Marshawn Lynch, one of the best running backs in the NFL, moseys through the door of the San Francisco Bay Area's Albany Bowl early Friday evening wearing all black: jeans, low tops and an oversized sweatshirt, hood up and tightly fastened with a bow over a backwards black hat. Printed on his hoodie in bright red are big, arced letters reading "LIFEGUARD" with a sizable red cross below them, followed by the large words "OAKLAND," and "CALIFORNIA" underneath in smaller text.
"It is! It is him!" a waist-high little boy shrieks to his father before running toward Lynch. Others flock to him to offer hugs, dap and handshakes. The Oakland Tech and Cal product, still basking in the glow of February's Super Bowl victory, disappears momentarily before returning to casually post up on a barstool. A handheld camera and boom mic have since picked up Lynch's trail and a queue also takes shape so he can fulfill the individual photo requests. A young girl is beside herself, in a daze at standing mere feet from the 28-year-old.
"Growing up out here, it's kind of an enigma to think that you can do what we're doing right now." (Seahawks.com/Godofredo Vasquez)
The bowling night is part of a now four-day annual event put on by Lynch's Fam 1st Family Foundation, a fundraiser to build a youth learning and development center in Oakland. He started the nonprofit with his cousin and high school teammate, fellow NFL player Josh Johnson of the San Francisco 49ers, the same year he elected to leave college a season early and was selected by the Buffalo Bills with the 12th pick of the 2007 NFL Draft.
"We're just trying to empower our inner-city youth," Lynch explains to a few members of the media the next afternoon, "not just in our community, but communities around the world. We take the approach with ... our foundation with just giving the best opportunity, putting our best foot forward with trying to give back to our community, to give opportunities to these kids that they don't have. Just the opportunity for them to see us is really big."
"Growing up out here, it's kind of an enigma to think that you can do what we're doing right now," adds Johnson. "A lot of people don't think it's possible for them because they don't see it everyday. But part of us coming back and being at home is for them to understand that, Oakland kids, we did the same stuff ya'll did, we made mistakes. And then we learned from them while we tried to improve to strive toward our goals. It's a reality, it's not a distant thing, that you can do what you want to do if you really work for it. And we just try to [be] examples that they can relate to, guys that they can communicate with."
Delton Edwards, the two's high school coach at Tech, has seen their development since the very beginning.
"We implanted that into them: Give back something somebody's given you," he said. "Your job is to come back and give something, make it better for kids after. And Marshawn never dreamed that it would get to this level, but he got it there, so he's in a position to really make this thing really explode, get an opportunity for the kids."
So on this night, between satisfying numerous appeals for selfies and group shots, taking part in a raffle for memorabilia, and the occasional frame of fingerless rolls down a lane, Lynch persists in giving fellow Oaklanders a kick in the pants — sometimes literally when prodding all of the doting children — with an eye toward the future.
But like the tough-exteriored backdrop, Lynch can't seem to shed the past or stereotypes about him.
* * *
There's an old saying in the Bay Area about the one-way toll of the bridge that connects San Francisco to Oakland: You pay to go to San Francisco; you never pay to go to Oakland.
This old chestnut notwithstanding, Oakland remains an especially gritty, difficult town. It's part of its understood charm — a tough city that hardens those who claim roots there.
"Oakland, it done taught me a lot," says Lynch. "I mean, Oakland has really just taught me about life, and I feel that I'm proud of my city and I feel like [without it] I wouldn't have been the man who I am today. I'd had ups and downs and I've been able to overcome 'em, just because I feel like being from Oakland I had to overcome so much. The reason I feel I've been able to bounce back from that is because of the strong backbone that I have, and that I represent Oakland."
Oakland consistently ranks in the top 10 major American cities on lists for violent crime (which includes homicide and robbery) and income inequality. In the last few years, the city has had a revolving door of police chiefs and owns one of the lowest officers-to-population ratios in the entire country. Some studies have even pointed to all of the death and trauma leading many inner-city youth to show signs of a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, most often diagnosed in soldiers returning from war.
"Oakland has really just taught me about life, and I feel that I'm proud of my city."
And yet, it's this same setting that was named No. 5 on The New York Times' list of 45 "Places to Go" in 2012. Online real estate company Movoto followed that up by dubbing Oakland its "Most Exciting City in America" in 2013, and Forbes ranked it No. 12 on its 2014 list of "America's Coolest Cities." For one extreme or the other, Oakland continues to receive plenty of editorial ink.
