RENTON, Washington — Of course, Rashaad Penny brings his family to dinner. He's been clinging to them for years.
As a kid. Whenever he'd head to a buddy's house to go swimming, to spend the night, Penny inevitably made up an excuse to go home. No, Penny didn't actually have to help Mom with chores.
As a college freshman. Only an hour-and-a-half from home, Penny became so homesick so fast, he nearly quit on San Diego State.
And, indeed, as a 22-year-old Seahawks rookie. He's got Team Penny with him through minicamp. Mom. Dad. His little sister. His little cousin. They all walk in as one to Berliner Pub. Penny was game to meet anywhere but is still new to the area so had asked me to pick a spot. This restaurant, ranked No. 5 of 267 in all of Renton on TripAdvisor, serves food late, so it gets the nod. There's some family-friendly seating behind the bar—but all the family hears is Audioslave's "Original Fire" blaring on the speaker, and all they see are the five rows of personalized beer mugs perched on a wall and "World's #1 Oktoberfest Beer" banners on the ceiling. Dad cringes, asks, "Are kids allowed here?" and it's off to a Mexican restaurant 10 minutes away.
Once there, Penny speaks so softly, so delicately, face buried in a Dodgers game on his phone, head covered with a hood, it still seems like this is the last place on Earth he'd like to be.
It's impossible to tell this is a man who shredded collegiate defenses for 2,248 rushing yards and 28 total touchdowns last season.
Right here sits the man handpicked to replace Marshawn Lynch—the 27th overall pick who had Hawks fans howling "Who!?" and "Why!?"—and it sure seems from this angle like he couldn't be any less like Beast Mode if he tried.
Volatile as the tour guide of a butterfly exhibit, Penny orders a pink lemonade, is informed by the waiter that strawberry lemonade is also an option and calls the audible. Back to his phone. Back to his shell. Back to polite yet empty four- and five-word answers that keep a stranger at bay. Both Mom and Dad repeat that Rashaad is, by far, the quietest of their four boys.
You, they say, have to strike up the conversation with him.
"To be honest, I'm antisocial," Penny adds. "I'm not social. I don't talk.
"Once I get to know people, that's when I talk a lot."
And only, he clarifies, when surrounded by family. That's why they're with him this night, and that's why Penny ever...so...carefully, ever...so...gradually decides to open up. Inch by inch, he lets the world know who exactly the Seahawks are counting on to fill the crater of a void Lynch left behind.
This is not someone who'll hurl Skittles into a crowd, grab his crotch as he dives into the end zone or shove an official. Not someone who'll sneak liquor into bars and get himself embroiled in a hit-and-run incident downtown. With Beast Mode, it ain't always pretty, but teams accept the full package because he brings unparalleled life-or-death abandon to every carry. His game is an extension of his upbringing and precisely what led to (literal) seismic tremors, five Pro Bowls and back-to-back Super Bowls.
And here's Penny. Nobody close to him can remember him doing anything remotely controversial. He's a kid without a mean bone in his body playing a very mean, very violent position.
Penny realizes how his meek demeanor is coming off and, out of nowhere, speaks up.
"When it comes to football," he promises, "that's when it's different. I'm a different animal.
"I have a switch."
Dad nods in agreement. "He's very low-key, but…"
Those words hang in the air. The Seahawks are counting on Penny flipping that switch, triggering another quake and bringing this team back to the 1-yard line in the Super Bowl, where Pete Carroll will have no choice but to give him the damn ball.
The stage is his. If he seizes it.
Once you're in—once he is willing to speak about himself—you see he's not going to shy away from that spotlight Lynch left behind.
Long before he was handpicked to replace a legend, Penny was whining to his parents every day as a college freshman. His coaches were out to get him. He was sick. He had headaches. He wanted to quit. He missed home. The excuses knew no bounds.
Mom and Dad heard it all.
"Oh my gosh…" Mom says, tilting her head back, thinking back to those calls.
"To San-Dee-Eh-Go," Dad adds. "He acted like he was going to Buffalo! ... I went crazy."
Campus was a short drive from the family's home in Norwalk, but Penny might as well have been shot past Buffalo, into outer space. The breaking point came when Penny told his parents he planned on ditching San Diego State completely to come home, attend Cerritos Junior College and "get it together." Robert and Desiree made it clear that was not an option and quit answering his calls.
Which then prompted Penny to relentlessly phone his sister.
Which then prompted his sister, Breonna, to ask Mom if she could change her number.
