- Rick Reilly, Columnist, ESPN.com
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Something was gnawing on John Lynch's stomach lining like an overcaffeinated rat.
Forced out of the NFL after 15 years as a legendary safety, he'd just watched his old team, the Broncos, beat San Diego in a 39-38 molar-grinder. Now he looked like a man in a giant blender.
He got up, paced around, went into his bedroom, paced around, went into his walk-in closet and stared a hole in his shoes. His 7-year-old daughter, Lindsay, wandered in and said, "What's wrong, Daddy?"
Lynch said, "Nothing, honey. It's just—Daddy's kind of struggling with not playing football anymore."
"So play," Lindsay said.
"Well, I want to. But on the other hand, it's probably time to stop. I don't know. It's complicated."
Lindsay looked at him for a moment then said, "Oh, Daddy. Now you're starting to sound like Brett Favre."
Everybody's a critic. But how would you like to be 37 and suddenly forced to stop doing the one thing you love more than any other?
On one hand, it's wonderful. Lynch took his first piano lesson the other day. He's finally eating ice cream. He's watching every possible football game on TiVo. He's volunteering at his kids' school. The other moms even invited him on one of their hikes. "I had no idea Colorado was this beautiful in the fall."
On the other hand, sometimes he feels as lost as one sock. He was not ready for his happily-ever-after just yet. The Broncos asked him to take a pay cut and a play cut this season after four straight years as a captain and Pro Bowler. Disappointed, he bolted for the Patriots, had eight tackles in their last preseason game and was released anyway. Mortal-lock Hall of Famer. Cut.
So, like it or not, Lynch suddenly has a whole new life. The other day, he got a $743 Qwest cell phone bill. "I haven't had to pay for cell phones since … they were invented!" Qwest also mentioned that he wouldn't be getting his yearly fat endorsement fee either. The new cars he got free every 3,000 miles are down the road too. The weekly free $2,500 suit deal he got from Saks for his TV show? No show, no suit.
Lynch boxes now to satisfy his urge to hit things. But he misses the games, the locker room, the needling. The other day, he was kidding his 5-year-old daughter, Lilly, about liking a boy when his wife, Linda, cleared her throat loudly. "What are you doing?" she whispered. "You can't tease girls! If you do, they'll never tell you anything!"
He's like a visitor from the planet Zathura. One recent Sunday he visited the team he won a Super Bowl with, the Bucs. He stopped by owner Malcolm Glazer's box, and his eyes went the size of Frisbees. "It was four boxes wide! Couches, 20 TVs, a guy making sushi, people pouring wine! I had no idea! For years, I thought they actually watched every play!"
At the game he ran into Tiger Woods, who asked him, bluntly, "So which was it that made you quit, mind or body?" Lynch scratched his head and said, "Neither!" Lynch didn't quit football. It quit him.
He's learning life all over. For 15 years, his fall and winter days were mapped out: 6:30 a.m.—weight room; 8 a.m.—position meeting; 9 a.m.—full team meeting. "Now I drop off the kids, come home and I'm like, What do I do all day?" Worse, that built-in excuse he had when people called him to do stuff he didn't want to do?
"Sorry, I can't. Got a game coming up." All gone.
Then again, "I've never seen Wrigley Field or Fenway or Augusta," Lynch says. "Now I have time." He's never been to continental Europe. Never seen Africa or Australia. He aims to do that. Wants to do a triathlon. Wants to write a book—soon as he learns to type. Lynch is so nice and humble and funny that TV networks are after him, so he's investigating that. He's pumping up his charity work, which was already heavy. He's at all of his 9-year-old son Jake's football games and daughters' swimming meets and plays.
Still, you sit with him and it's like he's double-parked. Or he's sitting on a walnut. Which is why if some team calls he'll probably go. After all, a certain wildly indecisive 39-year-old QB threw 6 TDs the other day. "I told myself I wouldn't be that guy," Lynch says. "You know, the guy who just won't take the elegant way out? But guys like me and Brett, we don't want out. So what do you do then?"
Me, I'd play football. Piano recitals are hell.
You try walking away from the NFL. It ain't easy.