One of the most intense football games of the year for Marshawn Lynch came last week, when his Seahawks had a bye. The NFL's second-leading rusher returned home to cheer for his alma mater, Oakland (Calif.) Tech, in a playoff game against Skyline High. Lynch's bottom teeth may be adorned with a glittering diamond grill that spells out SEAHAWKS, but he is Oakland to the bone. He still lives in the Bay Area and every year donates hundreds of Thanksgiving turkeys and Christmas toys to the community; 600 kids turn out annually for his free summer football camp. But Lynch's work schedule during his six seasons in the NFL had never before allowed him to take in a Tech game.
It was a particularly good time to make the scene, given that he'd rushed for more than 100 yards in each of his four previous games, the first such streak of his career, and now indisputably ranks among the game's top running backs. For Friday night's big showdown, Lynch was looking photo-shoot fresh, dressed head to toe in clothes he'd bought the day before during a 20-minute power-shopping spree in which he dropped $1,676 on a stack of True Religion pants and so many hats, shoes and hoodies that a store employee had to help carry the load to the car.
Tech's seven-man coaching staff is virtually unchanged since Lynch played there a decade ago, and it includes three of his uncles and one cousin, so he was at home on the sideline. During timeouts Lynch waded into the huddles, offering suggestions and tapping players on the helmet for encouragement. When a receiver banged up his shoulder, Lynch tenderly removed the kid's pads and whispered encouragement in his ear. Tech raced to a 22–7 lead, and Lynch spent most of the first half haranguing his old coaches about their play calling, leading one to finally bellow, "You may be a grown-ass man, but I'll still whoop your ass." That broke up the sideline. But the mood darkened near the end of the half when a turnover helped Skyline cut the lead to 22–15.
The halftime chalk talk was bedlam. Coaches yelled at players. Players yelled at coaches. Coaches yelled at one another. The air was so blue with profanity—"We're gonna go out there and m----------- those m-----------s"—that Lynch and his cousin Josh Johnson, the former Buccaneers quarterback and a fellow Oakland Tech alum, fled the room, laughing so hard they were gasping for breath. "Believe it or not we got it worse from the coaches because we were family," Johnson said of his playing days with Lynch. Then the two went back to elbow aside the offensive coordinator and draw up plays on the dry-erase board.
After Skyline tied the score in the third quarter, Lynch became even more animated, at one point shouting, "Little homies got me juiced! I wish I had a game tomorrow!" When a questionable pass interference call went against Tech, Lynch sprinted 30 yards down the sideline to register his dismay: "We need to get a replacement ref!"
Tech pulled out a 44–36 thriller, and Lynch joined the line of kids for the postgame high-fives, leading one surprised Skyline player to spontaneously yell out, "Beast Mode!"—Lynch's trademark (and trademarked) nickname. During the ensuing team prayer, Lynch closed his eyes and nodded his head to the words, all the while holding a young cousin in a playful headlock.
Tech assistant coach Damon Island couldn't help but be amused by his nephew's antics. "It's a joy whenever Marshawn comes around," he says. "It's a tremendous boost to the community. Everyone considers him to be part of the family."
Long after the game ended, Lynch stood in the parking lot reminiscing about how far he has come, with the four-year, $31 million contract extension he signed with Seattle last March the most obvious manifestation. "When I was walking these halls and playing on that field I couldn't have seen all this," Lynch says. "I didn't dream big enough. Hopefully these youngbloods see me around, and it lets them know they can do something positive and not just what's embedded in this neighborhood culture, which is street living, hustling. For sure, it's nice to come back and get the love. But it also comes with responsibility."
A day earlier, Lynch had crossed the Bay Bridge and stepped into an altogether different world: a sterile conference room on the 21st floor of a downtown San Francisco skyscraper. He had convened a meeting of the board of directors of his Fam 1st Foundation to further his long-standing dream of building a youth center in Oakland. Financial adviser Lori Forthmann, in an expensive suit and perfect coif, presided. Lynch addressed her as "sweetheart" and was equally solicitous of the other women in the office, calling them "baby doll" in the most tender of voices. During a discussion of the intricacies of federal grant applications, Lynch asked insightful questions about what he termed "bringing in the cheese." A handout circulated with the heading PERFORMANCE HISTORY BY ASSET CLASS. Lynch studied the numbers and offered his highest praise: "That's smackin'." If you see beyond the wardrobe, the dreadlocks spilling out from under a black ski cap and the Oakland patois, this mild-mannered, analytical 26-year-old could easily have passed for a junior member of the firm. The only hint of his barbaric day job was a wrist wrapped in adhesive and the chewed-up lower legs poking out of a pair of shorts. These poor appendages featured so many gouges and scabs that they looked as if they'd been gnawed by a pit bull.
