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A conversation with John Lynch

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One of the most well-rounded, intelligent and genuine guys to have played in the NFL, John Lynch was once a student-athlete here at Stanford. A two-sport star in baseball and football and a scholar in the classroom, Lynch overcame much adversity on his journey to becoming a nine-time Pro Bowler and a Super Bowl champion. Lynch has since set aside his pads and the demanding schedule of an NFL player, but his glory days are not over just yet.

Stanford recently announced that on Nov. 5, it will formally induct Lynch into the Stanford Athletics Hall of Fame.

“It is a tremendous honor,” Lynch said in regard to his future induction.

Having spent several years away from the Farm, he was somewhat surprised to receive a message from Stanford’s head football coach, Jim Harbaugh, who was the first to congratulate him on the induction.

“It is a call you don’t expect to get, and it was really a great moment,” Lynch said.

The four years (1989-1992) Lynch played on the Stanford football team were by no means marked purely by success and glory. The Stanford football team from 1989-92 experienced extreme lows and some pretty spectacular highs. In 1989, the team went 3-8, but in Lynch’s senior year, under the direction of Bill Walsh, the team went 10-3, winning the Blockbuster Bowl.

“I think it’s very easy at Stanford, that there is a built-in excuse–we can’t get all the kids into school,” he said. “The one thing that I am thankful for is that we had a group that wasn’t going to listen to that conventional wisdom; we were going to try to break it, and we did. We took a tremendous amount of pride in turning the program around.”

John sees a bit of his own mentality of unwavering motivation and dedication in the 2010 football team.

“I think the similarity is that they believe,” he said. “I think my senior year, Miami was the number one team in the country, but by the end of the year, we felt like we could have given them everything they could handle. I see that same type of feeling and belief with this team–don’t tell me why we can’t, we are going to. The way they are playing right now, they are making a believer out of me.”

Lynch was recruited to Stanford as a quarterback, but after failing to secure the starting position, he transitioned to safety in the 1991 season.

“I thought I had won it, and I was really crushed when I didn’t get it, so I almost quit football,” Lynch said.

With baseball still very much a part of his life, Lynch had to make a decision: football or baseball. In his junior year, he was drafted by the Florida Marlins in baseball’s amateur draft.

However, newly appointed head football coach Bill Walsh, who won three Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers, saw something special in John Lynch–a talent that could not go unrecognized. Lynch played merely 30 percent of the defensive snaps his junior year and was benched after his third game, so it came as a bit of a shock when Walsh called him into his office one day.

“He said, I know you have an opportunity to play professional baseball, but I’ve watched your snaps, and I think you can be a Pro Bowl football player in the National Football League,” Lynch remembered.

Walsh went as far as to make a tape of a former player, the great Ronnie Lott, to compare Lynch’s skills with one of the best and hardest hitting defensive backs in the NFL. Lynch was convinced, and, after playing in the minor leagues in the spring of his junior year, he returned to Stanford for his senior year to play football and to develop into a phenomenal football player.

“I knew that I loved baseball, but I was passionate about the sport of football, and really, that’s what I wanted to do,” Lynch said. “I wanted to give it a shot, and I did, and the rest is history.”

In 1992, his senior year, John played the game of his life against Notre Dame. Down 16-0 against one of the nation’s top teams, Lynch was sidelined early in the game after a concussion, yet in true John Lynch fashion, he returned to the game to lead his Cardinal to victory (and the only loss for the Fighting Irish that year).

“I think that was the game that propelled me and caused the NFL scouts to really look at me,” he said. “At the time, Notre Dame was at the very top, a perennial powerhouse, and we went back there, and it really felt like we had arrived. Once we did that, and the way we did that, it made it really special.”

In his senior year, Lynch quickly blossomed into one of the most respected defensive backs in the country, earning first team All-Pac-10 and second team All-America honors.

In 1993, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Lynch in the third round of the NFL Draft. He played in Tampa for 11 years and won a Super Bowl ring in Super Bowl XXXVII. After his time with the Bucs, Lynch went on to play for the Denver Broncos from 2004-07. For Lynch, earning the opportunity to play in the NFL was something he had dreamed about since he was a young boy.

“It was really a dream come true, and I feel very blessed for having the opportunity to play for so long,” he said.

It was not the money or the fame that drove Lynch to play at the professional level–it was his incredible passion for the game. When he joined the Bucs in 1993, they were considered one of the worst teams in the NFL. Lynch played for the Bucs when the stadium seats were empty and when their record was well under .500, but John, believing in himself, his teammates and the organization, led the Buccaneers to their best season and only Super Bowl title.

Though Lynch is generally mild-mannered off the field, he had no hesitations on it. He is considered to be one of the hardest-hitting players ever to play in the NFL. Whether you were his brother-in-law, John Allred of the Chicago Bears, or his on-field enemy, he was going to punish you for carrying the football. One hit that stands out in Lynch’s mind was a hit against the Detroit Lions’ Barry Sanders–he remembers being one of the few to really get a good hit on Sanders.

“Barry, who never said anything, came up to me at the Pro Bowl that year and told me it was the hardest he’d ever been hit,” Lynch said, chuckling.

Lynch married his wife, Linda, prior to joining the NFL, and before every game, Linda would slip a note in either his playbook or his luggage.

“I would read that note, and it would get me focused and ready to go play,” Lynch said. “That is really the one routine I carried with me throughout my career.”

Lynch has four young kids, whose pictures he would also carry with him. When his family was in the stands, he remembers looking them in the eye one time before heading out onto the field. Lynch, a family man first and a football player second, played every game with his family close to his heart.

John Lynch is held in high esteem not solely because he was a star player and a team captain, but because he was more than just number 47 on the playing field. Lynch embraced the community, and the community loved him back. Lynch looks forward to returning to the Farm on Nov. 5 to celebrate his induction, and the Stanford community will welcome him back with open arms.