EDITOR’S NOTE: Michael Silver wrote this piece after an exclusive interview with Marshawn Lynch last week, when the running
back wasn’t sure if he would attend Super Bowl XLVIII Media Day. On Tuesday, Lynch did indeed appear at the event to briefly speak with the assembled media before spending some additional time with NFL Network’s Deion Sanders.
RENTON, Wash. — If Marshawn Lynch had any love for the spotlight, or even the slightest desire to soak up the fame associated with America’s most hyped sporting event, Tuesday could serve as a coming-out party for the ages.
With thousands of reporters set to descend upon the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., for Super Bowl XLVIII Media Day, Lynch has a compelling story to tell — which, in all likelihood, the Seattle Seahawks’ star running back will go to great lengths to avoid telling.
As of Monday, Lynch, the NFL’s answer to Greta Garbo, was still deciding whether to show up for the mandatory team-interview session, even at the risk of incurring fines that could exceed $100,000.
Even if he does appear at the podium, look for Lynch to give a figurative stiff-arm to reporters’ questions with the same ferocity he displays when pushing away would-be tacklers on his trademark Beast Mode rushes.
“If you’re forced to do something, it’s not as good as if you choose to do it,” Lynch told NFL Media last week during an expansive interview, making an exception to his three (words) and out approach to answering questions from reporters. “So no, I won’t have a lot of interesting things to say. When you’re forced to do something and you know it, it kind of just takes away from the whole experience of what it could be if (it were) natural. So, I’ll probably give forced answers.”
This is where I feel obligated to throw the columnist’s equivalent of a red challenge flag, if only to remind readers that Lynch’s ascent to the pinnacle of his profession has been nothing short of super. He has overcome a lot, from the rough streets of Oakland to the trouble-filled opening act of his NFL career, and the fact that he’s still standing is a testament to his resilience.
“He’s certainly authentic, and that’s so refreshing in this ‘look-at-me,’ celebrity-obsessed culture of ours,” California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom said of his friend Lynch, for whom he is flying east to attend the Super Bowl. “We need a little of that, and I love his story. It’s good to see someone get better after he signs a big contract. And it’s good to see someone who, let’s be candid, has rebounded after some rough patches earlier in his career.”
As the rare media member to whom Lynch has opened up over the years, from his carefree days at Cal to his choppy stint in Buffalo to his satiating revival in Seattle, I can attest that the man known as Money is fully capable of living up to his nickname in interviews.
Last week’s was no exception: When I asked him to describe the low point of his stint with the Buffalo Bills, who took him in the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft and dealt him to the Seahawks four games into his fourth season, his response was pure columnist’s gold.
“My lowest point?” Lynch replied. “I had a bunch of them, and I overcame them. I don’t think I ever had a lowest point while on an active NFL roster. My lowest point came (growing up), when we were trying to figure out what we were gonna eat at night. My lowest point came when I’d wash my jeans at night — and hopefully they were dry by the morning, so I wouldn’t have to go to school in wet jeans. Or, if they were still damp, I’d iron ’em so at least they’d be hot for a moment.”
Lynch has never been hotter than he is at this current moment, having come up big in each of the Seahawks’ playoff victories — as he did three postseasons ago, when his iconic, 67-yard touchdown run against the New Orleans Saints caused a literal earthquake and propelled him into a new realm of recognition.
Following Lynch’s 22-carry, 109-yard performance in the Seahawks’ 23-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in last Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, which included a 40-yard touchdown run that woke up Seattle’s offense early in the third quarter, fullback
Michael Robinson said of his backfield mate, “He is the face of the franchise, and his running style epitomizes what our team is all about.”
Really, though, Lynch has spent the past several years remaking himself as significantly off the field as he has in a football uniform. From his dogged devotion to charitable causes close to his heart to his growing collection of incongruous celebrity friends such as Newsom, Lynch is not the Beast you probably think he is, even though he most definitely plays one on TV.
“The man’s empathetic,” said Newsom, a native San Franciscan and diehard Niners fan who plans to spend time with Lynch after arriving in New York later this week, and who will be at MetLife Stadium on Super Sunday to cheer him on against the Denver Broncos. “Not long after Sunday’s (NFC title) game, he called me from his house and said, ‘Sorry, man. I hate to do that to your team.’ I’m thinking, ‘Hey, Marshawn’s a politician!’ But really, that sums him up — even in that moment, he wasn’t celebrating or boasting or rubbing it in. He showed compassion, which is the norm for him.”
This is not to say that Lynch should in any way be considered normal.
“No, he’s definitely not,” Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said last Thursday. “But we love him — and he’s a lot smarter than people give him credit for.”
As Sherman spoke, Lynch was engaged in his typical mid-day behavior in the Seahawks’ locker room: strutting around in a zone of his own, blasting hip-hop on his portable sound system and intermittently injecting himself into teammates’ conversations, invariably provoking laughter. He had his sweatpants pulled down to his hamstrings, revealing gray boxer shorts, and had a ski cap yanked low over his forehead.
“You’re gonna get the same guy every day,” Tarvaris Jackson, the Seahawks’ backup quarterback, said of Lynch. “He’s not gonna be fake with you, that’s for sure.”
Clearly, Lynch is at home in Seattle. Though he has not completely avoided trouble since arriving — he was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence in July 2012 in Oakland and subsequently charged, and the case is still unresolved — he has found fulfillment in the Pacific Northwest.