At the end of the meeting, someone said it's too bad the public doesn't get to see Lynch in such a setting, exhibiting the facile mind that carried him to a 3.2 GPA as a social welfare major at Cal. In fact, he's a mediaphobe who rarely grants interviews. "I don't want people to see another side of me," he says. "I don't want to ruin my image."
Lynch laughed at his own joke, knowing that some fans wrote him off as a knucklehead in 2009, when he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor gun charge and was suspended by the NFL for three games. He was only 20 when he was taken 12th in the 2007 draft by the Bills, and in the three years since his suspension he says he grew up—"from a kid who thinks he knows everything to an OG." But last summer he was pulled over on an Oakland freeway shortly after 3 a.m. and found to have a blood-alcohol level that exceeded California's legal limit of .080. (Lynch pleaded not guilty to DUI, and the case won't be resolved until next year.) He immediately took ownership of his mistake. After being released from police custody, he drove straight to his summer camp and gathered the kids to explain why he was late.
"It was a humbling experience, knowing so many of those kids thought I could do no wrong," Lynch says. "I won't say it was a wake-up call—I've already had a few of those. It's more like motivation. I don't want to let those kids down again."
Lynch's deep feelings for Oakland's youth are informed by his own experiences on the city's streets. "We'd walk seven blocks from Josh's house to my house, and you'd never know what was going to happen," he says. "You could see a shootout; you could see somebody dealing drugs; you could be stopped by the police; you could see hookers. We saw a lotta s--- kids ain't supposed to see."
Lynch's youth center will be a safe haven with a computer lab, a gymnasium and a music studio to nurse hip-hop dreams. There will be tutors, but, he says, "the main component we want to teach is basic life skills I feel a lot of kids are missing: how to balance a checkbook, create a résumé, how to fill out a job application, how to speak with confidence one-on-one." Johnson, whom Lynch describes as "hella smart," is Fam 1st's president, and he has been scouting sites around Oakland. Lynch has already committed mid-six figures to the foundation, but back on the 21st floor he was told the latest projections put the operating costs as high as $500,000 annually. To make the center sustainable, Lynch is targeting what he calls the "long money" of San Francisco's ruling class. Lori Puccinelli Stern is an extremely well-connected publicist and event planner in the Bay Area, and she has spent the last two years helping Lynch network. "Everyone who meets this kid falls madly, hopelessly in love with him, and I don't care if it's cocky Silicon Valley billionaires or ladies who lunch in Pacific Heights," says Puccinelli Stern. "On the outside he's the biggest badass in the world, but deep down Marshawn is such a teddy bear, and he's not afraid to show it. That's a really charming combination."
In 2011, Lynch was the honorary host for a fund-raiser at the home of scions to the Getty Oil fortune. "Marshawn gave a talk about how his mom worked three jobs to support his family and was so tired she would fall asleep at red lights, and that from her he developed the passion to give back," says Puccinelli Stern. "He was so genuine and heartfelt. I looked around the room, and all these people you read about in the Wall Street Journal had tears in their eyes. When he was done he was surrounded by people who wanted to help him. That happens pretty much every time."
Lynch helps foster these relationships by compulsively sending handwritten thank-you notes. Among the unlikely connections he has made is one with California lieutenant governor Gavin Newsome, who describes himself as "a friend, a fan and a supporter" of Lynch's. During their long conversations, Newsome has been impressed by Lynch's detailed questions and eagerness to learn about matters as mundane as building codes and zoning laws.
"This is not a vanity project," Newsome says. "This is not something that will be boarded up when his playing days are over. I've been in this racket long enough to have seen a lot of athletes who are just going through the motions, just checking a box. Marshawn has a deep commitment. He genuinely cares about his community, which is inspiring to see. Not only is he going to get this place built, but I'm going to predict the doors will never close. The guy is pretty shrewd when it comes to finances. I mean, have you talked to him about all this Beast Mode stuff?"
