No coach ever won a game by what he knows, it’s what his
players have learned.


University of Chicago football coach

The first example of going the extra mile in sports came when I was ten years old. Before school, my brother and I would go to the gym and work out. It was fun. I knew no one my age was doing it, and most of all it was a bonding time with my dad. It was his way of teaching me the work ethic to be successful not just in sports but in life. Oddly enough, my first sport wasn’t football or baseball, it was swimming, a great sport in which to learn a good work ethic. At five years old, I was swimming at six-thirty in the morning, which I kept up until I was nine. I knew, even then, that I loved competing, because I wanted to make my parents proud. They were not that interested in my success, just how hard I worked. (By the way, dad says that at the age of six, I set a California state record for the fifty-yard freestyle for eight-year olds.) Now, as a parent myself, I understand that there is nothing better than seeing that kind of drive in my own kids. After swimming, it was on to soccer and football. I remember making travel teams in both sports, swapping out uniforms in the car going from one game to another. It was crazy, but I just loved it!


If you want to talk about an impact coach, believe it or not it wasn’t in football or soccer, but in basketball, courtesy of the Boys and Girls Club. His name was Ron L.I never did learn his last nameand he was the basketball coach. He knew I wasn’t the best basketball player, but he was the first one to say that I had something special. You know how to compete, he said. To be singled out at such a young age meant a lot to me, so much so that I still remember it today.


I am so lucky because my parents encouraged me to dream. So many parents today want to temper their kids’ hopes in order to avoid disappointment, but my parents made anything seem possible. It also helped that my dad made it to the NFL for a brief stay with the Steelers. In my mind, he was a part of those great Steeler teams, and I just wanted to be like my dad and that meant going pro. With every dream, my mom and dad emphasized hard workthat was the route to success. Do the extra things, the little things, and you can make it happen. That was their lesson. Even today, that philosophy pays off. I’m in my fourteenth year in the NFL and every day, every practice, is still a challenge. Just ask his teammates with the Bucs and the Broncos and I’m sure they’ll agree. I sure do. Every day, teammates are trying to take your job away, or the opposing team is trying to expose you. That’s the challenge that gets me going every day. To this day, I just love going to work.


Going into my senior year at Torrey Pines High School, I was having great academic and athletic success. After all, what could be better than being the quarterback of a highly regarded football powerhouse? So my coach decided to raise the stakes. He recruited a coaching legendwho’d worked with John Elway as a high schooler and was one of the inventors of the run-and-shoot offenseto change our offense. For a quarterback, this was an incredible opportunity. In fact, there were scrimmages where I threw for five hundred yards. Recruiters were calling nonstop. Then, it all stopped. In the first game of the year I broke my ankle. The college calls, the attention by the press, all came to a screeching halt. It was only then that what my parents had preached to me from day one about grades coming first and sports second really hit home. After the injury, I thought the only way I would get into college was through academics. Thankfully, I already had good grades, because if I didn’t it would have been too late. Then I got a break. Notre Dame offered me a scholarship and then some other schools followed their lead. Suddenly I had options. I chose Stanford. You’d think I’d have been home free, right? Wrong!


At Stanford, I was slotted as the number-two quarterback, but I just didn’t move up. What didn’t help is that I played baseball, too, so I wasn’t able to play spring football. My junior year, I thought for sure I would get the starting job. Dennis Green (the former Minnesota Vikings coach and now Arizona Cardinals coach) just handed it to another player and I was devastated. I thought I had to transfer or make the decision to just play baseball.


I went to see Coach Green and said, Just put me on the field. At first, he resisted, but eventually he gave in. I left his office with him agreeing that I’d try the safety position. It was a tough transition. I made some mistakes, as I mostly played nickel back that year. I was set to try to make it as a pro baseball playerthe Marlins drafted me in the second round. Side note: he was the second player and first pitcher drafted in Marlins history. Then something unforeseen happened. Coach Green went to the Vikings and Bill Walsh came out of retirement to take over the team. He watched my tapes, called me in, and said, Look, I know you could play major league baseball, but I think you could be a great safety for us and in the NFL. He took the time to edit a tape of the four games I started and spliced in plays from Ronnie Lott and showed me the similarities. Well, he sold me. I told the Marlins I was staying and started for Stanford my senior year. I got drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and fifteen years, six Pro Bowls, and one Super Bowl later, I’m still playing.


