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Launching a Legend

Feb 8, 2021

On Saturday, John Lynch was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Later this year, he will be the fourth former Stanford player to be inducted, following Ernie Nevers (1963), James Lofton (2003), and John Elway (2004). In a story published in a 2009 Stanford game program, Lynch described how a switch from quarterback to defense and one specific game launched a career that ultimately will take him to the Hall of Fame. Here is the story:

WHEN JOHN LYNCH looks back on his football career – one that spanned 15 NFL seasons and included nine Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl championship – he remembers Oct. 3, 1992.

That was the day Stanford rallied from a 16-point deficit against a typically-great Notre Dame team of that era, one that produced seven first-round NFL draft picks over the next two years. Yet it was Stanford that earned a 33-16 victory and launched the Lynch legend as one of the fiercest hitters in football history. 

In 1992, Lynch hardly resembled that persona, at least to all but one man. He still was regarded as an erstwhile quarterback with a future in baseball. However, one game and one hit changed that thinking and, to this day, Lynch regards that game as perhaps the greatest he ever played, and certainly the most significant. 

Lynch arrived at Stanford in 1989 as a blue-chip quarterback recruit from Torrey Pines High School in San Diego, but three years later, he still was unable to win a starting job. When he failed to beat out Jason Palumbis during 1991 fall camp, Lynch requested a switch to the secondary.

"I thought I was quitting football," said Lynch, who also played baseball at Stanford. "It was really just frustration. Baseball was going well, but I wasn't really giving either sport my full concentration. I thought of maybe transferring. Instead, I wandered into (coach) Denny Green's office and said, 'Just put me on the field.'"

Three weeks later, in a season opener, Lynch started at free safety. After two games, he was replaced.

Again, Lynch questioned his commitment to football. That was when Bill Walsh came into the picture. Green had left Stanford to coach the Minnesota Vikings and Walsh, who built the San Francisco 49ers into an NFL dynasty, was returning to a program he once coached. 

Lynch had a decision to make. He was a 1992 second-round draft pick by baseball's Florida Marlins and signed for $100,000, throwing the first pitch in the organization's history, for the Single-A Erie Sailors. If he gave up football, Lynch was promised a "pretty lucrative" deal, he said.


Stanford quarterback John Lynch. Photo by David Madison.

WALSH CALLED LYNCH into his office.

"Listen, I understand you have a heck of an opportunity with the Marlins," Walsh said. "But I think you could be a Pro Bowl safety."

You've got to be kidding, Lynch thought. He just started playing the position and wasn't even playing that much. 

"With all due respect …," Lynch began to say. 

About then, Walsh popped in a videotape of Lynch making a play. It was followed by footage of 49ers All-Pro Ronnie Lott making a similar play. Another of Lynch was followed by another of Lott, and so on.

For the first time, Lynch caught a vision of his own football potential.

"By the end of that meeting, I called my dad and said we've got to call the Marlins," Lynch said.

With Lynch entrenched at free safety, Stanford traveled to South Bend to play Notre Dame. The Cardinal was 3-1, but had yet to coalesce despite outstanding personnel. Walsh was in the twilight of his coaching career, had lost some of his focus and had stocked his staff with several of his former players who were new to the coaching profession. 

But as the game drew closer, Walsh's fire returned.

"He had us believing we were going to beat Notre Dame," Lynch said. "That game, Bill Walsh flat-out outcoached them. You saw why he was regarded as 'The Genius.'"

The game started poorly for Stanford. Steve Stenstrom was sacked in the end zone for a safety on the game's first play and Lynch was knocked cold during the first quarter, the only concussion he suffered during his football career, as Notre Dame built a 16-0 lead.

Lynch emerged from his fog at halftime and changed the game. On the first play of the second half, the Fighting Irish sent its battering ram of a fullback, 250-pound Jerome "The Bus" Bettis, charging off tackle.

Lynch met him, full-force.

Lynch hit him so hard that Bettis's helmet and the football went flying, sending shock waves over silent Notre Dame Stadium. Stanford recovered the ball at the Irish's 22-yard line and scored three plays later. The comeback was on.

"I don't know if that ever happened to him before," Lynch said. "With a big back like Bettis, everyone goes low. I think I kind of surprised him."

Later, Bettis, who would star for the Pittsburgh Steelers, told Lynch, "Not many people took me on like that."

The nationally-televised collision not only got Stanford back in the game, but it was career-altering for Lynch. He wound up with nine tackles and an end-zone interception of a Rich Mirer pass that would have given Notre Dame the lead.

"Until you do it on a big stage, you don't really know how you're going to react in those situations," Lynch said. "After that game, I really felt I could play in the NFL."

Walsh would coach two more seasons at Stanford, but neither came close to approaching the 10-3 year that included a Pac-10 co-championship, 24-3 Blockbuster Bowl victory over Penn State, and No. 9 final ranking. 

"I really felt that at the end of that year, we could've played with anyone in the country," Lynch said. "That Notre Dame game really was the start for us."

It was Walsh's swan song and Lynch's Launchpad, rolled into one unforgettable day.


Stanford safety John Lynch. Photo by Rod Searcey.