“If you look around our locker room, you see a lot of guys that’ve been in similar situations, where it hasn’t just been all glitter and gold,” Lynch said. “A lot of us have been through a lot of struggles, or played on another team, or we didn’t get drafted where we thought we should, or had a rough childhood and troubled careers. It’s cool to look around the locker room and see guys that done have some real-life stuff, and see them come together on a daily basis.”
Life was far less idyllic for Lynch in Buffalo, where, despite posting a breakout rookie season (280 carries for 1,115 yards in 13 games) and a follow-up campaign that resulted in the first of four Pro Bowl selections, he ultimately became persona non grata, especially after the franchise selected C.J. Spiller with the ninth overall pick of the 2010 NFL Draft.
In fairness, Lynch brought a lot of that on himself, thanks to off-the-field drama that included a hit-and-run incident and a guilty plea to a misdemeanor gun charge. He was essentially dumped by the Bills, who sent him to Seattle in October 2010 for a fourth-round pick in 2011 and a fifth-rounder in 2012.
“I had a couple of run-ins in Buffalo, and there was probably some bad blood between me and the organization,” Lynch conceded. “So I can understand why they’d have wanted to make the move. It never was my intention to put a black eye on the organization. I’m just thankful for the opportunity that I had to get out, and I respect their decision in coming and getting me. It’s a great place to be.”
Completing the trade became a personal obsession for Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who, during his time at USC, had coached against Lynch’s Cal Golden Bears — and who aggressively lobbied Seattle general manager John Schneider to swing a deal.
“Marshawn was a guy that we went after directly,” Carroll said in an interview that will air on NFL Network’s “GameDay Morning” on Sunday. “I was really excited about getting him on our football team, because I knew he was unique and he was special and he was tough and he was a fierce competitor. We spent months trying to get that trade done.
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“I wore John out on that thing, and we finally got it done, and it’s been really an extraordinary part of our program. He’s done everything we asked of him. And he’s had a great run, and he’s been compensated well, for what he stands for and for what he brings to this program.”
Lynch, who signed a four-year, $31 million deal in March 2012, mostly stands for indefatigable toughness.
“Everything about him is tough, from the way he runs to the way he is, but he’s a positive force, and he’s very team-oriented,” said Earl Thomas, the Seahawks’ All-Pro free safety. “The way he fights for extra yards inspires all of us. He’s the concrete of our offense. When I see him do those things, I think, ‘Man, turn it up.’ I like that. I like players who can really change the tenor of the game.”
Added Robinson: “Guys feed off what he does. I don’t know if there’s another back that can cut laterally with more power on one leg like he can. I mean, Adrian (Peterson) might be faster straight ahead, but off one leg … I don’t know. And nobody wants to tackle that guy in January or February.”
Lynch is proud of his physical running style, saying, “It’s something that every running back takes pride in, no matter how you do it. It just so happens I have the ability to do it more than one way, whether it’s making a guy miss, stiff-arming a guy or even running over a guy. Everybody loves ‘extras.’ I try to bring that to every game.”
Yet surround him with a group of men and women bearing cameras, microphones and notepads, and his speech is suddenly devoid of any extras. Certainly, he can walk the walk, but he has very little desire to talk the talk.
In a world in which false humility has become so pervasive that humblebrag is now part of the modern lexicon, Lynch truly wants to deflect the attention coming his way.
“He’s the complete opposite of what people think,” Seahawks outside linebacker Cliff Avril insisted. “He’s a team person. He’s not one of those guys who makes it about himself.”
To this, Lynch reluctantly pleads guilty.
“Yeah, that’s all it is,” he said. “I’ve never seen anybody win the game in the media. But at the same time, I understand what it could do for you, if you wanted to be someone who talks a lot. But that’s not me.
“And I’m not as comfortable, especially at the position I play, making it about me. As a running back, it takes five offensive linemen, a tight end, a fullback and possibly two wide receivers, in order to make my job successful. But when I do interviews, most of the time it’ll come back to me. There are only so many times I can say, ‘I owe it to my offensive linemen,’ or, ‘The credit should go to my teammates,’ before it becomes run down.
“This goes back even to Pop Warner. You’d have a good game and they’d want you to give a couple of quotes for the newspaper, and I would let my other teammates be the ones to talk. That’s how it was in high school, too. At Cal, I’d have my cousin, Robert Jordan, and Justin Forsett do it.
“Football’s just always been hella fun to me, not expressing myself in the media. I don’t do it to get attention; I just do it ’cause I love that (expletive).”
So if Media Day, to Lynch, looms as the equivalent of getting his dreadlocks pulled out of his head, one by one, know this: Super Sunday will absolutely live up to its name. For someone so attuned to his roots and cognizant of his journey, it’s an opportunity that will not be taken for granted.
“I mean, it feels good, ’cause this is something that I’ve dreamed about for a long time,” Lynch said. “Growing up in Oakland, a lot of us never knew the world was bigger than outside of the ‘580’ and the ‘880,’ the two freeways that bordered where we lived. We didn’t see anything past that.
“Coming from the ‘hood, being raised the way I was, and having the support system around me, it allowed me to be in position to expand my world. People on the streets who’d see something I was doing that was positive … my mom putting a foot in my ass consistently … family members and friends and teachers and coaches helping me make good choices … all of that.
“There were probably some situations that didn’t look promising. It didn’t look like I’d make it out. And looking back, there are some situations where I was blessed.”
For that, he’s very thankful — in his own, quiet way.