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Field of dreams

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  • | 5:00 a.m. February 27, 2014
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As Michael Lynch took the field Saturday, the excitement was palpable on the sideline for the Sarasota Millionaires.

“We got a mismatch over here!” one player yelled, just feet from where Lynch lines up at wide receiver.
There were fewer than 4 minutes left to go in the fourth quarter, and the Millionaires were winning 41-8.

Lynch was getting his first offensive snap of the game. Still, the rest of the team was rapt with attention, prepared to take in the end of the game with a fascination not usually found at the end of a blowout.

As the teams huddled, an announcement came over the loudspeakers that explained the players’ sudden interest.

“Give it up for one of the oldest players in Sarasota Millionaires history, Mike Lynch!”

Lynch, 64, is in his first season with the Millionaires, a semipro football team that’s part of the Florida Football Alliance. A part-time resident who spends the rest of the year running a softball league in New York, Lynch’s interest in an unlikely minor league football career began two years ago.

He watched his nephew compete in a semipro All-Star game in 2012. As a spectator, Lynch said he felt the urge to return to his roots as a football player. He began training for football activities, as a 62-year-old, with an eye toward joining the Millionaires when he felt he was ready. It wasn’t always easy, but he persisted.

“I blew three or four muscles training — I pulled my quad; I sprained my knee,” Lynch said. “But I had decided I was going to do it.”

Lynch has always been willing to fight an uphill battle to play the sport he loves. He played all four years at Bay Shore High School in Long Island, N.Y., but didn’t start until his senior year. He walked onto the football team at East Carolina University, where he played on the college’s first racially integrated team.

After academic issues prevented him from staying on the team, he founded the school’s club football squad.

He played on a Long Island semipro team for two years in the ’70s — and scored a two-hour tryout with the New York Jets — but his football career had been dormant since then. Even so, he has focused on saying in shape, which opened the door for him to recapture his youth several decades later.

“Everybody would like to get in the time machine and go back 40 years and do something that they love to do,” Lynch said. “To be able to do that and relive it is just a wonderful thing.”

After watching the Millionaires play and practice last year, Lynch was determined he could follow through on his dreams. He spoke with the head coach, former NFL Pro Bowl wide receiver Ernest Givens. Givens was open to Lynch playing, but offered a word of caution.

“They didn’t know how old I was — they said, ‘Sure, you can come down and you’ll probably be 20 years older than everyone else,’” Lynch said. “I said, ‘Coach, I’ll be 40 years older than everyone else.’”

Lynch was first put to the test at the team’s preseason combine last fall, a prerequisite for making the roster. During the first activity — two laps around the field — Lynch said he lagged behind the other players by 100 yards.

If he had any doubts that he could keep up, they were quelled by the next segment of the workout. Tasked with bench-pressing 225 pounds, the 10 players before Lynch failed to complete even one rep. Lynch was able to do five.

“From that point on, I’ve had my mojo,” Lynch said.

Lynch did get on the field before the final minutes of the game Saturday, serving as a blocker on the team’s punt and extra point units. The highlight of his season so far has been serving as the lead blocker on two fake punts that have gone for a first down. Still, he said, playing time isn’t essential to his enjoyment of the sport.

His focus includes bonding with his teammates, some of whom have recent Division I football experience.

He knows he’s not going to be a star — he ran a 7.1-second 40-yard dash before the season began — but he’s quick to offer his support to other players after a big play.

“They’re not going to put me out there on the flank unless they’re up 25 or 30 points like today,” Lynch said. “To me, it’s just about being a great teammate.”

The friendships, Lynch said, have been the most significant part of his time on the Sarasota Millionaires. He’s awed by the connections he’s formed with his teammates, often more than 40 years his junior, and his coaches, who he says have guided him as they would any other player on the roster.

Though there are still four games left in the season, Lynch said he’s already thought about whether he’ll come back next year. His original plan was to play two years, but based on how this season has gone, he’s reluctant to push his luck.

“This is almost like trying to capture lightning in a bottle,” Lynch said. “This has been too great an experience.”

Still, it would be premature to assume Lynch is ready to step away from football at age 64.

“I’m not saying I will, and I’m not saying I won’t,” he said.

Contact David Conway at [email protected]