TAMPA — Two seasons into his career with the Bucs, John Lynch's confidence was shot. In his darkest moments, he wondered if he was an NFL short-timer.
Then he saw Ronnie Lott, the San Francisco 49ers' perennial All-Pro, at an offseason golf tournament.
“I was struggling, pretty much playing in garbage time and that was it,'' Lynch said. “I kind of confided in Ronnie. I said, 'I can't get on the field. They want to move me to linebacker. I just don't know.'
“Ronnie looked at me and said, 'Listen, don't ever doubt what you can do in this league. You can play at that highest level.' At that point, I felt like I was still trying to make the roster, and he's telling me I can be as good as there is at my position. Those words stuck with me. I believed it. I tried to live up to it.''
Lynch did just that.
Saturday, in the backdrop of Super Bowl XLVIII, Lynch will be presented as one of 15 modern-day finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A maximum of five will be elected.
In 11 seasons with the Bucs, Lynch became one of the faces of the franchise, a jaw-rattling strong safety, an unquestioned leader, an eloquent spokesman and a generous contributor to the community.
When the Bucs unceremoniously released him in 2004, citing concerns about his neck injury and the need to move on, Lynch was motivated into second gear. He signed with the Denver Broncos, where he made four consecutive Pro Bowls, adding to the five selections he achieved in Tampa.
The stories of Lynch's on-field aggression are legendary. He once hit Chicago Bears tight end John Allred and knocked him out cold. Allred was Lynch's brother-in-law.
Former Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders said Lynch delivered the hardest hit he ever absorbed in the NFL. Former St. Louis Rams running back Marshall Faulk still talks about rushing into a hole during a Monday night game at Raymond James Stadium, only to have Lynch meet him head-on, lift him in the air and plop on him with a form tackle that went horizontal.
When Tony Dungy arrived to coach the Bucs in 1996, Lynch's career catapulted. Lynch was a perfect fit for the defense designed by Dungy and coordinator Monte Kiffin.
“As great as Warren (Sapp) and Derrick (Brooks) were, the hardest position to play in that defense is strong safety,'' Dungy said. “You have to do so many things. You have to be a reliable tackler at the line of scrimmage. You have to cover tight ends and sometimes wide receivers downfield. You have to cover big zones.
“You have to be smart to do all of that stuff and be physical enough to hold up against teams like the Steelers and backs like Jerome Bettis. All of the guys in Tampa were happy to go to war with John.''
In time, Lynch's No. 47 jersey became synonymous with the quintessential hard-hitting safety. Not only was it ultra-popular among fans in the Tampa Bay area, it began showing up nationwide with the Lynch wannabes in high school and college football.
“It wasn't really that great of a number,'' Lynch said. “When you're a rookie, you don't have much say (in what number you are given). But I embraced it and I grew to love it.''
Kiffin always joked that opposing players began looking for No. 47 the moment they got off the bus. It was an exaggeration, but only a slight one.
“You couldn't help but acknowledge that he was there,'' former Lions wide receiver Herman Moore said.
“He really had a presence in the secondary. Very rarely would you find him out of position. You had to really account for him in your running game. It's not so much about how much athletic ability he had, but he was just a very smart player.''
Brooks said Lynch's athleticism was highly underrated and his competitiveness was “off the charts.'' Many defensive backs are judged on the number of interceptions. Defining Lynch by his statistics would be a mistake, according to Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, a former Bucs assistant.
“Numbers don't tell the full story of John's impact,'' Tomlin said. “He absolutely destroyed the tight end-side run game of everyone we played. He also blew up the 'B' gap, and he did it in an unselfish manner.''
“When you think of those great Buc defenses, one of the first images the comes to mind is John Lynch patrolling the middle of the field,'' Bucs co-chairman Joel Glazer said.
As new Bucs coach Lovie Smith places his imprint on the franchise, he's seeking the next John Lynch. Deep down, he realizes that might be a fruitless search. It's difficult to match the original.
“I was a former safety, and I really appreciate the old throwback guys like John Lynch, who was so tough,'' said Smith, Tampa Bay's linebackers coach under Dungy from 1996-99. “He'd knock you out. … He turned into one of the best safeties I've ever seen.''
Eventually, he became a Buccaneers icon, an NFL ambassador. Now he's one step away from Canton, along with Brooks and Dungy.
He's accustomed to the doubters. Lynch might seem like more of a long shot, but like always, he brings a hard-hitting resume, along with accomplishments that are difficult to ignore.
Staff writer Ira Kaufman contributed to this report.