John Lynch’s Stanford journey: backup quarterback to all-time great

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The San Francisco 49ers finalized a five-year contract with General Manager John Lynch that will tie him to the team through the 2024 season, according to football insider Adam Schefter. The team has yet to announce the deal, but the extension would come as no surprise, following a 13-3 Niners season that culminated in a Super Bowl appearance. 

Lynch, a former safety for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, played both baseball and football at Stanford between 1989 and 1992. Before that, he attended high school in San Diego, California, where he was a member of the baseball, basketball and football teams. He said that the decision to attend Stanford was heavily influenced by his best friend, Tyler Batson, who was recruited to Stanford football a year before Lynch.

“I was up here quite a bit,” Lynch said in a 2010 interview with Stanford Athletics. “[Stanford] was such a wonderful school, first of all. It fit the model … John Elway was the guy whose poster I had on my wall.”

Elway ’83, former Denver Broncos quarterback and NFL Hall-of-Famer, also attended Stanford University. Following a joint Niners-Broncos practice 11 months ago, Lynch said to Broncos Public Relations that Elway was very integral in his motivation as a high school quarterback. 

As a junior in high school, Lynch had over 1,600 passing yards and over 500 rushing yards. In the first game of his senior year, however, Lynch broke his ankle, effectively ending his season. Stanford, though, remained interested in him, and Lynch committed to the school.

“I wanted to go to a place that had a winning football program, and Stanford wasn’t that at the time,” Lynch said. New coach at the time Denny Green was persuasive, though.

Initially, Lynch was second on the quarterback depth chart. In his sophomore season Lynch said he thought “[he] had won the quarterback job” — but instead, he was relegated to backup once again.

“I was devastated,” Lynch said. “I thought about transferring … about giving up on football. I wanted to be on the field.”

Instead, Lynch decided to approach Green to figure out a solution. Lynch recalled Dave Tipton, Stanford’s linebacker coach between 1989 and 1991, telling him that he would make a great safety or outside linebacker. So, Lynch decided not to transfer. Instead, he requested a position change.

Lynch occasionally played defense in high school. While Green tried to convince Lynch to stay at quarterback, he was adamant about switching to safety.

“I played really well the first couple games,” Lynch told Stanford Athletics

Lynch was drafted by the Florida Marlins in the second round of the 1992 Major League Baseball draft. He began debating whether to play baseball or football. At the time, it was the end of his junior season, and Bill Walsh replaced Green as head coach. 

“You were the best defensive player on the field,” Lynch recalled Walsh telling him. “I would love to have you back. You could play [safety] at the Pro-Bowl level.”

Lynch was convinced to come back. His senior season, in 1992, the Cardinal finished 10-3 — only the second 10-win season in team history — with victories over powerhouses UCLA, USC, Cal, Notre Dame and Penn State. 

Lynch had his breakout game against Notre Dame in the middle of the 1992 season.

“I made every tackle … I started feeling like I was in a zone,” Lynch said. “We were down 16-0. I think that’s the best football game I ever played.”

Lynch specifically recalled forcing a fumble with a hit on Jerome Bettis, Hall of Fame runningback. Stanford surged back to win the game 33-16, handing the Irish their first loss of the season.

His senior season, Lynch totaled four interceptions and a touchdown return, along with 76 tackles, resulting in his selection as a second-team All-American.

Lynch also discussed his crucial role as a leader of Stanford’s defense.

“Part of being a leader is coming out of your comfort zone,” Lynch said. “I was a really shy kid in college, but you get me out on that football field and a little switch would flip.”

Reflecting on his Stanford experience, Lynch told Stanford Athletics that “there’s this assumption when you go to Stanford … people think you’re a lot smarter than sometimes you ever are.” 

Even so, Lynch said the Stanford experience is mostly “about the people you meet.” While at Stanford, Lynch was a member of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity house.

“The only regret I have at Stanford is it was such a blur to me,” he said. Lynch visited his family each summer, and left early his senior year for baseball spring training — playing two sports consumed a majority of his time.

In the 1993 NFL draft, Lynch was selected by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the 82nd pick. For the first two seasons of his career, Lynch played special teams and remained a backup strong safety. In his third season, Lynch earned the starting role, launching a 15-year career spanning nine Pro-Bowl selections, four All-Pro honors and a Super Bowl XXXVII ring.

Reflecting on his career beginnings, Lynch said that his “college career and pro career really paralleled each other.”

“It wasn’t like I showed up as a freshman and tore it up … I went to the worst franchise in football and struggled to get on the field,” Lynch said. 

Encouragement from former college coach Walsh pushed Lynch to keep going, eventually resulting in his starting role with the Buccaneers. 

Lynch retired in 2008 after a four-year stint with the Denver Broncos. He has been a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame on seven occasions, but has yet to be selected for induction. Although, he was inducted into the Buccaneers Ring of Honor in 2016 and the Stanford Athletics Hall of Fame in 2010.

Following his retirement, Lynch joined NFL on Fox as a color commentator. In 2017, he was hired as the General Manager of the 49ers. His contribution to the Niners’ dramatic 2019 turnaround led to his selection as the 2019 NFL Executive of the Year.

Outside of football, Lynch and his wife Linda launched the John Lynch Foundation in 1998. The Foundation includes programs such as Salute the Stars, which recognizes student-athletes who excel in academics and community. Additionally, the Lynch Family Legacy Scholarships provide financial assistance to student-athletes in the Tampa and Denver areas. 

“[My wife and I] both were raised with families that believed it was … a responsibility to give back to your community,” Lynch said. He realized that the NFL was a “wonderful platform” to effect change. His foundation has sent over 60 kids to four-year education institutions with scholarships.

Contact Viraj Mehta at viraj28m ‘at’ gmail.com.

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Viraj Mehta is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily's Summer Journalism Workshop.