Professional athletes inevitably become famous people. The very best professional athletes inevitably become very famous people. This is intuitive enough. Admiration follows if you are able to do awesome, unreplicable things on the field or the court or the pitch or the diamond or the green. People love sports, so they love people who excel at them, too. But what if you are one of those very best professional athletes, only you do not want to be famous? What if you are the best there is at what you do, and you genuinely cherish the opportunity to do it for a living, but no part of you has any interest in the obligatory attendant trappings of being a professional athlete? What do you do next?
The California Golden Bears have not been a standout college football program over the last ten years. But during my first two years of college, in 2005 and 2006, the team was very good, and that was because of Marshawn Lynch. Hailing from nearby Oakland Technical High School, just three miles down College Avenue from Cal’s Memorial Stadium, Lynch took over the starting running back spot as a sophomore and rushed for over 2500 yards and 21 touchdowns in two dazzling seasons. Look at this dude go!
Marshawn Lynch was plainly a very talented football player, and he remains that now. But what is so interesting about him, and what separates him from many of his All-American and All-Pro and Super Bowl champion peers, is that football to Lynch is clearly only one of many things that makes him happy. And throughout his career, and for all his success on the field, Lynch never allowed the task of playing football to eclipse his love for so many other things in his life.
Family always came first. A four-star recruit who was the second-ranked high school running back in the nation behind one Adrian Peterson, Lynch probably could have attended any school whose campus he would have been willing to grace with his presence. He could have carefully considered each program, each coach, each set of prospective teammates, and his corresponding chances to play on a national stage. But those were not things that made Lynch happy. Instead, he wanted to be near home and play football in front of his family and his hometown. So he went to Berkeley, proudly wearing #10 in sequence with his cousins, Virdell Larkins (#9) and Robert Jordan (#11), who also played on that Cal team. Beaming, the three would pose for pictures after games holding up intertwined index and middle fingers, their own symbol for their adopted motto: “Family First.” (There are probably dozens of pictures and me and my friends from college doing the same at contemporaneous Cal football games; I’m not proud of this.)
Sports made him happy. At Tech, Lynch also played basketball, ran track, and wrestled (side note: being the guy who had to stare down down Marshawn Lynch in a wrestling ring is likely the only fate worse than being the poor sap tasked with tackling him on the football field). In spring 2006, as Heisman buzz built for his eagerly anticipated junior season, Lynch decided it would be fun to join Cal’s track & field team. Imagine the SportsCenter takes if Paxton Lynch decided to try his luck at pole vaulting this spring. Others in Lynch’s position might have wondered if this was a smart choice, if he should be worried about injury, if this amounted to a wise investment of time for the face of the team and a future NFL draft pick. But those things did not matter to Lynch. For him, the calculus was simple: running with his friends would be fun, and so he did it. (All told, it did not seem to hurt him.)
Of course, candy made him happy. Lynch’s obsession with Skittles became famous during his tenure with Seattle, but it started back in Pop Warner when his mom would give him a bag of “power pellets” before games, explaining that tasting the rainbow would make him strong and help him run fast. As he got older, Lynch could have disposed of such silliness in favor of some kind of regimented diet of (I assume) complex carbohydrates and lean proteins and whatnot. But those things were not fun. Skittles, on the other hand, were very fun, and so he kept it up, laughing as the power pellets rained down on the field after touchdowns and gleefully flinging them into the crowd at the Super Bowl 48 parade.
And jokes made him happy. Lynch won’t shill for State Farm or Papa John’s, but here he is joyfully hamming it up in an ad for a Seattle plumber, smashing clogs with his fist and carrying toilets out of bathrooms for some reason and offering an enthusiastic pound to a six-year-old (estimated production budget of this commercial: $12).
While in Buffalo, Lynch famously rhapsodized to ESPN’s Kenny Maybe about his affection for the local Applebee’s scene, and before Super Bowl 49, he recorded a “Clueless Gamer” segment with Conan O’Brien and Rob Gronkowski in which he offers both men a touchdown dance tutorial and shows off his Mario Kart impression. This is still one of the silliest, funniest, most absurd videos I’ve ever seen. Every single time he clutches Conan’s arm and screams in wide-eyed horror at particularly grotesque Mortal Kombat violence, I lose it all over again.
