I was alone in a Los Angeles hotel room, asleep in my bed. It was New Year’s Eve, the night before we played in the 2009 Rose Bowl. It was almost 4 a.m. when I heard a knock on my door.
At first, I was confused. I wasn’t sure whether I should even get up and answer. I was thinking it could be some USC fan trying to mess with me.
But they kept knocking, real softly. It definitely wasn’t a prank.
So then I thought that maybe it was something serious, like maybe the building was being evacuated. I hopped out of bed and swung the door open, and I saw Mr. Larry Johnson Sr. He was our defensive line coach, and also the man who originally recruited me to Penn State. He was standing there with his head down, and his hands were folded.
He didn’t say anything at first — just came in, sat me down right away and told me the news.
“Coach Lynch was in an automobile accident earlier tonight. He didn’t make it.”
I grew up in District Heights, Maryland. It was a rough area outside Washington, D.C., home to a lot of drugs and gang violence. It was the type of place where, even in middle school, kids kept guns in their lockers just so they could feel safe during the school day.
Our reality became clear to most of us at a very young age: If we wanted to make it in District Heights, the options were to either join a gang or play sports. Some kids did both. I’m lucky that I got my start playing football in elementary school for the District Heights Boys & Girls Club, like my older brother did before me.
Every Friday night during football season, years before I even got to high school, I’d go to watch Suitland High play its home games.
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The mystique of Suitland High wasn’t just about the players. It was about Coach Lynch. I first started hearing about him from my brother. The way he spoke about Coach Lynch only made me more anxious to put on the Suitland uniform and play for this guy. I wanted to step on the field and prove that I was the best player out there from Day One.
One day I told my brother, “I’m going to be the first freshman to ever start varsity my first week.”
“You’re crazy,” he said. “You’re crazy. Coach Lynch doesn’t start freshmen.”
… He didn’t.
When I got to Suitland, even though Coach Lynch had heard about me coming up through the Boys & Girls Club, I was on the junior varsity depth chart. I was finally able to convince him to move me up to varsity, but only after I scored nine touchdowns in one game. I genuinely do not know if eight would have been enough to impress him. That’s just the kind of coach he was. No matter how much people talked you up, or how good you supposedly were, nothing was going to be promised. You had to earn it.
And your stats only proved so much to him. For Coach Lynch, it was more about the kind of person you were when you weren’t wearing the uniform. He didn’t treat any student — athlete or not — like they were better than anyone else. To Coach Lynch, we were all one family at Suitland, and that meant we were only as good as our weakest member. It was everyone’s job to look out for each other.
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Coach Lynch knew there were kids on his team who didn’t have it so good at home — kids who didn’t have guidance or structure, or simply a voice telling them to stay out of trouble. He knew that some kids didn’t even have a real place to go after practice was over. So he went out of his way to provide that for all of us. He was always available to talk, whether that meant walking into his office, calling him on the phone or even showing up at his house after school. He showed us that hard work and discipline were what made our team special, not individual flash.
That’s not an exaggeration.
At Suitland, we didn’t wear visors or wristbands or special cleats. That was like … I don’t even want to say forbidden. There was no rule. It was unspoken. You didn’t even think about it. We had one identical uniform.
If you were late for practice, you put your elbows on the hardwood floor of the gym and planked for 20 minutes while he called roll and discussed the day’s game plan. No exceptions.
If we didn’t get a play right the first time, we’d run it again — and again and again, until it was perfect. It didn’t matter how cold it was, or how long we’d been practicing. And if it got dark, Coach Lynch would have anyone with a car drive as close to the field as possible and turn the headlights on until we got it right.
And if we still didn’t get it right, coach would actually suit up in shoulder pads and a helmet and get right into the huddle. He probably would’ve tried to play in games, too, if it wasn’t so obvious that he was a solid 20 years older than everybody else.
More than anything else, Coach Lynch loved our team, and we could see it every day in the way he treated us. He respected every one of us like grown men, and taught us what it meant to be a leader.
He got me to a better place in life. In 2006, I left District Heights for Happy Valley.
When I arrived at Penn State I thought the hardest part of life was over. I had made it out of District Heights, and I was the only player from my graduating class to get a full scholarship to a Division I school.
Then, just a few months into my sophomore season, I got suspended from the team. I was put on probation for participating in a fight at the student center. I was young, and I messed up. I especially messed up because this was the kind of trouble I was trying to escape back home.
The thing that scared me the most was that Coach Lynch would find out about it.
I remember being back home a couple of weeks later and walking into his office, absolutely terrified. But he didn’t yell when I told him what had happened — he didn’t even lecture me. He just asked me if I cared about all the people who were counting on me back in District Heights. He told me that leaving this town wasn’t a guarantee of a better life, it was simply another opportunity.
Fernando Medina/USA TODAY SportsIt was up to me to decide if I was going to make the most of it or let it pass me by. Looking back, I think that was the most important meeting I’ve ever had in my life.
I spent my next few years at Penn State in close contact with Coach Lynch. Not just for my own benefit, but also for everyone watching from afar, anyone who may have felt trapped in a place with no way out. After he died, I tried to keep his legacy alive for the kids back in District Heights. I wanted to stand as an example to everyone who believed they had something special inside them.
I wasn’t perfect by any means. But I made it to the next step. I made it from District Heights to Happy Valley to the San Francisco 49ers. I made it because of Coach Lynch.
I don’t think it was a coincidence I ended up in San Francisco. On draft day, I remember seeing the ticker at the bottom of the TV screen. Every time I saw S.F. pass by, the only thing that popped into my head was: Suitland Football. It was like it was my destiny. I wanted my name to be next to those initials forever.
I’ve gone through the ups and downs that come with playing professional football — tough losses, coaching changes, and season-ending injuries. But nothing will ever compare to losing Coach Lynch. He truly was a game-changer for me in every sense of the word. He shaped me into the man I am today.
Talent may be a God-given gift, but where we end up is all about our own determination. Coach Lynch took a whole generation of inner-city kids who didn’t have clear direction in their lives and helped us to grow into strong men, ready to take on the world. It wasn’t his job to care about us as human beings, but he really did, and we could see it every single day.
I carry his words with me everywhere I go.
For a long time, I also carried these words with me:
“Coach Lynch was in an automobile accident earlier tonight. He didn’t make it.”
When I heard the news that night in the hotel, I sat in silence for a really long time. I think I sat there until the sun came up. It was a surreal moment. I thought about not even suiting up for the Rose Bowl, honestly.
But then I remembered what coach would always say to us after practice and before every game. He would remind us that we had to earn our opportunities in life. They would never be handed to us, especially where we were from.
“Nothing is ever going to be promised to you in this life,” he’d tell us.
We need more people like Coach Lynch in this world. He was one person we could count on.
For some of us, he was the only person.
NaVorro Bowman recently honored Coach Lynch posthumously at the Coaching Corps Game Changer Awards, where top Bay Area professional athletes celebrate the profound influence of coaches on their lives and in the community. More information about Coaching Corps can be found at coachingcorps.org.