, and he still made it damn near impossible. Having said that, I opened my career in 1993 against Joe Montana and the Kansas City Chiefs and watched his brilliance. I played against John Elway. I played against Brady and Manning.
“We used to scrimmage against Dan Marino, and he could do things. People talk about Patrick Mahomes now, and that was Marino then. So I’ve been blessed.”
A new start
Lynch’s career in Tampa Bay didn’t have a storybook ending. He was released by GM Bruce Allen in March 2004 after the Bucs said he failed a physical due to stenosis in his neck. He signed with Denver and made four straight Pro Bowls in as many years with the Broncos.
“I wouldn’t change it,” Lynch said. “You know, I was an idealist. I wanted to play my career in one spot. I struggled that a new regime would come in and tell me, ‘We don’t want you here.’
“What happened, happened. ... Yeah, there were some hurt feelings in there, but time heals those things and there’s nothing but positivity. We got to go out and meet a whole new group of friends and people and do great things with our charity in Denver, which became our home for 10 years.”
Lynch, 49, is only the fourth Bucs player to enter the Hall, joining Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp. What they accomplished with Dungy and Jon Gruden in Tampa still is the highlight of his playing career.
“An immense amount of pride,” Lynch said. “Shoot, we not only had to get there, we had to get rid of all this baggage that comes with being on a team that’s known for its ineptitude.”
Lynch’s final game came at Giants Stadium. After losing his starting safety job with Denver in July of 2008, he signed with the Patriots, who wanted to play him at linebacker.
At 37, buried on the depth chart, Lynch asked Bill Belichick if he could play the entire final preseason game against the Giants. He estimates about 10,000 were left in the stadium when his playing career ended.
“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.”
But the true love of his life is Linda, a former tennis player for Southern California who had a brief semi-pro career and the mother of their four children: Jake, Leah Rose, Lindsay and Lillian.
“It’s everything. It really is,” Lynch said, his voice breaking. “I’m not going to do too good of a job if I can’t get through a phone call. I won’t do too well on a stage. She’s been there from the start, and she never stopped believing in me. I think the fact that she was a professional athlete, she understands the rigors, she understands the mindset you must have. She’s one of the most selfless people I’ve ever met.
“When things went awry in Tampa, I’ll never forget being a free agent and wanting to find a perfect place for my family, and Linda always freed me. She said, ‘You go find the best football situation. We’re good. We’ll make it work. As long as we’re together, we’ll go anywhere.’
“That’s how she’s always been, right down to the end,” Lynch continued. “I don’t hesitate for one thing to be able to focus on this job, because I know everything she’s does, she works her tail off, she’s brilliant. I’m so fortunate to take this journey with her. I really feel like we’re going into this thing together. Along with a lot of people, but her more than anyone.”