Reluctant Poster Boy

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It's a windy and cold Tuesday evening at Memorial Stadium, four days before the Big Game.

The Cal football team, coming off a blowout loss to No. 1 USC, is about to end practice.

As the Bears break the huddle and begin to trot into the locker room, a big line is already gathered on the side of the field.

The group congregates with each other, laughing, smiling, anxiously waiting, pen and paper in hand.

The folks standing there are not overzealous fans or autograph seekers, but sports writers who have covered Cal throughout the season.

On any other evening when practice ends, Bears tailback Marshawn Lynch is with his teammates, zooming off the field along with the 60-plus players, coaches, trainers and everyone else associated with the team.

In fact, go to practice, wait until it ends, close your eyes for a second, and Lynch is already up the Memorial Stadium steps before the blink of an eye.

But today is different.

It's Tuesday, the day that Mr. Lynch has to put on the breaks.

Tuesday, the one day of the week Cal coach Jeff Tedford sets aside for Lynch to speak with the media.

"Marshawn! Marshawn! Marshawn!" the reporters cry out.

This scene has been replayed countless times since Lynch began his highly anticipated sophomore campaign way back in the summer heat of August.

Everyone wants his time, everyone wants to hear what he has to say, everyone wants a piece of him.

Whoever coined the term "any attention is good attention" is completely wrong when it comes to Lynch, because the young man people call "Money" doesn't want the attention. He just wants to play football.

A player who has enough jukes in his arsenal to fake out an entire defense, Lynch tries to pull one more move from his bag of tricks before practice ends on this particular evening.

As he approaches the crowd of journalists, Lynch slowly creeps behind wide receiver Robert Jordan, who is walking off the field.

"Hide me, hide me," says Lynch playfully. "They ain't gonna see me."

Nevermind the fact that Lynch is about 55 pounds heavier than Jordan. The sophomore tailback is using his cousin as a miniature Chris Manderino, a lead blocker to guide himself away from the expectant reporters.

Lynch isn't serious, of course.

He understands that speaking to the media is something he just has to do.

But, make no mistake about it, if he had his choice, he wouldn't do it at all.

Is Lynch camera shy? Is his time too valuable to be answering questions for 15 to 20 minutes after practice? Is he uncomfortable getting so much attention when he feels more should be given to his teammates?

"It ain't that, man," he says. "I just try to do my thing on the field to get ready for the game, instead of being in the way."

Lynch knew that all this hype and attention was coming. And he knew it from a very young age.

His uncle is former NFL veteran safety Lorenzo Lynch, who made a name for himself in the league in the early and mid-1990s by his hard work ethic off the field and bone-crushing hits on the field.

The elder Lynch told his nephew what to expect once he started to blow up in high school. So far, it has all come true.

"I feel my uncle came along at a very important time in my life when all that recruiting stuff started happening," says Lynch. "When all the coaches and the media started coming, he told me what was what and taught me how to handle it. When I'm on the field though, he just sits back and lets me be me."

Although uncle and nephew play different positions on the gridiron, the toughness and mean streak that the elder Lynch exhibited and younger Lynch continues to exhibit bear an unmistakable resemblance.

After having a breakout campaign his senior season at Oakland Tech High School, leading his squad to a huge upset over perennial Oakland Athletic League powerhouse Skyline High School in 2003, Lynch caught the attention of every college coach in the nation.

Exactly how good was Lynch in high school?

A PrepStar and SuperPrep All-American and the San Francisco Chronicle's East Bay Player of the Year, he rushed for 1,722 yards and caught 17 passes in eight regular season games in his senior season.

But perhaps the most telling honor of all was the fact that, out of the hundreds upon hundreds of talented high school tailbacks in the country that season, Lynch was ranked by as the second-best ball carrier in the nation, behind only Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma's All-American star and Heisman Trophy candidate a year ago.

"It's not new to me, I've been with him, so I've seen it all," says Cal defensive back Virdell Larkins, who is also a cousin of Lynch. "Marshawn amazes me with some of the things that he does, but it's nothing new to me because I've been with him and seen what he can do."

Lynch's impressive freshman season-8.8 yards per carry to lead the Pac-10-backing up NFL first round draft pick J.J. Arrington led Lynch into the role of poster boy for the Aaron Rodgers-less Bears in 2005.

Lynch dominates the cover of the team's media guide. He stars in one of the team's commercials. His face is plastered on the team's billboard ads and his No. 10 jersey is a hot buy at the Cal Student Store.

After a slow start due to injuries, he has not disappointed this year. Lynch heads into the Big Game on Saturday at Stanford just 71 yards short of his first 1,000-yard season.

In the midst of the fame and glory, Lynch always seems to fall back on one aspect of his life and his past.

On his profile-a Web site that almost every college student knows about now-the section that says "About Me:" has one sentence, one term he chooses to describe who he is, one phrase that he sticks by: "MAMA's BOY."

Forget the whole toughness factor that a football player is supposed to have.

Forget the fact that people who put on the pads are supposed to be rugged, mean and ready to break at any minute.

"I definitely wouldn't be here if it wasn't for my mother," says Lynch. "Back when I was little she would take me to everything I was doing even though she was busy as hell. She is always there for me."

Lynch concedes that life as an adolescent was not exactly a walk in the park. He grew up in north Oakland, where crime, poverty and the struggle for survival are prevalent throughout the streets.

A tremendous all-around athlete, Lynch's outlet from the rugged city was the competition he encountered in athletics.

Believe it or not, the first sport Lynch fell in love with was, of all things, swimming.

"I started swimming before I started playing football," says Lynch. "I used to only play football in the streets and at recess and stuff, but I would always swim. When I get a chance, I still go out and take a swim here and there."

Lynch was also a fantastic sprinter at Oakland Tech, and a teammate of Bears star forward Leon Powe on the Bulldogs state-ranked basketball team.

In fact, "Money" was all business out on the hoop court.

While he famously admitted he smiles and laughs many times during football games behind the facade of his helmet these days, Lynch as a basketball player never once cracked a smile on the court.

Lynch played with the ruggedness of Dennis Rodman and displayed a mean mug towards opponents that would even make late great Bay Area rapper Mac Dre-the creator of the ubiquitous "Thizz Face"-proud.

"I kinda had that face thing going on with football too in high school," Lynch says. "But basketball was a whole different atmosphere, so I had to bring a different meaning to the game."

With the Cal football program in the midst of one of its greatest stretches, Lynch hears everyday from fans and teammates about this award and that accomplishment.

When the season began, Tedford called Lynch possibly "the most talented athlete I have ever coached."

But Lynch has a whole different definition for accomplishments that seems to show maturity beyond his years.

"The only thing I'm sure I'm going to accomplish after my career at Cal is over is getting my degree," he says. "That's a big one. On the field, I really don't know what I'm going to accomplish. I just have to wait and see."

Almost two years into his collegiate campaign, Lynch will likely not have to wait long for NFL scouts to come calling, inviting him to the combine.

But for now, he'll continue to try and keep the lowest profile possible.

Even on Tuesdays.


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