To grow up. My dad always wanted me to be a quarterback. He thought I could be a great quarterback and wanted me to transfer out of Stanford when I wasn’t chosen to be the starter. I thought I knew what was best, and it turned out to be the right decision. At one point we all have to figure out who we are and why we’re playing. That was the point at which I started playing for me and not for anyone else. There’s an excellent chance I would have made it as a quarterback, but I’d had it with waiting around and I had to follow my heart. In the end, it worked out for me. I’d say so, and if you ask me it’s likely he’ll be even better as a broadcaster in his next career. Just like his Boys and Girls Club coach who singled him out and got him to believe as a teen, Walsh sold him on his own dream, just before he audibled to baseball, broadcasting, or something else.


After twelve great years with Tampa and a Super Bowl win over the Raiders, I received another wakeup call. It didn’t come as a complete surprise because you know you’re in trouble when the people close to you stop talking to you, and that’s what happened with the Bucs. They thought I was finished as a player and didn’t want to pay me what was left on my contract, so they let me go. The same thing happened to Joe Montana, Emmit Smith, and Junior Seau, so why should I have been surprised? Yet I was. I took it very personally and was devastated for a few days, but when interest started coming in from other teams around the league, I felt a lot better. Thankfully, it’s worked out great with the Broncos. Returning to the Pro Bowl was special for me.


In the 2005 season, we were one step away from the Super Bowl. All we had to do was beat Pittsburgh, who had been on the road five straight weeks. We were feeling good about our chances after knocking out the defending champion Patriots, which set things up for a title game at home. We lost, and I am just not a good loser, as hard as I try. This one might have been my last chance at the Super Bowl. My family was outside waiting for me along with a few thousand fans hoping for an autograph. I wanted to just grab my friends and family and duck out the back door, and I decided to do just that when halfway through the back tunnel, while holding my son’s hand, I just stopped and said to myself, What kind of example is this for my son? I did an about-face and headed right for the Steelers locker room, and as hard as it was watching the champagne flow and the celebration in full swing, I worked the room and shook the hands of Jerome Bettis, Bill Cowher, and Hines Ward and told them to go win the Super Bowl. I felt good about that, but even better that my son saw it. I can tell my son how important it is to be a gracious loser, but this was a way to show him. Train hard, play to win, but if you lose, do it with class. He’s just seven, but I hope it shapes his life forever, because in the end, that moment shaped my life.

The concept of work hard off the field to be successful on the field as an effort to develop young leaders is the essence of my foundation (, founded by my wife, Linda, and me. She is an outstanding athlete who played tennis at USC and went on to compete on the satellite tour for a few years. We both felt the lessons we earned as student athletes were so valuable that not only did they help me make it as a pro, but they’re the same lessons we use to raise our kids. Sports are such a tangible way to learn life skills. I can tell people all day when things don’t go your way and you get knocked down that you have to get back up, but without a real-life experience for them to draw from, the concept is just a bunch of empty words. When you’re a defensive back and the receiver you should be covering catches a ball over you and goes in for a touchdown and your team is trailing because of you, your mettle gets tested. If you stay down, if you let your confidence get shaken, well, then, you’re in real trouble because five minutes later you’ll have that same guy to shut down, and if your head’s not right, you’re done and so is your team. They say you have to be quick to forget, and I’ve learned to be quick to forget in anything I do, because what I do or don’t do against the Chiefs is not going to help me against the Raiders.


John is not only an athlete, but he’s a special person who’s had it anything but easy. From his broken ankle in high school to riding the bench in college to getting cut as a pro, he had moments that would rattle all of us (including him) to the core. I’m sure many readers have at one time been fired, cut, let go, rejected, or turned away. There is glory in just fighting through it, even if the results don’t meet your goals. And as you learned from John’s last story after the AFC title game, the learning doesn’t stop just because we’ve supposedly grown up. John Lynch makes football hall of fame cut; Karl Mecklenburg …

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