In similar fashion, no matter what he does — and in many cases because of precisely that — Lynch can't seem to stay out of the press, despite his apparent aversion for it. Most recently, Lynch caught flak for marking off his parked white Lamborghini Aventador Roadster with velvet ropes on an Oakland public street as he came off a holdout from Seahawks training camp. Word came later from the director of a biopic on Lynch's life that it was actually a staged scene for the film, and not Lynch's doing. Still, initial headlines always capture more attention than any clarification.
Lynch's distaste for the media, already well documented, became the national story of interest in the weeks leading up to last year's Super Bowl when he juked and stiff-armed his way past mandatory availability until the NFL eventually threatened a hefty fine. He finally submitted, sort of, by making an appearance practically backstage at Media Day and providing now prized gems to interviewer Deion Sanders. Quotes like "I'm just 'bout that action, boss," and "Laid back, kick back, mind my own business, stay in my own lane," only added to the Marshawn Lynch mystique.
Lynch reinforces his stance at his Fam 1st Football Camp when asked by an interviewer why he avoids reporters "I ain't worried about that, talk to me about something that matters," briskly followed by, "Thank you."
"I don't know why he didn't want to do nothing at first or talk to the media or none of that," says his mother Delisa Lynch. "I don't question him about it. We just keep everything positive in our circle, so if he feels media is a negative thing, then we just don't talk about it. Marshawn's just always been really unique, really quiet. I've always said, 'Don't talk about it, be about it,' and I guess that means you don't always have to put out there what you're gonna do, you just go out there and show them what you can do, so to speak."
* * *
Lynch told me otherwise back in 2010, that the bad publicity he'd received from several brushes with the law now into his ninth NFL season didn't affect him. "They've got to write their story, too," he said.
Yet that bad publicity may have at least something to do with his silence, especially as the criticism has only intensified.
Starting in May 2008, while still with the Bills, Lynch was involved in an early-morning hit-and-run when his luxury SUV clipped an intoxicated pedestrian at a crosswalk in Buffalo. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, which required the revocation of his driver's license in addition to a $100 fine. Less than a year later, he was arrested near Los Angeles on felony charges for possession of a concealed weapon, a loaded 9 mm semiautomatic handgun, discovered in his backpack. Marijuana was also found in the car, but no drug charges were filed. Lynch would plead guilty to a misdemeanor gun charge resulting in three years of probation and 80 hours of community service, and the NFL suspended him for three games.
Then in July 2012, Lynch was arrested once again during the early hours of a Saturday in a nearby Oakland suburb on suspicion of DUI. He eventually pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of reckless driving, paid a small fine, and is currently serving two years of probation.
The universal intrigue with Lynch, who so clearly maintains two starkly conflicting personas, hasn't been reserved solely for his criminal offenses.
The universal intrigue with Lynch, who so clearly maintains two starkly conflicting personas — Oakland hardass and selfless community steward — hasn't been reserved solely for his criminal offenses. Since gaining initial fame in college for jouncing an injury cart around the home turf of Cal's Memorial Stadium after a 2006 overtime win against Washington, his legend has only grown. There was the rediscovered interview after his 2003 high school league championship win, Lynch's affinity for Skittles in-game, which his mother called "power pellets" and he has since spun into an endorsement, and the widely-shared video of his post-Super Bowl locker room dance to Philthy Rich's "Ready to Ride."
Subsequently, there's been a shoutout from President Obama despite missing the customary title team White House visit for undisclosed reasons; his apathetic appearance at this year's ESPYS sitting behind his dapper teammate Russell Wilson; and cover boy treatment for ESPN The Magazine's annual Body Issue.
"You don't want to talk, but you'll be a stripper?" Delton Edwards, Lynch's high school coach, later joked among friends about the magazine spread.
"I think it's because he does things a little differently than everybody else," former Seattle teammate Michael Robinson, a visiting counselor for the football camp, explains of Lynch's inability to escape all the scrutiny. "Honestly, I just think that he gets a bad rap because he is what most Americans are scared of: the appearance, he's young, he's got money, and he really doesn't care of people's opinions of him. He kind of lives by his own code, and — especially sometimes in white America — people can be afraid of that, you know what I mean, because they don't know what to expect.
"But if you knew him and understand him and get a chance just to talk to him," he continues, "you'd get a chance to understand exactly what he stands for. Like for his DUI, that thing that happened a [couple] years ago, he was picking up guys and dropping guys off that were involved in the free football camp that he was putting on. But that gets lost in the story. So I just think, it's not fair to him. Let's talk about the whole thing. Really he's just a 28-year-old kid. Really, at his essence, that's what he is."