Aztecs offensive coordinator and running backs coach Jeff Horton remembers this delicate juncture in Penny's life. Speaking to his new back then was like tiptoeing around landmines. If he moved Penny to the scout team, Horton feared Penny would quit on the spot—so San Diego State had him return kicks as a freshman, which proved juuuust enough to wet his beak.
"A real mama's boy," Horton says. "He'd call Mom after every meeting, every practice. He'd tell his mom: 'Coach Horton was mean to me! Not like he was in recruiting!' Slowly, he evolved over time. Thank God the mom was strong. She said: 'You're not going anywhere. You're staying right there.' And I told him, 'You're homesick, and you're only 65-70 miles away.'"
The Pennys are close like that. They travel, Horton says, "in a pack."
Kameron Kelly, one of Penny's teammates and roommates in college, assures Penny can't go anywhere without his mom. He remembers Penny frantically calling her, nonstop.
But Kelly also remembers one other factor: the lifting sessions. They were brutal. Too brutal. San Diego State's strength coach pushed everyone to the brink of collapse, and Penny was slow to adjust. Coming in late, he didn't make friends right away, was shocked by college-level workouts and was absolutely ready to quit.
Adam Hall, the strength coach, pushed everyone "mentally," Kelly adds, in ways they never knew existed.
Penny nearly broke.
"You could tell he missed home and was ready to leave," Kelly says. "I was like: 'Bro. No. Don't go anywhere. You'll make some money if you stay out here.' So he did."
Eventually, games replaced workouts. Eventually, Penny worked his way into the offense, flipped that Hulk-like "switch" and transformed from meek to menacing.
Eventually, it got to the point where Mom and Dad were the ones calling Penny, asking: "Where you at?" and "Why don't you call anymore?" With the ball in his hands, he no longer missed home. He became, as Horton puts it, the best-kept secret in college football. He was shattering college records but playing past the bedtimes of millions—on local broadcasts, in the Mountain West Conference—so most mainstream fans didn't have the chance to truly appreciate his dominance, his peripheral vision to cut on a dime, his blinding speed.
It's that speed—that game speed—that best quantifies his "switch," coaches say.
"He's literally like a Lamborghini," says Otis Harrison, Penny's defensive coordinator in high school, when he played cornerback. "If it's running a 40, to him it's like driving to the store around the corner and coming back home. But if it's against the fastest guy who ran that day? That's a whole other story. You're going to get a whole other wrath."
Penny himself compares his style—his patience, his burst, his size—to Arian Foster. "One cut and gone," he says.
All Harrison knows is that Penny is about the same size as Lynch—5'11", 220 pounds—but, unlike Lynch, can detonate any given play.
"Any. Given. Play," Harrison repeats. "If he gets even, he's leaving. He's gone. They're not going to catch him.
"That's where that unique fire gets ignited."
So even though he's "soft" (Mom's words), even though he was the one getting beaten to a bloody pulp by his brothers growing up, there's always been a fire hidden beneath that gentle exterior. Penny admits he's ticked his name wasn't mentioned alongside "Saquon Barkley" predraft, saying he's better between the tackles.
"I'm up there when some people wouldn't give me a chance to be up there," Penny says. "As a running back, you're not going to claim that somebody's better than you.
"That's just how it is."
With that, he's comfortable.
He opens up.
So who is Rashaad Penny? That competitor lurking within?
Like everyone his age, he loves Fortnite. He'll play the survival video game five...six...seven hours at a time. Seriously. He'll last until 5 a.m., because it's tough to quit when you're winning and, he says with a grin, "I love winning."
He also loves to debate politics and sports. One day, Penny's arguing with his brother, Cardinals fullback Elijhaa, about Donald Trump and whether or not the U.S. president is making the right decisions. While he's no supporter, Penny liked that Trump met with North Korea dictator Kim Jong Un. He dislikes Trump's personality, lamenting that he "could easily be a good guy, but he's arrogant." The next day, he's conducting a hypothetical NFL draft with his brother, insisting he'd take Zack Martin over Tom Brady.
Go ahead and call him nuts. He's starting his dream team up front.
He's bursting with enthusiasm over LeBron James (his favorite player) joining the L.A. Lakers (his favorite team), but make no mistake: Penny is a Kobe lifer. The ruthlessness, the killer instinct.
"That's how I am," he assures. "I never want to lose."
