Column: From Solana Beach to Canton, John Lynch’s Hall of Fame journey
Family support, Air Coryell factored into athletic career of player now set for induction at Pro Football Hall of Fame
Because football experts can whiff, too, the Pro Football Hall of Fame has yet to receive Don Coryell into its ranks. However, come Sunday, Aug. 8, when a new Hall class assembles in Canton, Ohio, the Coryell influence once again will be seen and heard.
John Lynch Jr., the Super Bowl-winning safety from Solana Beach whose bronze bust awaits him at the football shrine, grew up in the exhilarating Air Coryell era. His dad, John Sr., said Lynch watched the San Diego Chargers with an intensity that foreshadowed his 15-year NFL career and current role as general manager of the San Francisco 49ers.
The San Diego weather was hot, the sunlight fierce in September 1981 when the elder Lynch, a former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker and NFL fan himself, took his son and some 20 children to Mission Valley for a game.
The heat-lamp conditions sent the children away, far from their seats.
“All of the other kids were out running in the circle entrances,” Lynch’s dad said of the shaded pedestrian silos at Jack Murphy Stadium.
“And there’s John,” the father said. “He was a towhead as a kid. He was in the bright sun. Burned to the crisp. But he never left his seat because he was watching every play. He was a great, great student of the game, and he loved it. He just had every expectation that he was going to play in the NFL or the major leagues.”
The Chargers were in the midst of winning their third consecutive AFC West title. Air Coryell went on to lead the NFL in scoring, a feat it repeated in 1982.
Lynch, who was celebrating his 10th birthday, would return to Mission Valley as a three-time All-Pro with the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In the final Super Bowl played in San Diego, the defense Lynch directed from the back end dominated the Oakland Raiders, helping to earn the franchise its first Lombardi Trophy.
Much like future football Hall of Famers from San Diego such as Marcus Allen (Lincoln High), Junior Seau (Oceanside) and Terrell Davis (Lincoln), who also fed off the presence of the local NFL team, Lynch drew from rare physical gifts.
His father played for Drake University in Iowa and, briefly, the Steelers. His mother, Cathy, played tennis and field hockey, and has run marathons.
“From the time John was about 18 months old, you could just tell,” said John Sr. “He was just big and strong. He was better in almost everything he did than anyone else.”
Lynch grew up in affluence. The family home bordered Lomas Santa Fe Country Club, a few miles from the beach.
Surfing in nearby waters was fun, and Lynch had won swimming races in freestyle.
He chose to immerse himself in football, a sport not exactly synonymous with posh coastal digs.
“I didn’t push him in the least,” said his father, who was a San Diego radio executive for many years before serving a few years as vice chairman and CEO of the Union-Tribune. “He was a very committed kid.”
John and Cathy set high standards, insisting John and younger siblings Ryan and Kara make the most of their abilities.
“Lynches don’t get Bs,” they told their three children.
(Earning an A for humor, after she once brought home a report card with Cs and Ds, Kara noted the absence of Bs. Later she became an A student.)
John Jr. took good advantage of his father’s material support.
Beginning at age 8, he powered through family workouts on Nautilus equipment at a gym where his dad took him and Ryan, then 5.
The boy devoted an hour each day to performing exercises of the Pete Egoscue method. The daily routine, said both father and son, created a stable foundation that may have factored into Lynch’s durable NFL career.
John, who was drafted higher in baseball than football after attending Stanford, exhausted himself in the batting cage his dad had installed at the home.
In contrast to the laid-back vibe of Solana Beach, his dad personally modeled a highly competitive presence, particularly as a Little League coach. Despite business travel that took him out of San Diego, often to New York, the elder Lynch said he never missed a Little League game played by John and Ryan.
“We showed to the kids that it was very important,” he said. “They got the idea that being able to compete to win and to live up to your potential was really important.” (Sometimes, the father’s competitive zeal went too far; Lynch Sr., who had the youth team he coached hit off his private batting cage, shared that he was ejected from multiple Little League games. A teenage umpire’s calls had set him off. “I think back now and say, ‘What was I thinking?’ ” he said.)
John Jr. often has recounted a story illustrative of his dad’s intensity. During the son’s senior year with Stanford, playing at Notre Dame in front of family, Lynch suffered a slight concussion that sidelined him. (Back then, in 1992, medical staffers were less likely than now to shut down a concussed player.)
John Sr. was watching from field-level seats near Stanford’s bench as his son sat out three series. Chartering a bus, the father had led a family delegation to South Bend after flying to Chicago, near where he grew up.
He made his way near the sideline, and hollered to his son.
“I gave him quite a bit of enthusiasm,” the father said. “In today’s world, they probably would have arrested me. But I said, ‘Get your ass back out on the field.’ And, he heard me.”
Lynch returned to the game and mustered a performance he has rated the best of his career, NFL games included.
Stanford coach Bill Walsh’s statement to Lynch months earlier when explaining why moving from backup quarterback to safety would serve him well — that he had the potential of Ronnie Lott, the bone-jarring, Hall of Fame-bound 49ers safety Walsh had drafted and coached — suddenly made a lot more sense to folks who saw Lynch lay into the favored Fighting Irish.
Lynch leveled massive Jerome Bettis, causing the future Hall of Fame running back to fumble. He intercepted a pass by Rick Mirer — a future NFL starter— near the goal line. Stanford, which had trailed 16-0, won the game 33-16.
Sunday in Canton, what will Lynch say in his speech, when he follows Peyton Manning to the Hall of Fame podium?
He will celebrate football. He will tout its ability to connect Americans in a divisive time, while noting he and teammates from a broad spectrum of background were able to get along and pursue shared goals.
More than 15 family members will be in the audience for the eight-minute speech. And if he peers into the crowd, Lynch shouldn’t be surprised if the gruffest family member is wiping away tears.
“We’re all Irish,” his dad said. “I cry when I mow the lawn.”
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