* * *
Lynch's mint, Washington-plated Lamborghini with the scissor doors that open vertically is already parked at an angle in the lot next to the dilapidated, old basketball gym when 9 o'clock rolls around on this overcast Saturday. A line of children ages 5 to 13 extends beyond the chain link fence as they wait to sign-up for the football camp. By morning's end, walk-ups nearly match the total who pre-registered and there are more than 400 kids on the worn-out Oakland Tech turf. For the afternoon session, approximately 300 high schoolers take the youngsters' place, pushing capacity.
"We don't turn nobody away," says Damon Island, assistant for the Tech football team, explaining a desire to help everyone, combined with the fact that there are few other options in town. "Everybody's gonna do their thing."
For the early session, paperwork completed and free T-shirt with caricatures of Johnson and Lynch on the front collected, each child — mostly, but not all boys — races over to join the expanding horde of rugrats being guided through stretching by Edwards. A handful of young recruits stop before passing through the gate to the field to admire and pose for photos with Lynch's Lamborghini.
Amid the burgeoning chaos — several coaches still trickling in after a late night at the bowling alley, duties being assigned, and equipment being located and deployed — the staff realizes they have no batteries for the bullhorns used to direct the growing glob of kids. The man of the hour hops in his Italian supercar and is gone in 60 seconds while the rest of the corps sorts through marshalling the event. He's back doling out Ds in minutes.
After throwing on some lime green cleats, laced but untied, and his wraparound reflective shades under his backwards black hat, twinkling ice in his ears, he joins the considerable body of children at midfield in Edwards-led chants of, "Hey Marshawn, come out and play!"
"If you feel like you just accomplished something big that you had going on, then that's Beast Mode."
El Jefe returned, children are herded into smaller groups for various rotations: among them, proper drop back and throwing technique with Johnson, agility and dummy tackling stations with others, and a high-knee running back drill with Lynch.
"You gotta finish, dude," Lynch tells one tyke, "Hey, good job, little man," to another. Lynch's brand of love is of the tough variety and he awards push-ups and gentle boots to the rear for not keeping control of the ball more often than the praise of high-fives and fist pounds. He's trying to instill the mentality of the printed logo on the back of everyone's T-shirt, his popular Beast Mode, one he feels is necessary to not only survive but succeed in Oakland.
"Beast Mode, it's part of the lifestyle," he says later. "It's pretty much self-explanatory. It gets thrown around loosely, I mean, all over. It's not set to one specific thing like we're football players or basketball players. Just if you are in your everyday life and you feel like you just accomplished something big that you had going on, then that's Beast Mode. It's an accomplishment, that you put yourself through something to get something better out of it. I feel that that's Beast Mode."
With music blaring from the DJ booth, footballs flying every direction, and a camera crew tracing each of Lynch's steps, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom makes an appearance and is out glad-handing. After Johnson greets the politico and grossly embellishes his bowling results from the night before, Newsom stars in a hammed up scene for Lynch's film before acknowledging Oakland's prodigal son and the contributions to his city.
"It's a reminder to everybody here that Marshawn is still part of the community," he says of the football camp. "I think that's a powerful message, especially for these young kids, that he didn't just get up and leave. I think that matters a lot to community pride, just to give people something to look up to from the perspective that he's giving back. And I've watched all the trials and tribulations, and he's still coming back. It's the real deal."
Throughout the day, in the midst of darting all over the field to each commitment at the camp, from manning his teaching post, to signing gobs of autographs, and actually taping a couple brief interviews, Lynch pays a visit to a midsized U-Haul rental truck parked up on the blacktop. Inside, a compilation of goodies, which includes Nike cleats, shoes and football gloves. Hands full, he marches back to the turf and begins looking for children to offer gifts. He asks one boy wearing tattered gray high tops for his shoe size and rewards him with a brand new boxed pair of cleats. Then Lynch hands several pairs of packaged gloves to a couple coaches with some instructions and off he goes, searching out the next disadvantaged child. He stops sharply and calls out to them, "That look like they need it."
Lynch, when allowing his softer, compassionate side to show through, comes off as sincere.
"If somebody would have told me when I was just in the middle of the street playing tackle football on concrete that I would be able to have a football camp and sponsor kids for free," he says, "I would have told 'em, 'You're a damn liar.' So, I mean, it's crazy."
It remains his harsher, less forgiving side that strikes fear in those who cross him, on the gridiron or otherwise.
* * *
"Whatchu doing, bro?" a saltier Lynch barks at member of the press under the amplified afternoon sun. "Who you with?"