The beast was born in peewee football, when Lynch was playing for a team called the Dynamites, and it would take three or more tacklers to wrestle him to the ground. His coach, Dale Reid, started calling him "man-child." Lynch's reputation grew at Cal, where he was a two-year starter and set the school record for 100-yard games (17). In a now-legendary predraft interview alongside the late Gaines Adams in the spring of 2007—check YouTube—Lynch described his attitude as "Beast Mode! ... on the field," and he trademarked the nickname early in his pro career. There are now Beast Mode watches, Beast Mode eye black and Beast Mode energy drinks. A candy bar and headphones are in the works. When the Milwaukee Brewers used Beast Mode as a slogan, the team paid Lynch royalties. So did the South Carolina football team.
For Lynch, it's not just a nickname. It's what he calls "a lifestyle." He takes pride in being among what had been considered a dying breed: the smashmouth power back. At 5'11" and 215 pounds, Lynch is not overly big for his position but, says linebacker Justin Durant of the Lions, against whom Lynch rushed for 105 yards on 12 carries in Week 8, "He just doesn't want to go down, man. It's like he's angry or something."
Indeed, Lynch's stiff-arm packs the punch of a young Mike Tyson. The signature moment of his career came when he ran through eight would-be tacklers during the 67-yard touchdown rumble that clinched Seattle's upset of the Saints in the January 2011 playoffs. Lynch has become even more of a weapon this season, as the Seahawks, breaking in rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, have embraced the grind-it-out offense. Much of the damage Lynch has done has been in the second half of games, when he seems to get stronger and defenders tire. (First half: 4.6 yards per carry, 17 first downs, eight runs of 10-plus yards; second half: 4.8 yards per carry, 25 first downs, 10 runs of 10-plus yards.) "I don't think he's hard to prepare for," says Vikings safety Harrison Smith. "It's just hard to tackle him."
The first of Lynch's four straight 100-yard games came in a physical 13–6 loss to division rival San Francisco in Week 7. Lynch pounded the NFL's No. 2–ranked defense for 103 yards on 19 carries, 61 of those yards coming after initial contact. "In my experience he's the toughest guy to tackle in the league," says Niners linebacker Larry Grant. Adds defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois, "It's like getting knocked down by a building."
Lynch enjoys such testimonials, and he revels in his tough-guy persona. "I don't talk too much on the field," he says. "If I do, only thing I tell them is, 'You know where I'm at: seven yards deep. I ain't too hard to find.'"
Still, Lynch seems miffed that his footwork, balance and vision don't get as much attention as his power. In a 2011 game he juked Ray Lewis so badly that the All-Pro linebacker was left in a heap on the turf. "Everybody is so focused on me running through them or at them, when I go around them I guess it's a surprise. Keep talking about everything I don't do, so when I do it everybody will be caught off guard."
For all Lynch's physical gifts, his scrapes with the law and a crowded backfield made him expendable in Buffalo, and he was traded to Seattle four games into the 2010 season for a fourth-round pick. Last year he ran for a career-high 1,204 yards and 12 touchdowns, and through 10 games this season he has 1,005 yards for the 6--4 Seahawks. With only two plus-.500 teams left on the schedule, Seattle should contend for a playoff spot, and its stout defense and punishing ground attack make it a team no one will want to face in January's do-or-die games. Says running backs coach Sherman Smith, "We're not a finesse team. [Lynch is] not a finesse runner. We have great confidence that we can go into any stadium, in any weather, and be successful. Marshawn gives us that belief."
Lynch credits his renaissance in Seattle to his offensive line—"they dogs"—and to Smith's mentorship. "He'll sit down with you and give you some of those life skills. He'll break some s--- down for you."
Says Smith, "We have a saying here: We don't have to be the same, but we have to play as one. He exemplifies that. Marshawn is a unique character, but he embraces his role as a leader and sets a tremendous example through the way he plays and the way he works.
"There's never any question what he's going to bring on Sunday. He's gonna run hard every time. He's gonna hit people. He's gonna punish people. In a lot of ways he's become the heart and soul of this team."
Fans have responded—Lynch's is now the top-selling running backs jersey in the league. And Seattle, a city that smiles on free spirits, has collectively been charmed by, among other things, Lynch's penchant for popping Skittles on the sideline. In October he even landed on the red carpet, thanks to local filmmakers who gave him a small part as a mob enforcer in the independent movie Matt's Chance. In the credits Lynch is listed as Massive Goon.
Call it a case of miscasting.