Eighth-year safety looks up and finds himself part of the "old guard'' for Tampa Bay.
By RICK STROUD
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 10, 2000
TAMPA -- John Lynch sat alone in the darkness of a defensive meeting room at One Buc Place. He had a playbook in one hand and the remote control to the VCR in the other preparing to watch tape of the Bears.
The video paused, as Lynch has been forced to do several times in the past few months.
On other occasions during his career, Lynch might have been surrounded by veteran players, a Pro Bowl safety in numbers. But in his eighth season, Lynch has watched his best friends and teammates disappear faster than Kevin Bacon in Hollow Man.
"When I first came in, Martin Mayhew and Charles Dimry were my two closest buddies," Lynch said. "Then they leave. Hardy (Nickerson) and I were close. Then (Brad) Culpepper, my roommate gets released. Paul Gruber retires. I think the moral of the story is don't be friends with John Lynch or they'll send your butt right out of here."
Lynch was joking. But you can't blame the Bucs defensive captain for not feeling like a Johnny come lately.
At 28, he and defensive end Chidi Ahanotu, 29, suddenly are the oldest original Buccaneers as members of the 1993 draft class. Tight end Dave Moore, 30, has been with the Bucs since '92 but spent most of his rookie season with the Dolphins.
By life's timeline, they all are young men, most of whom have yet to celebrate a black-balloon birthday. But by NFL standards, they are graybeards.
"I feel really young. I really do," said Lynch, who has been named to the Pro Bowl two of the past three years. "You get a weird perspective, because at 30, in our world, you're an old man. In the real world, you're still considered an up-and-comer."
While the Bucs are considered a Super Bowl contender this season, consider the transition they have undergone since playing in the NFC Championship game a year ago.
Nickerson, a 13-year veteran, signed with Jacksonville as a free agent. Mayberry, who played his last game in the Pro Bowl, was never offered a contract as an unrestricted free agent. Quarterback Trent Dilfer left as a UFA after six seasons in Tampa Bay. Culpepper, a fixture at nosetackle since '94, was released. And last week, Gruber retired after 12 seasons.
In the wake of all the turnover, Moore said it's easy to feel your NFL mortality.
"You do, especially at the end of camp when you see guys like Culpepper get released," he said. "You know, there's a couple guys from other teams that have been around a long time and have done a good job, but it's almost like their time has past. It's not because of their lack of play, it's because somebody else is younger and has more of an upside. It kind of forces you to work harder and stay after it to make sure you stay on top of your game. Because once it starts to slip a little bit, all they're doing is looking to younger players."
For every Lesley Visser there's a Melissa Stark. For every Culpepper, a Booger McFarland. Lynch's and Moore's replacements may have arrived this season in the form of rookie safety David Gibson and tight end Todd Yoder.
"He's kind of like I was coming out of college," Moore said of Yoder. "He can catch the ball good. He sticks his head in there to block, but technique-wise, he's a mess, so we spend a lot of time talking about it. You know, eventually, he may take my place. But that's how the business works."
While Nickerson's departure was of his own will and Gruber's body gave out, the release of Culpepper affected Bucs players more than any other move this off-season.
Culpepper was a highly productive starter who never heard the bullet. He also had a great locker room presence. If the Bucs can do it to him, teammates realized, they can do it to anyone.
"I think about it all the time," Ahanotu said. "Lynch and I and Dave have been here the longest. I told Lynch, "We're the oldest guys on the whole defense.' He just looked at me, looked down and walked away.' I told him, "you're in denial.' "
One night after Culpepper was released, Lynch and his family were eating dinner at Culpepper's house when agent Tim Irwin called to tell Culpepper he was a Bear. That's when the realization hit them that things would never be the same.
"John and I have been friends, we've been roommates a long time," Culpepper said. "Our wives have been friends, our kids have been friends. You get uprooted. It's very emotional. We'll still visit and do things, but it'll never be the same and the reality of that makes it sad. And a lot of things you take for granted. The finality of it all kind of sticks in your craw."
Said Lynch, "That's the side I don't think people see. For me, it's all right, I've got 50 other teammates in here and they're all good guys. But it's difficult for families. That's the hard part of this profession, but you know that going in. It's not the most stable of careers."
Lynch, who is negotiating a contract extension with the Bucs, struggled with the ugly business side of playing the game he loves.
"It's almost like a college feeling where you're fighting for your old school," Lynch said. "That's one of the things I struggled with and Linda was real good about it. She said, "Don't ever lose that. It's part of the business. But you can't ever lose that.' When you still see it as a game, and I think the purest game in the world, you can't ever lose that. If you become cynical to the whole deal, I'm not the same guy. I had to have a quick attitude adjustment when that went on and realize those guys are off doing under things and they'll be all right."
Bucs coach Tony Dungy said it was inevitable that as the team grew more competitive, there would be attachments between players, fans and teammates that eventually would be broken.
"Since I've been here, it's been a very young team. So it hasn't really been an issue with us," Dungy said. "We've been building and drafting guys. We have lost guys in the past -- Martin Mayhew, Charles Dimry, Lonnie Marts -- but it's been one or two a year and there were so many new guys coming in that that was the focus. But after you've been here awhile in the same system and you get to the playoffs a couple times, you get to be more of a veteran team and it'll be an issue more as we go on."
Among the most commonly asked questions of Culpepper is how he will feel if the Bucs go to the Super Bowl. He says he would be happy for his former teammates. But personally, it would stink.
"The only sad part of it for me is if we have all the success that I think we're going to have, is that we're not going to be able to share it with a lot of guys who got us to this point," Lynch said.