You respond, and he repeats the news agency for confirmation.
He counters, "I don't want them to be compromised," gesturing to the huddle of teens encircling him.
He goes back to organizing O-lines for the afternoon of seven-on-sevens.
Moments pass and when the demand of the reporter goes misunderstood, Lynch's turn-on-a-dime, fiery demeanor, similar to his run-through-walls power style, emerges. Another wordless stare.
"Fine, if we're gonna do interviews," he says, "then let's just interview everybody. C'mon."
A failed attempt to politely circumvent the interaction, and he's pulled you into the cluster. Lynch's eyes stay hidden behind mirrored lenses, his upper gold-crowned incisors and matching grill covering his bottom row now in full view.
"Go ahead, introduce yourself. Let's get a quote from each of them. And I want their names spelled right, too. Let's go."
You try to hold composure as you introduce yourself one by one, Lynch jawing in your ear in the interim. "See, it's not that fun, is it? It's not that easy to do, is it?"
A few trite maxims and contrived slogans later from Terrell, Adrian, Kevontae and Toussaint within the pack, and Lynch orders another in the uncomfortable atmosphere. "We gotta get one from him, too. Right here."
"Don't be fuckin' robbing people!" Lynch shouts, pointing his finger at the child before springing to action.
Before you can ask, Lynch has his own sudden inquiry for the kid.
"Man, why you got an ankle monitor?"
A reluctant response. Standoffish silence.
"Naa, man, tell him," Lynch insists. "Tell him why you got an ankle monitor on."
Cocksure, the boy becomes vocal, "For robbing people," and flashes a pompous grin.
Swift justice: "Don't be fuckin' robbing people!" Lynch shouts, pointing his finger at the child before springing to action. "I'm serious!"
Newsman: Saved by the yell.
Lynch ushers the pupil off and lays into him with severe lecture for more than a few minutes in the distance.
* * *
The evening before at the bowling alley, happy attendees pour out onto the sidewalk as the festivities conclude. Beneath overhead neon lights, teens carry on outside, splashing water on an unsuspecting companion upon exit and dashing into the East Bay night.
Inside the 1940s, Art Deco façade, past the five windowpanes of the Albany Bowl Cafe, Marshawn Lynch lingers, perched on a stool at the old-timey diner's counter, surrounded by close friends and family.
"Hey, it's Marshawn Lynch," an unaffiliated passerby notes from outside to a friend. "Marshawn Lynch," the confidant repeats, enunciating slowly, each craning their neck to maintain their gaze through the window a little longer as they stroll by. Despite all the tales told about him, the quirks, and the two distinct sides to his personality, Lynch has never diverted from his passion for Oakland, nor his presence there, no matter how the place stagnates or evolves. For this, he is treasured by its citizens.
"We had other players that do it," says Edwards, "but not so much on this level. Mar' is the first one to reach out to everybody. That's what makes people love him so much, that makes him able to go everywhere, because he's not bashful coming back to West Oakland. He's not scared to go to East Oakland. You can touch him. Those other guys you couldn't touch. Mar' is available all the time. Wherever they need him, he goes."
The Fam 1st Foundation has hit a few snags along the way in the process of finalizing the location in Oakland for the youth center and then having it built, but Lynch and Co. remain undeterred, exhibiting a bit of his relentless approach. Probably not too surprising considering Lynch is the product of four-child, single-parent home in this same community. As was the common theme expressed many times throughout the event at Albany Bowl, bumps along the way and all, "It takes a village to raise a kid."
"He's growing as a young man," Edwards says of Lynch. "It's taken him a while, he's learning, everybody makes mistakes. Just like he'll tell you, you take a kid that had nothing, you give him a bunch of money, what do you expect?"
"This camp means so much to him," says his mother Delisa. "By him having the little negative things here and there, I think that was a big impact for him to say, 'You know what, this is not how I'm supposed to be. I know what I'm supposed to do.' Because there [are] seasons he doesn't get in trouble and he doesn't have a lot of negative things going, but I think, to me, it's the kids." She adds with a laugh, "Other than the fact too that he doesn't like being suspended."
Lynch remains as steadfast today as he was when we spoke back in 2010 about who he is, what he is about, and Oakland's place in his heart.
"The majority like to glorify the negative stuff," he said. "But that's their problem. I don't mind it. Everyone that knows me knows how I get down. So let them keep writing their stories."
About the Author
Kevin Fixler is a writer from Denver, Colo., who holds a master's from UC-Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. His work has appeared with Newsweek, The Atlantic and Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @kfixler.