Right At Home
Joey Johnston, The Tampa Tribune, published 4 October 2004

And at free safety ... That's all anyone heard of John Lynch's long-awaited re-introduction to fans at Raymond James Stadium. Who could make out the rest? Noise swelled louder, from all those people wearing No. 47 jerseys. Blue Bronco jerseys. Red Buc jerseys. Even the creamsicle orange version, pulled from mothballs. This was a unified crowd. Never has a visiting player felt more at home. ``It was overwhelming,'' said Lynch's mother, Cathy. ``We all had tears in our eyes.''

As for Lynch, the five-time Pro Bowler who was discarded after 11 seasons with the Bucs and signed by the Denver Broncos last winter, he had a football game to play. And play he did, good enough to earn the game ball from Coach Mike Shanahan in Denver's 16-13 victory against the Bucs. When it was over, after hugging scores of ex-teammates and posing for photographs, Lynch was able to let loose. He walked toward the tunnel and allowed himself one last look at the fans. That's when he fought back tears. ``It's amazing what John got here,'' Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said. ``What a relationship he had with this community.''

And it isn't over. ``I can't express in words what that [ovation] meant to me,'' Lynch said. ``I just want the people to know the feelings are mutual. I tried to treat it as another football game. But really, it's not going to be like that. When you play with guys for that long, they're family.''

Family. That's Lynch, too. Some police officers working Broncos detail requested the assignment months ago, just so they could visit again with No. 47. In the West stands, Kevin Mehl of Fort Myers, a season-ticket holder since the beginning, wore a custom-made Lynch jersey (half- Buc, half-Bronco). ``You can root for the Bucs and John Lynch, can't you?'' Mehl said.

Most fans did. One held a sign: ``Torn Between Two Lovers - Bronco #47, Buc #47.'' ``It's strange seeing John in blue,'' said Jackie Boyette of Valrico, ``but he looks good in anything. It's just nice to see him back. It must be a strange day for him.''

How strange? Lynch couldn't sleep Saturday night (or early Sunday morning). He stared at his hotel-room wall. He watched infomercials. ``Didn't sleep a wink,'' Lynch said. ``I don't know if I was that nervous for the Super Bowl. I was really keyed up. But when I got here to the stadium, I was in full game mode. I was ready. I was into my routine.''

Not the old routine, though. With the Bucs, Lynch rode to games with Brad Johnson. Always, they listed to Brad's favorite '80s music in the car. They playfully heckled fans wearing No. 47 Lynch jerseys or No. 14 Johnson jerseys. This time, Lynch rode the team bus and was startled to hear an ESPN reporter announce that he had ridden to the game with Brad Johnson, like usual. ``Teammates said, `Did you come here twice?' '' Lynch said with a laugh. ``I'm a Bronco now. I guess I have a new routine.''

But an old tradition was followed. Lynch's wife, Linda, again wrote him a pregame note. Usually, it contains words of encouragement or inspiration. This time, her message was simple. Enjoy the day. Take it all in. Lynch tried. But so much happened, so quickly. He lived in the moment and reacted. When Michael Clayton flopped to the turf following a diving second-quarter reception, Lynch closed and tried to touch him down. Too late. Clayton popped up and raced in for a 51- yard touchdown.

Where was Lynch's trademark torpedo? ``There's a new league emphasis that if they're lying down [and] you hit him, you get a 15-yard penalty,'' Lynch said. ``I tried to do the right thing for first time in my career and keep Gene Washington [the NFL's discipline chief] out of my pocket. I got burned on it. From now on, I guess I'll take the 15 yards.''

Lynch made up for the goof. Most memorably, on a third-and-1 play, a blitzing Lynch crashed through the line and dumped Mike Alstott for a 2-yard loss. ``When I made the tackle on Mikey - understand, he's one of my best friends in the world - that was the first time I ever tackled him,'' Lynch said. ``Herm Edwards [former Bucs secondary coach] always told me to avoid hitting Mike in practice. He called him a `clavicle buster.' We were in an all-out blitz and there were too many people for them to block. I wasn't going to wait on Mike, so I rushed toward him. I felt like a rodeo guy trying to pull down a big bull.''

On the game's last play, with Chris Simms inserted for a Hail Mary pass attempt, the toss bounced off the chest of an onrushing Lynch. ``It was a storybook finish, anyway,'' Lynch said.

When Lynch finally broke free from the postgame locker room, his 5-year-old son Jake, wearing a Broncos No. 47 jersey, sprinted into his father's arms, gave him a kiss and this admonishment: ``Great game ... but why did you miss the interception?''

Lynch sighed and laughed. ``My objective was to come here and win,'' he said. ``So the day was perfect. All the other stuff, it was like sensory overload. I just wanted to play with passion. I had a feeling I might play well.''

Fans always expect that from John Lynch, a man who still needs no introduction in Tampa.