Dad sees it. He brings up the story of how Bryant flew back to L.A. to work with his trainer immediately after losing to the Celtics in the NBA Finals—that exact trait is in his son. Penny brings up the fact that Kobe didn't get the minutes he craved his first two seasons—that was him at San Diego State. Like Kobe, he needed to be patient until he got his opportunity, and when he got it, to go full Mamba and "play every play like a maniac."
Stories and legends of this Rashaad Penny—the maniac—are shared with Chuck Norris-like reverence by all...
...like the time in high school, at cornerback, when Penny refused to move to the other side of the field because he needed to cover Snoop Dogg's son. His coach was forced to call timeout because the receiver on the other side of the field was wide-open.
...or the time against West Covina, on a 4th-and-38, when Penny plucked the ball from over two cornerbacks' heads and trotted in for the touchdown. One of those cornerbacks was 2017 Eagles second-rounder Sidney Jones.
...or the Cirque du Soleil interception he pulled off that didn't count but still makes Harrison's voice skip a beat. The opposing quarterback rolled to his right, threw to his right and his receiver caught the ball while leaning out of bounds—but Penny was right behind him, leaning even further out of bounds, somehow tiptoeing even closer to the sideline, to snatch the ball away from the receiver before—"Pop! Pop!"—getting both feet down. The play appeared to be so impossible, the official instantly waved it off as incomplete. "The official made the call off of what other human beings could do," Harrison says. "It was just humanly impossible what he did. That's not supposed to happen. You have to understand body positioning. My toes would've broken."
...or the fact that Penny could be on an MLB team right now. He didn't play football until ninth grade. Baseball was his No. 1 sport growing up. As Harrison watched Penny throw out the first pitch at a recent Mariners game, he couldn't shake one thought: Nobody has a clue, but he's the best baseball player in that stadium. He's certain Penny could blast homers for the Mariners. Right now. And Harrison doesn't stop there. Without using blocks, in track, Penny toasted fools in the 100- and 200-meters. That change of direction? Harrison's positive Penny could've been an unreal soccer player if he so chose. "Football, baseball, basketball, tennis, soccer," he says, "anything he wanted to put his mind to, he could have done it."
…or the kick return against Cal. It was, Kelly will never forget, "one against 11." That's why Kelly doesn't hold back. To him, Penny's absolutely superior to Barkley. Look at the offensive lines, he says. Barkley had NFL-level talent. Penny had four freshmen in front of him. "People can say whatever they want about the competition, but he stands above the competition by a long shot," Kelly says.
...or how Penny is freaky ambidextrous. In baseball, he could throw and hit with both hands. In basketball, he dribbled with his right hand and shot left-handed. Penny thinks his left hand is a bit more dominant, but in football, he doesn't favor the left side of the field. He reads defenses with a 360-degree mentality, thinking...thinking...and thinking with what Harrison calls a "savant-like" memory. He sees creases develop, and then, boom, he's gone. He makes you "feel his athletic rage," Harrison says. "You can feel it."
Or like a story from Penny himself. Hours before Penny played Nevada in November 2017, his brother called to inform him their grandfather had suffered a heart attack and died. There were no warnings, no health issues, no signs at all to soften this blow.
Penny and his grandfather were incredibly close. When Penny was a child, Cornelius Penny basically raised him and his siblings while Mom and Dad were working in New Orleans. Grandpa, in fact, was the one who first detected greatness in Penny. Every time Penny was beaten up by Robert Jr. and Elijhaa in living room games of "Throw up and tackle"—rendering Penny a pinata—he bounced back up for seconds.
Days before his death, Grandpa told Penny's father: "I knew that boy was going to be tough the way Rob and them used to kick his ass! I'd tell them: 'Leave him alone! Leave him alone!' They'd split up for a minute and then run right back into the room again."
Now, Grandpa was gone.
All game, Penny felt his grandfather's presence. He rolled up 429 all-purpose yards with four touchdowns in a blowout win. The heartbreak, on the spot, further sharpened Penny into the running back he is today. Motivated him. No doubt, there's an animal inside of Penny.
He thinks of his grandfather every day.
"A lot," he says. "To this day. Every day. ... I wish he was still here."
His sister, Breonna, chimes in for the first time. At dinner, she turns toward the brother who used to blow up her phone to ask, "Are you talking about Grandpa?"
Penny nods and ends this portion of the conversation with four words.
"We definitely miss him."
Michael Robinson can still hear the whimpers at the bottom of piles. And when he heard those cries for help, he knew Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks had their opponent exactly where they wanted.
