First off, allow me to apologize in advance if this article implies any true understanding of who Marshawn Lynch is. In truth, maybe only a handful of people in this world could actually claim to really know the man behind the dark visor and the highly popular No. 24 jersey.
To dig deeper into the enigma that is Lynch, I took to the best resource I had available. Reaching out to former college teammates of ours seemed like an optimal way to uncover the angles of his personality that most do not know about.
Through firsthand experience, in addition to the collective opinions of those lives he encountered, we attempt to peel back the layers of who Marshawn Lynch really is—both on and off the field.
I’ve looked into Marshawn's eyes and listened to him speak as he laid on the grass at a water park somewhere in the Bay Area on a hot summer day. We had just finished up a grueling summer camp as the 2004 season was nearly ready to kick off. Marshawn Lynch had yet to take a single snap as a collegiate athlete, but his reputation as a guy to keep an eye on had long since been established.
During this time I was entering my senior season and had earned my stripes among the team to some degree at that point. A small group of us were eating lunch on the grass when Lynch slid his way over to us in a vivacious yet innocent manner. This was my first real opportunity to interact with him in any significant way.
I’ll always remember how difficult it was to pinpoint just who this guy was. His unique personality was unmistakable whenever his social walls come down. It’s at this time when compassion and a gentle heart flood to the surface.
Lynch spent that time on the grass singing our praises and sharing his thoughts on his new team. He genuinely appeared honored to be a part of such an exceptional group of guys. He was oddly able to wear equal doses of bashful and confidence in a way I’ve yet seen duplicated. He showed an incredible amount of respect to the older guys, yet somehow, you could sense that he was destined for something bigger.
Most people who seek out others to talk with generally have an identifiable agenda of some type. Lynch’s character has always been a challenge to peg down in that regard because any predictable motive for his interaction is likely one that cannot be anticipated or, often times, fully deciphered.
When Marshawn Lynch was on his recruiting trip to Cal, he and several other recruits walked around the field at Memorial Stadium with fans speckled throughout the bleachers. As our established kicker/punter practiced his field goals, he simultaneously was basking in the newly discovered glory of having just been informed that he’d been declared both the starting punter and kicker for the team that year.
This was obviously a moment of elation for guy who fought for years to be a starter. He was around 22 years old at the time and headed to graduate school for his final year of eligibility.
As he kicked a ball through the uprights, a young, dreaded, teenage-version of Marshawn no older than 17 grabbed the ball and walked over to the kicker to hand it to him. “Thanks, so you’re one of the new recruits?” The kicker asked.
“Yea,” He replied stoically. “I’m the new kicker.”
As you can image, this would obviously be an unsettling introduction to your new competition. The established senior sat there in disbelief that some high school kid would have the audacity and confidence to pop off like that to an established senior. But in typical Lynch fashion, his smile would eventually shine through and reveal the jokester we would come to love.
My first encounter with the man known as Beast Mode came on a typical day in the team weight room. I distinctly remember walking into the gym and seeing this thick, muscular new kid standing by the bench station and talking to some of the guys. My first impression was that we just signed a senior middle linebacker who has just transferred from another school. I mean, the body on this 18-year-old kid was advanced far beyond most of the guys on the team.
You can imagine my surprise when I discovered this physical freak was not only Marshawn, but that he was just a kid fresh out of high school, experiencing a college training regimen for the first time in his life.
Lynch was the type of guy who would cause a crowd to gather around as he would do Olympic-style lifts with the amount of weight most guys could only aspire to do in some abstract distant future. Yet here this kid was, as a freshman, treating the workout like it was physically beneath him.
Perhaps to deflect from the onlookers of newly acquired teammates, one guy recalls how Lynch would simulate his own flatulence with each rep as those watching tried to figure out whether to be offended or impressed by the ease in which those challenges were met. Lifting was typically regarded as serious business that required a certain level of intensity and focus. As usual, Lynch would find himself as an outlier to standard protocol.
One time during a hard-fought game in his sophomore year at Cal, one of his closer friends on the team, who also happened to be a leader on defense, told Marshawn, “Hey man, we need a touchdown right here.”
On the very next series of offense, Marshawn Lynch broke loose for one of his many amazing touchdown runs. After the score he ran to the sideline, stood in front of the guy who made the request, handed him the football and walked away.
Just before the start of Lynch’s sophomore season at Cal, then-head coach Jeff Tedford said he could possibly be the most talented athlete he has ever coached.
When I inquired to those who played with him and watched him up close and personal about what they believe separates him from other running backs, terms like "balance," "vision" and "a relentless running style" all came to mind for most. These are no doubt qualities he excels at, but are those truly his distinguishing traits as a running back?
For me, I see a guy who has completely redefined how to run with a football. His running style is the most violent of its kind.
Every step seems to be taken as if he’s trying to pound his foot deep into the ground. When you watch him run like this, it creates the constant illusion that each step could be a change of direction rather than straight forward. Essentially, it looks like Beast Mode is locked in a perpetual juking motion even when running straight ahead. This throws the would-be tackler off balance and allows Lynch to either run around you or right over you. More often than not he prefers the latter.
For the record, no other football player in the NFL runs with this particular style of deception. He literally uses strength and finesse simultaneously.
A Great Teammate
One of the most common stories I received about Marshawn seemed centered around his likability and selflessness.
This was a guy who doesn’t care if you were a superstar or a walk-on. To him, you were always seen as a human first.
As one former walk-on at Cal put it, “He's the kind of guy that would cross the street to come say hello to you. He's done that for me before, just to joke around and give a hug— and this was after he finished at Cal.”
Person after person, no matter who I talked with, I could not find a single guy who had anything negative to say about Marshawn Lynch.
For those who look at him and see only a thug, I ask you to withhold judgment until you sit down and talk with him. Hear from those who have spent significant time with him. A thug is a violent criminal.
His hardened outer shell is little more than a coping mechanism created out of necessity from growing up in a rough area of Oakland. Outside of his running style, there are few people I’ve encountered with a more peaceful and gentle nature than Beast Mode himself.
Lynch is also praised as a hard worker by his peers and respected as a leader, more for his actions than his words. He may not always have much to say, but when he does, it’s generally positive and almost never is it about himself.
Aversion to the Media
Though most of us will never fully understand Marshawn Lynch, at least he seems to be content with that arrangement. Without apology or concern, he rarely cares what people think of him, yet at the same time, it could be argued that at times he cares too much. His reluctance to speak to the media has become well-documented, and only adds to the mystery that is Beast Mode.
By not talking to the media, he in essence preserves his autonomy. He is safe. Lynch cares nothing about setting the record straight regarding who he is to anybody.
Despite popular opinion, that mindset speaks more to an inner strength than a weakness.
After all, how much is the athlete really benefiting by talking to reporters who are typically sifting through whatever information you give them so they can manufacture a sensationalist story.
Even if the reporter dishes out an honest and fair take, the information is still out there to be misconstrued by all those who wish to do so.
Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player and was teammates with Marshawn Lynch at California.
Follow Ryan on Twitter.