The safety's big hits don't just happen. It takes work to provoke a crowd's "Woooo."
By JOANNE KORTH
Published October 15, 2003
TAMPA - John Lynch patrols the secondary, tracking an unsuspecting ball carrier. The two players are about to collide, but only one will feel it.
Oh, will he feel it.
The ball carrier's head snaps back as Lynch delivers one of his trademark hits - a jolting, bone-crushing, bell-ringing, what-day-is-it wallop that makes everyone gasp. You can almost see the little stars dancing around the guy's head.
"You hear the, "crack, crack, crack,' and then you hear the, "woooo,' " said Lynch, in obvious delight as he explains how it feels to knock someone into next week. "Ronnie Lott used to call them "woooo licks' because the whole crowd goes, "Woooo.' You hear that whether it's on the road or at home.
"There's nothing like it."
A five-time Pro Bowl selection, Lynch is considered by many the best strong safety of his era. He is the backbone of the Bucs secondary. He is instinctive and studious. At 6 feet 2, 220 pounds, he also is among the game's hardest hitters.
And proud of it.
"More than anything else, John loves to hit people," Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "He loves contact. John's a pretty good golfer, too, but golf isn't a contact sport."
Lynch was a quarterback in his first two seasons at Stanford before moving to safety. He was a natural. Lott, a future Hall of Famer who visited Cardinal practices because he played for coach Bill Walsh with the 49ers, shared with Lynch his secret to crushing people like aluminum cans.
"He told me, "Anyone can hit to someone. Not many people hit through someone,' " Lynch said. "That's what separates real good tacklers and hitters. So he taught me to visualize that there's not one of them, there's three of them. They're the same guy, and you're trying to get through to that last one. When you think about that, it really gets you to emphasize all the fundamentals of hitting."
Lynch is a fundamentals freak.
Yes, he has talent, or as he calls it, "a knack for exploding on people." He has perfect timing and a lust for contact that comes from "running into a lot of walls when you're a little kid." Had he left it at that, Lynch still could take on a running back with a full head of steam and knock him backward, feet flying.
But Lynch wants more.
"It's important to me to be one of the hardest hitters, but being a great tackler is really important," said Lynch, who has 916 tackles. "That's what we're paid to do, get the guy down. I've seen great hitters who aren't great tacklers, but I want to make the case that you can be both."
It requires technique.
At the point of impact, Lynch drives through ball carriers with his feet, legs, hips, chest and arms - 220 pounds of concentrated force. Lynch works to strengthen specific tackling muscles.
"The thing I fight sometimes is, the way my body is structured, my hips have a tendency to get tight," said Lynch, 32, in his 11th season. "I work constantly in the offseason on breaking my hips down, keeping loose in my upper back, by doing squat thrusts and plyometrics where I'm exploding out of it. That allows you to get low on someone and come up and explode."
On the field, Lynch keys on his arms.
Much like a boxer generates power by throwing punches from close to his body, Lynch drills himself to keep his arms tight to his body, elbow bent, and shoot them up and out at impact.
"You'll see during timeouts, John's working on having his arms tight," defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin said. "Some guys during timeouts dance to the music. John's making sure he's creating power on contact."
Players whose arms swing out wide to wrap around a ball carrier not only diminish their power, but put themselves in poor position to make the tackle - head down. By keeping his arms tight, Lynch's head stays up and he can drive through the target with his breastplate.
Timing and technique - and sometimes a forearm - combine for the perfect hit.
"It's just a pure feeling," Lynch said. "You almost don't feel it."
Yet, it sends shock waves through the stadium.
"One of the great things about hitting is that it can change the course of the game," Lynch said. "It sets the tempo for your team, and that becomes contagious. You have a chance to lift your sideline. And it gets the crowd involved."
Bucs safety John Lynch is the latest in a long list of players renowned for their hitting ability. A few of history's hardest hitters:
CHUCK BEDNARIK, 1949-62
The Eagles linebacker hit Giants halfback Frank Gifford so hard on Nov. 20, 1960, it knocked Gifford unconscious for about 20 hours and put him in the hospital for several weeks. Gifford spent a year in retirement because of the play.
HARDY BROWN, 1950-56, '60
According to legend, the 49ers linebacker knocked out the entire Redskins starting backfield, except quarterback Harry Gilmer, in 1951. He also popped Joe Geri's eye out in Pittsburgh. "The eyeball came right out of the socket," Y.A. Tittle said.
JACK HAM, 1971-82
The Steelers linebacker had an uncanny ability to diagnose plays, which put him in position to make big plays and big hits. When the perfect opportunity unfolded, he said, it seemed, to him, to happen in slow motion.
SAM HUFF, 1956-68
The subject of a 1960 CBS television special titled The Violent World of Sam Huff, the Giants linebacker was extremely well-known. In 1962, he hit Packers running back Jimmy Taylor so hard, it dented Huff's helmet. The helmet is in the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
RONNIE LOTT, 1981-94
The defensive back was famous for his rib-rattling hits that stopped players dead in their tracks. When Lott was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000, former 49ers teammate Dwight Clark told the Associated Press, "He tries to rip their heads from their shoulders. He was as physical as you could get."
JACK TATUM, 1971-80
A Raiders defensive back who hit like a linebacker, Tatum once collided with running back Earl Campbell so hard, both were knocked unconscious. Tragically, Tatum's career is marked by a hit that paralyzed receiver Darryl Stingley in 1978.