Lynch was the team's soul, its spunk, the one who left opponents bruised physically and emotionally. How much punishment can you take? Play to play, week to week, season to season, Robinson—the man blocking for Lynch and his self-described "spiritual rock"—witnessed defenders ponder this question.
He was a "superhero," Robinson says, like Tom Brady in New England. "He put fear in people's hearts before they actually encountered him." As did the Seahawks, back then.
Not anymore. Through two Beast-less seasons, eight different Seahawks running backs have carried the ball at least 30 times. Through 16 games and 301 total attempts, running backs accounted for a grand total of one touchdown last season.
Robinson doesn't like the idea of saying anyone is "replacing" Lynch because Lynch, to him, is utterly "irreplaceable." "It's just unfair," he snipes. "Why would you do that?"
Because this is why Seattle drafted a running back in the first round. To replace Lynch. It has exhausted overweight reclamation projects (Eddie Lacy) and undrafted teases (Thomas Rawls).
Part of Robinson thinks that second-year player Chris Carson could be the team's answer at running back. He heard all offseason that Carson was a man on a mission himself. (With the news Tuesday that Penny will miss the rest of the preseason with a broken finger, Carson will get his chance.) But Robinson has also spoken with Penny and is quick to say Lynch and Penny are more similar than you'd think in personality.
Lynch feels a magnetic pull to home. Lynch, at his core, is shy.
Lynch's impact transcended X's and O's. "To hear grown men letting out yelps as they're encountering him," Robinson says. "He's just driving and driving and driving, and when he hits the ground, you just might hear a laugh. And as you look into the darkness, you see a sprinkle of gold from his teeth. That type of stuff. It's legendary. ... The next generation of athletes is going to be talking about Beast Mode." Lynch, to him, was no different than Barry Sanders or Adrian Peterson. And Penny, he's optimistic, can create his own everlasting identity in the same city.
"He can be one of the best the Seahawks have ever seen," Robinson says.
And they need him to be. John Schneider and Pete Carroll have defied logic before on draft day—and this is their next big gamble. There's no escaping that pressure.
Robinson agrees Seattle needs a game-changer to compete for a Super Bowl again.
Sorry, 12s. For now, unless that happens, nobody is afraid of your Seahawks anymore.
Gone is Kam Chancellor, that 225-pound hatchet lurking over the middle. Gone is Richard Sherman, the team's NSFW soundtrack who walked his talk by eliminating half the field. Gone is Michael Bennett. Gone is Cliff Avril. Gone is Bruce Irvin. Gone, soon, may be Earl Thomas.
Long gone is Beast Mode.
As football devolved into a pass-happy, keep-your-hands-to-yourself sport, the Seahawks remained that stubborn outlier that somehow was able to bludgeon opponents into submission. Now, that group is no mas. As long as Russell Wilson's the quarterback, Seattle will always have a shot, but this is a team in desperate need of a new identity.
That's where Penny comes in. After assuring everyone he "deserved" to be a first-rounder, he describes OTAs and minicamp as a breeze.
The run schemes Seattle and San Diego State use? Strikingly similar. He's seeing plays develop at warp speed.
"I have no learning curve," he says. "Everything is moving fast for me."
When everything's moving this fast, that's when he plays with a swagger. That's when he can morph into an untouchable force. Penny is absolutely driven by all hecklers insisting Seattle reached. Those echoes flip the "switch," opening the valve of all internal wrath.
Still, outside this very restaurant, locals don No. 24 Lynch jerseys. Lynch is the one who was worshipped here, the one who may have a jacket waiting for him in Canton. Told this, Penny repeats that he's not overwhelmed by Lynch's shadow because he's overcome a lot himself. He fought through that homesickness, those workouts and his grandfather's shocking death.
Soon enough, maybe No. 20s pack CenturyLink Field instead of No. 24s and Penny is the one triggering seismic tremors.
"I'm definitely going to [give] people their money's worth," Penny says. "I can't wait to get started."
The day before the draft, that's what Horton sold Seahawks offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer on. He told him exactly what he's saying here. That Penny grew into a tireless worker, one who didn't think twice about playing in his team's bowl game and proceeded to rip off his fifth straight 200-yard contest. He told him Penny never missed a practice, never missed a game.
He told him that Penny finished what he started and graduated from college.
Horton. Robinson. Kelly. Harrison. Everyone who's been around Penny can predict greatness now.
But there's only one minor caveat as Penny starts anew on the edge of the earth that is Seattle.
"It wouldn't surprise me," Horton says, "if Mom or Dad moved up there."