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Super Bowl XXXVII

Lynch tough despite his neighborhood

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 23, 2003


SAN DIEGO -- On the mean streets of Rancho Santa Fe, dreams come at a price.

Here in a tidy housing development north of town, it is a hardscrabble life. The mansions line up, one beside another, and a nasty rumor says that some have fewer than seven bedrooms.

Times are tough. The price of gardeners has gone out of sight, and butlers are out of the question. Some garages do not hold a yacht. The truffles are out of season, and the lobster can be undersized. Sometimes, in the distance, you can hear golfshots as they fire into the afternoon.

It is in this meager existence, across the manicured lawns that look like Thurston Howell's old neighborhood, you can find the roots of greatness. It was here, where the 7-Eleven has valet parking, that the dream was forged.

It was here that John Lynch managed to become an NFL star by overcoming the most staggering obstacle of them all:

Prosperity.

He is a homecoming hero now. Lynch, the strong safety of the Bucs, leads the league in good guy. He has fame, fortune, family. He is about to play in the Super Bowl in his hometown then embark upon a life that includes, perhaps, the Senate.

From the looks of it, you would agree Lynch has everything.

Ah, but there was a time Lynch only had almost everything.

This is the most of difficult of paths to the NFL. To get to stardom, Lynch had to overcome comfort and money and popularity, surfboards and good tee times and a Porsche. He had to resist lazy afternoons and lively parties and champagne sunsets.

Poor John. He had the disadvantage of having every advantage. He had to learn his hunger without being hungry.

"It's like (former teammate) Brad Culpepper used to say," Lynch said. "Try to make it in the NFL with a silver spoon in your mouth. Then you've overcome something."

Lynch laughed. Oh, he knows how silly the notion sounds of a man overcoming advantages. No, being rich is not the same tragedy as being poor.

That said, being rich doesn't make it easy to be a world-class athlete, either. If it did, Armani would make football jerseys. A lot of kids with cash and cars don't want to spend the sweat required.

"That's the thing about John," said Frank Chambliss, Lynch's high school baseball coach and the brother of former Yankees first baseman Chris Chambliss. "He didn't have to do this. He had everything. But he was here for every practice, on time, and he never complained."

Lynch will tell you that his family wasn't quite as prosperous as you might have heard. His father, John Sr., owned radio stations, and the payoff began only when Lynch had reached high school age.

"According to some stories, you'd think we were the Rockefellers," Lynch said. "But it wasn't like that. I can remember being broken down by the side of the road in a station wagon, and it was 120 degrees."

John Sr. laughed at the story.

"John is being a little dramatic," he said. "It was a company car. John was on his way back from a swim meet."

The surroundings didn't matter. John inherited his competitive fire from his father, a former player at Drake who spent part of a season with the Pittsburgh Steelers in Chuck Noll's first season.

"I always knew he and his brother (Ryan) were gifted," said John Sr., who is on crutches from a double-knee replacement. "I used to challenge him pretty dramatically if he didn't take it seriously. He used to get up at 5:30 a.m. to go to the gym with me. His little brother would sleep in the corner, but John would work on the Nautilus.

"He loved the competition. He wanted to be the best. He worked hard, and he played hard."

Early in his life, he decided he wanted to be a professional athlete. Early in his life, others agreed he would have the shot.

The road to Torrey Pines High isn't shabby, either. It's pristine, with flowers and hedges and luxury apartments. The school itself sprawls across 91/2 acres, and it looks more like a junior college than a high school. The students' parking lot is full of BMWs and SUVs.

Lynch was a star here, and a movement has begun to retire his old No. 7.

When Lynch was a junior, coach Dave Nuemeyer told everyone he was the finest quarterback prospect since John Elway, another player Nuemeyer had coached. Chambliss still believes that if Lynch had stuck to baseball, he'd be in a major-league rotation now. Ed Burke, the current football coach who coached against Lynch, thinks Lynch would have made it as an NFL quarterback.

"He was the model student," Chambliss said. "Like Ozzie and Harriet's kid. There is no dark side to John Lynch."

In back of Torrey Pines High, the football field is gorgeous, sitting on a valley and ringed by eucalyptus trees and ivy. The grandstands are carved into the hillside. Burke calls it "the house that John Lynch built."

A few years ago, when developers were starting to build the luxury apartments nearby, John Sr. made a deal. The school would give the land movers easier access to nearby property, and in return, they would be used to dig out the field.

After that, Lynch approached Chargers owner Alex Spanos and asked for help. Spanos threw a birthday party for Bob Hope, one of his buddies, and charged people to come. And Torrey Pines had its stadium.

"But if it wasn't for little John, I don't think Big John would have done that," Burke said. "If John had been a swimmer, we'd have an Olympic-sized pool here."

At this point in the story, Lynch would like to make another protest. In high school, he didn't have a luxury car. He had a Cherokee. It was preowned. Not only that, but he had to pay for part of it.

Man, how he suffered.

On the other hand, Burke said he didn't always drive the Cherokee. "He drove this Porsche," Burke said. "He said it was his mother's, but it had a vanity plate with the number 7 on it."

Still, there were hardships. For instance, there was the time when Lynch was in the seventh grade, his father took away his surfboard.

"I always tell people, other places lose athletes to the street, but we lose them to surfing," Lynch said. "My father had read about some of the other things that kids who were into surf were involved with, so he took it away for a couple of summers. I was dismayed at the time, but I understand it now."

Somewhere else, perhaps someone else will understand, too. Perhaps there is another young man in a luxury car, hoping for a way out of Rancho Santa Fe. Perhaps he will hear of Lynch's story and find hope that he, too, can overcome privilege.

We can only hope. After all, to make the Lombardi Trophy, you have to melt a lot of silver spoons.

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