Marshawn: Behind the Grill

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Normally calm and soft-spoken, tailback Marshawn Lynch suddenly gets upset.

He is standing on the Memorial Stadium bleachers after a particularly grueling practice, trying to ignore the biting cold and the pain of his still-tender ankles.

Although he just spent yet another day trudging through injuries, although he leads the Pac-10 in rushing and although he spent the morning giving advice to an Oakland student who is struggling academically, Lynch is visibly disappointed with himself.

“I still need to get back to Sam, and get to McClymonds,” says Lynch, remembering that the Athletic Director at McClymonds High in Oakland, Sam McNeal, asked him to come and speak to a group of students.

Lynch does not think that starring for a top-10-ranked college team is grounds for neglecting any requests from the community.

As if on cue, Lynch turns to his left and finds someone who can reinvigorate his spirits.

A timid adolescent walks into the stadium with a football and asks for an autograph. He is too afraid at first to even make eye contact with Lynch, but he opens up after Lynch asks him how his day was and readily pens his refined signature.

“It’s nice for the kids to be doing something positive like (coming to the stadium) instead of running around the streets at this time of night,” says Lynch. “Growing up, I never had those kinds of experiences.”

Lynch is notoriously sheepish when talking to the media. His mother Delisha Lynch said that he has always been shy and was never comfortable in front of the camera growing up.

But the second he is in front of beaming Pop Warner football kids, the second he begins talking about his family or the second he goes back to Oakland Tech, Cal wide receiver Robert Jordan says Lynch’s guarded persona is transformed.

“You have to drag that dude away from Oakland Tech,” says Jordan, who is Lynch’s cousin. “He’s always donating cleats and gloves, always at the games. He just shows love to everybody.”

Lynch sees himself as a leader in Oakland, a potential role model who can show disenchanted students that success is possible.

“Growing up in Oakland, I didn’t have no pops, didn’t get to be around a lot of positive role models. I kinda had to figure it out on my own,” says Lynch. “I didn’t find out what college was till my sophomore year. I never thought I’d be here.”

He makes sure he’s there for those who need him.

When a high school friend told Lynch that a struggling student at the day care center where she works admired him, Lynch volunteered to meet with the student and give advice about the importance of an education.

Mere days before, Lynch had made the trek to talk to the Vallejo Raiders, a Pop Warner team.

It was the type of trip his high school football coach, Delton Edwards, said rarely gets publicity.

“He doesn’t want people coming out with the camera,” says Edwards. “He wants to do it because somebody did it for him. All I ever asked of him is to give back to the community. He’s doing more than we expected.”

Lynch is also there for his family. He never passes up an opportunity to wrestle with or give advice to Davonte “Boo Boo” Lynch, his little brother and the best athlete in the family, according to Marshawn.

Delisha Lynch says sometimes she has to drag the phone away from Boo Boo because Marshawn is talking to him for too long.

“Boo Boo really looks up to him,” Delisha Lynch says. “Marshawn’s sort of like a big brother to a lot of people.

“Underneath all that costume and grill and the dreads is a gentle giant. He knows it’s family first.”

About the only criticism Delisha Lynch has of her son is his grill, which she has learned to accept.

“He has a beautiful set of teeth,” she says. “But I just say let him have it. The more people say take it out, the more he wants to keep it in.”

Although Lynch may embrace the role of vocal leader and mentor off the field, he is anything but on it, save for some rare moments of excitement when he lets his emotions pour out.

“He doesn’t like being the leader, he’s not a cheerleader kind of guy,” says Edwards. “His actions on the field make kids follow.”

Edwards fondly recalls one of those moments, when Lynch subbed himself out of a high school game—with Oakland Tech up by more than 30—so a backup running back who had not entered a game the entire season could get some playing time.

Cal coach Jeff Tedford insists that Lynch has become much more vocal this year, but Lynch refuses to call himself a team leader and still prefers to be a face in the crowd.

He is still often abrasive with the media, often preferring to wear his stunner shades and headphones and give abrupt answers.

“I hate doing this, I only do this because they force me to,” said Lynch two weeks ago at the mandatory Tuesday press conference.

“Me and Marshawn, we’re not really that verbal because we don’t like to step on people’s feet,” says Jordan. “We do more of leading by example.”

Lynch sees no reason why he needs to be a vocal leader just because he leads the Pac-10 in total purpose yards and scoring.

“We got some people on the team that are vocal and all that,” says Lynch. “They do a great job of that, they get me juiced. My energy, I’m saving away for the first play.”

Both Jordan and his high school coach said they think a lack of trust fuels Lynch’s reticence with people he is not close to—especially the media.

“Around adults, he’s worried people are just around him because they want to be near Marshawn,” says Edwards. “He’s picky about who’s around him. You have to prove yourself to gain his trust.”

Lynch has shown some glimpses of vocal leadership this season, although it still is not something anyone expects on a daily basis.

Sitting in a team meeting before Cal’s win over Oregon, Lynch suddenly broke the silence and started the Bears’ patented defense chant, yelling “Roll Call, Defense,” repeatedly until the entire team responded with, “Get the ball back.”

“He’ll do that sometimes,” says center Alex Mack. “He gets pretty fired up. Still, it was pretty shocking when he yelled that out.”

Lynch says that he expected the defensive players to join him in the chant.

“They kinda put me on the spot,” says Lynch. “I was on a solo mission.”

Before the game against Washington, Lynch took offense when the Huskies players did their jumping jacks on the Cal logo and chanted that Memorial Stadium was their house.

Lynch called the entire team over and made sure they did their stretches at midfield, yelling that Washington thinks they can intimidate the favored Bears.

“When I read the papers and saw how he took charge, how he said this is our home, I was shocked,” says Delisha Lynch. “I was just laughing all the way through reading that. You never know with Marshawn.”

Before the team even got inside the stadium against the Huskies, Lynch surprised everyone—including Tedford—by grabbing the flag in the March to Victory.

But Lynch said he did not do it to fulfill any leadership responsibility.

“I was just messing around,” says Lynch. “I had nothing to grab. It was more for the fun. I like to see the team get excited.”

Lynch gets serious when talking about his roots.

Edwards said that Lynch plays with such inner fire largely because of his tumultuous past, which gives him the drive to seize every opportunity.

“It’s his upbringing in Oakland that makes him want to achieve more,” says Edwards. “He’s had to prove people wrong. They didn’t think he would succeed on field. He’s making it. They didn’t think would make it academically. He’s making it.”

The Boys and Girls Club kept Lynch focused on-and-off the streets as a youth, and led him to discover football.

“Oakland’s not one of the safest places, but it’s home and I love it,” says Lynch. “I wish I never had to leave.”

Lynch has been talking now for about 15 minutes, initially guarded when asked direct questions about his own performance on the football field but much more amiable and eager to talk when asked about his upbringing or the children he has seen who are desperately in need of role models.

Two more kids walk up and ask for autographs. The sun set long ago, but Lynch greets each with the smile his mother calls—although with some bias—the most beautiful in the world.

This is a spotlight he is comfortable with.


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