JERSEY CITY, N.J. – Marshawn Lynch dropped the phone and wept.
His agent, Doug Hendrickson, delivered the news on Oct. 5, 2010. Silence ensued. After the cellphone fell from Lynch’s hands, Lynch let the moment conquer him.
He was happy. He was thankful.
He was headed to Seattle.
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“I’m going to the airport right now,” Lynch said.
He didn’t even pack a bag before he left.
Lynch is doing his least favorite thing — talking to the media. The Super Bowl press corps is three rows deep, with a barricade of television cameras in the back. A reporter asks Lynch how he’ll mentally prepare for the big game.
“I’m S.R., bruh — stay ready,” Lynch says. “So there ain’t no gettin’ ready.”
THE IMPERVIOUS BEAST MODE, supposedly undaunted, allegedly uncivilized, doesn’t get emotional often. He can make the ground shake with a dash to the end zone and then react with a shrug. But when the Seahawks traded for him, he knew it was the second chance he needed.
“It was probably the best thing that could’ve happened to him,” said his mother, Delisa Lynch.
Back then, the Seahawks didn’t realize they had acquired a franchise-altering player. They were just taking a chance on a wayward talent. Lynch’s career was in a precarious state. After rushing for 2,151 yards and 15 touchdowns his first two NFL seasons, Lynch had fallen from emerging star to Buffalo police magnet.
Now, he’s in the Super Bowl. He’s the most powerful force on a team known for its physical style. He’s the ultimate comeback tale, and who knew redemption could look so good in dreadlocks and a teeth grill?
“He’s a young man with a lot of character,” said Kevin Parker, a longtime friend who recruited Lynch to California out of Oakland Tech High School. “He fell down and got back up. He’s just like the city he’s from. That’s exactly what Oakland is. In life, Marshawn doesn’t know what tomorrow has to hold. But today, he’s a better man than he was yesterday.”
The Seahawks have become a perfect fit for the eccentric running back. He hasn’t really changed in his three-plus years in Seattle, but he has matured. He hasn’t been perfect — he was charged with drunken driving in Oakland in July 2012, and a trial is still pending — but his off-the-field issues are limited to that one relapse. On the field, he has become an elite running back.
In 2010, Seahawks general manager John Schneider spent months monitoring Lynch’s deteriorating situation with the Bills. Schneider and Seahawks coach/executive vice president Pete Carroll were in the first year of a massive rebuilding plan, and they coveted a power running back to anchor their offense. Lynch had gone from the No. 12 overall pick in the 2007 draft to the No. 3 option in the Bills’ backfield, but the Seahawks loved Lynch’s mentality and playing style.
His nickname is Beast Mode. For a franchise suffering from a talent deficit and a soft label, Lynch’s hard-charging reputation was worth the risk.
In 59 regular-season games as a Seahawk, Lynch has rushed for 4,624 yards and 41 touchdowns. He has been even better in six postseason games, racking up 93.3 rushing yards per game, surpassing 100 yards four times and turning in perhaps the greatest play in Seattle sports history — his 67-yard Beast Quake run in 2011 that helped the Seahawks upset the New Orleans Saints.
“Honestly, this is exactly what I had hoped for,” Carroll said. “I hoped it would turn out like this. I hoped that he would get a new lease on life, we would get the benefit of him jumping into a situation where he was going to be appreciated and understood and utilized, and I just hoped that it would turn out like this now.
“I can’t tell you I thought it was going to be three years of 1,000 yards and 10-plus touchdowns. I didn’t know that. I think the really exciting part of it is how he’s responded to the opportunity. He’s maxed it out, and he’s captured us, really, with his leadership and his toughness and his style of play. It’s been a beautiful thing.”
With the picks Seattle traded for Lynch, Buffalo drafted Chris Hairston and Tank Carder. Some day, the two nobodies will make for an impossible trivia question.
MOST EVERY MONDAY during the football season, Lynch takes a flight to Oakland. Because Tuesday is an off day, he can spend about a day and a half at home every week without missing any work.
Lynch relishes the opportunity to be the athlete who stayed home. Oakland has produced an impressive collection of stars throughout the years, including Sonics legend Gary Payton and future Hall of Fame point guard Jason Kidd, now the Brooklyn Nets coach. But Lynch is the one who refuses to live elsewhere.
He started the Fam 1st Family Foundation, along with his cousin, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Josh Johnson, to support youth in the Bay Area. He is a hands-on leader of his annual football camp, something he dreamed of doing from the moment he was drafted. Lynch has an even greater aspiration, though.
Lynch wants to build and operate a youth community center in downtown Oakland, right in the middle of his city. He wants it there to make a point that the turf doesn’t matter, so that every neighborhood can unite, toss aside its differences and focus on providing practical education and recreation for the children.
He told his agent about this goal seven years ago. Hendrickson told Lynch that, in order to realize such a grand dream, the running back would need to network. As a kid from the streets who suddenly became a star, Lynch doesn’t trust many people, but Lynch strays from his reclusive tendencies for this cause. Because of his effort, plans for the center are starting to materialize. There’s a possibility it could be built by 2015.
