General managers John Elway and John Lynch share a bond going back three decades, one built on respect, rivalry and reverence.
"He was the poster I had on my wall," said Lynch, who's 11 years younger than Elway, 58. "He was the idol I had growing up."
The Broncos (6-6) play the 49ers (2-10) Sunday in the latest chapter of the friendly feud between the two superstars-turned-GMs whose paths have crisscrossed throughout their careers, both on the football field and the front office.
Both were tutored by celebrated California high school football coach Jack Neumeier and both were Stanford quarterbacks before starring in Denver, albeit a decade apart and at different positions.
Lynch prepared for his move into the front office by serving a sort of apprenticeship under Elway, attending the 2013 NFL combine with him and sitting in with the Broncos' GM during the draft.
Yet, it was 20 years earlier when Elway first lent Lynch a helping hand, as both men recalled during one of Lynch's scholarship lunches a couple of years ago.
"I knew that Johnny was nervous, this being his first preseason game," Elway remembered. "So, we're in the first quarter and Johnny's out there and our cadence back in that time was Set-Hut. I was always famous for saying, 'Red 98 Red 98. Set-Hut!' Well I saw Johnny Lynch out there, I said, 'Set-Het, Red 98. Hey, Johnny Lynch!'"
The shout-out impressed the rookie's Tampa Bay teammates.
"I came back to the huddle and it was so funny because all the guys said, 'You know Elway?' I said, yeah, we're tight," Lynch recounted.
Years later, after they really had bonded, Lynch said Elway told him, "I was trying to loosen you up. I knew you were tight."
Elway waited until after the game, however, to deliver the tip that really helped Lynch, who went on to earn nine trips to the Pro Bowl, including in all four of his seasons in Denver.
Elway told Lynch he knew exactly when he was going to blitz and when he wasn't just by reading his eyes.
"I look at Johnny Lynch and if he kept looking at me, I knew I was OK, I knew he wasn't coming," Elway explained.
If Lynch darted his eyes away, the Broncos QB knew Lynch was coming at him off the edge.
"I guess he figured if he didn't see me, I didn't see him," Elway said. "I knew when he was coming. I told him that after the game and obviously he took that to heart."
Lynch said Elway told him to "just look at me like you normally do. So, I used that throughout my career" to disguise his intentions.
When he was offered the 49ers job last year, Lynch, who felt he might be too green, again sought Elway's advice.
"Yeah, he's been awesome. He's a great friend and he exposed me to the business," Lynch said. "I think the biggest thing, when I had this opportunity presented to me really quickly and had a short, finite time to give them an answer, he kind of gave me the confidence: 'You know what, you can do this, just like anything else. You can be great at it.' And hearing that from him kind of emboldened me to feel that way."
Their respective teams are heading in different directions. The 49ers have struggled since losing quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to a knee injury and are jockeying for the top overall pick in the 2019 draft. The Broncos have won three straight and are pushing for their first playoff appearance since 2015.
"He helped me out in the beginning but now it's like anything else, we're competing," Lynch said. "Fortunately, we're not in the same division and all, but he's been great. He's one of my best friends in life and we understand that we both have to serve our organizations well, but we can also continue to be great friends and that's what we are."