Lynch has made some surprising friends — billionaires, chief executive officers of major corporations, politicians. He has close ties with Yahoo! president and CEO Marissa Mayer. Getty Oil is a supporter. Joe Montana and his wife, Jennifer, love Lynch. In fact, Jennifer Montana, a jewelry designer, has created a Beast Mode Key necklace that will be unveiled at a Super Bowl event Friday in New York. Eighty percent of those proceeds will go to the foundation.
California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor, has known Lynch for nearly eight years. They met after Lynch asked Newsom to accompany him to an event and hand out footballs. Newsom was skeptical at first, thinking Lynch was another celebrity who only wanted to do something for show. He was shocked to learn Lynch is atypical in every facet of life.
“I thought he’d be there 10 minutes,” Newsom said. “But he came early and stayed late. I thought, ‘Man, this guy is a different person.’ It was the real deal right off the bat.”
Newsom called Lynch shortly after the Seahawks’ NFC Championship Game victory over San Francisco. He intended to congratulate Beast Mode, but Lynch knew it was a bittersweet time for Newsom, a lifelong 49ers fan.
“Sorry, man,” Lynch said after answering Newsom’s call. “I know how hard it is. I know what you’re feeling now.”
Newsom had to tell Lynch to stop apologizing.
“You’re going to the Super Bowl,” the lieutenant governor said. “Stop worrying about me. I’m happy for you.”
Lynch is wearing sunglasses, and he has covered his head with the hood of his sweatshirt. He stands in a corner, just out of the way at Super Bowl Media Day. Minutes earlier, he had excused himself from the one-hour session after talking for a little more than six minutes.
Former NFL star Randy Moss, now a Fox Sports analyst, talks with a cameraman about interviewing Lynch. Instead, Moss removes his earpiece and decides that he just wants to have a conversation with Beast Mode. He walks over to Lynch. The two embrace and have a spirited conversation.
Later, Deion Sanders, the Hall of Famer turned NFL Network analyst, decides to interview Lynch on air.
SANDERS: How you doing, big fella?
SANDERS: You look good.
LYNCH: (Expletive), you do, too.
SANDERS: You all right? I like when you got off the plane with the Beast Mode (sweatshirt) and everything. You look like you’re ready to play, man.
LYNCH: Yup, that’s what time it is.
SANDERS: You camera-shy? You just don’t want to talk, really?
LYNCH: I’m just ’bout that action, boss.
LYNCH ISN’T A SAINT. He’s not a menace, either.
He just lives his way, and as the 27-year-old grows, he’s learning when to conform. He won’t change, but he will improve.
Tomorrow is a question mark. Today, he’s better than yesterday.
The Seahawks are thriving because of Beast Mode’s evolution.
“In Seattle, Marshawn sees people who look like him, talk like him and dress like him,” Parker said. “It’s not like Oakland, but it’s way better than Buffalo, a small market. The Bills are the biggest thing in town, and he was a young star, and he didn’t like the scrutiny. He’s just Marshawn. He doesn’t see himself as a superstar. He just wants to be treated as a normal person.”
Lynch has been able to be normal in Seattle, and he has done much to repair his reputation. His past transgressions include two driving-related incidents. In May 2008, he pleaded guilty to a traffic violation and admitted to a hit-and-run incident involving a female pedestrian near a Buffalo bar district. Ten months later, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor gun charge in Los Angeles, which led NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to suspend him for three games.
By the end of his time in Buffalo, Lynch felt local police were targeting him. Cop cars would trail him often. He was pulled over and given a ticket once for playing his music loudly on the drive home after a game. The tension grew so thick that Hendrickson had meetings with the Bills and the police, and after those conversations, he concluded it was best for Lynch to leave Buffalo.
For an Oakland-bred athlete who went to college at nearby California, Buffalo might as well have been Mars. It wasn’t a culture shock. It was more like being in purgatory, 2,600 miles away from home. When he was drafted, Lynch thought Buffalo was a borough of New York City, not a town in upstate New York.
“You tell a kid from Oakland, ‘Here’s five years, $18 million, and by the way, you’re going to Buffalo?’ ” Hendrickson said. “It was going to be tough even if he hadn’t gotten in trouble. Marshawn looks back and knows he did some dumb things. He had some growing to do. The whole experience was an eye-opener.”
NOW, LYNCH IS LIVING how his mom, Delisa, raised him to be: Humble, independent and open-minded.
She was a single mother with four children. Lynch’s father, Maurice Sapp, has never been a factor in the running back’s life. But Delisa, a former track star, was always there, preaching to her son, “Don’t talk about it. Be about it.”
Lynch grew up a phenomenal, yet understated athlete. Anything he tried, he excelled at doing. He came home one day and told his mother that he won a swim meet.
“What? You can’t swim,” Delisa said.
He pulled out a blue, first-place ribbon. After asking around, Delisa realized her son was a good swimmer, even though he never had any formal lessons.
“He was a good athlete, but he learned at a young age that, if you’re on a team, it’s not about you,” Delisa said. “It’s about the team.”
Don’t talk about it. Be about it.
Seattle embraces the weird in Lynch. In turn, the Beast Who Talks The Least goes about his business quietly.
If there were a Beast Mode on your television, you would have to press mute to find it.
“It’s just a lifestyle, boss,” Lynch says of the nickname.
Just enjoy his evolution, boss.
|Lynch by the numbers|
|Career, 7 seas.||1,753||7,389||4.2||58|
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @JerryBrewer