The pinnacle of Happy Marshawn, though, is what was supposed to be a throwaway game against the then-lowly Washington Huskies in 2006. The visitors rolled in to Berkeley and gave the 11th-ranked Bears fits all afternoon, ultimately completing an improbably-tipped Hail Mary with no time left on the clock to send the game into overtime. Lynch, who for the day racked up 150 rushing yards on two sprained ankles, promptly restored order by romping for a 17-yard touchdown on Cal’s opening overtime possession. And after Bears linebacker Desmond Bishop sealed the win on the subsequent possession by picking off Washington’s Carl Bonnell and running it back some 60 yards before being tackled short of the goal line, the crowd roared in equal parts triumph and relief. But it grew even louder at the site of a gleeful Lynch, who celebrated by commandeering the injury cart and careening across the field, damn near doing a donut on the Memorial Stadium turf.
The scene was delightful. In order to procure said injury cart from its parking spot near the tunnel entrance to the stadium, Lynch acted deliberately, ignoring the jubilant dogpile on top of Bishop and running the opposite way from his elated teammates and coaches and everyone else rejoicing on the field. Why? From ESPN:
After Bishop finally fell down with the final interception, Lynch commandeered the cart used to carry injured players, saying he planned to pick up his exhausted linebacker.
The junior tailback wanted to ghost ride — a tradition in his native Oakland in which drivers lean horizontally out of their open car doors — but the cart has no doors. So Lynch jubilantly left turn tracks on Cal’s artificial turf while the student section went crazy.
Marshawn Lynch had scored the go-ahead touchdown and willed his team to victory, and the way he was going to join in the pandemonium was to pick up his teammate and clown around with the fans while he was at it, and no one was going to tell him any different.
Perhaps most of all, though, Marshawn Lynch loves kids. His appropriately-named Family First Foundation, which he co-founded along with his cousin, former 49ers quarterback Josh Johnson, has sponsored football camps for thousands of at-risk young people in the Bay Area. Pretty much every profile you read about Lynch speaks reverently of his unabashed love for children and portrays the chance to goof around with kids as meaning more to him than a rushing title or a playoff run or a Super Bowl. From one recap of a recent Family First camp:
Out here on this field, however, Lynch is most definitely at home. He starts his day in the famous gold cleats that the NFL wouldn’t let him wear in games last season, then later changes to slippers while serving as a hands-on instructor at his and Johnson’s camp. A wide-brimmed bucket hat hangs over his face, partially obscuring his gold-framed sunglasses, and over the course of more than an eight-hour day, Lynch never takes off his backpack he never seems to have use for. Occasionally Lynch playfully chides a young kid for failing to hustle between drills—“why you walkin’?”—and sometimes the criticism is more serious, the conversations more meaningful.
At one point Lynch is delivered some chicken wings on the field and he stuffs a few extras in his socks. Yes, you read that right, for a few minutes this millionaire, Pro-Bowl running back was coaching football on a warm July afternoon with chicken wings in his socks, which he later removed and ate.
Lynch isn’t even listed as the founder of his own foundation – that would be Cousin Josh. Marshawn is content to be co-founder, Vice President, and the first one on the field to do things like stuff chicken wings in his socks to get some laughs. In 2006, although he was widely expected to be a first-round NFL draft pick, Lynch skipped the suit and the handshake and the obligatory trip to New York City and elected instead to host a watch party at Oakland Tech; he was running around the school’s gym with a bunch of neighborhood kids when Buffalo called him. Just watch this clip of Lynch at his annual fundraiser BBQ in Oakland, bashing kickball homeruns and fighting off an army of little ones trying to slow his run around the bases, and try not to smile at how happy this person is in this moment.
Of course, Lynch’s demeanor on the kickball field contrasts sharply with his famously reticent attitude toward the dreaded mandatory NFL media availability. Throughout his career, but especially during his time in Seattle when he was subjected in consecutive years to the Super Bowl Media Day microscope, the press absolutely killed Lynch for this. Before the Hot Take Industrial Complex swallowed Cam Newton last month like some kind of unholy hybrid of a lava pit and the Sarrlacc from Return of the Jedi, it had formally declared Lynch an ingrate for his disinterest in talking to reporters, like it was some sort of great moral failing that he didn’t care to prepare detailed answers to questions like “What did this win mean to you?” or “Talk about what today’s win means.” Listen to these actual questions that actual journalists asked him to his face last February.
Why do you have to be a jerk to all of us?
Why do you feel like you should be able to not do what every other player is contractually bound to do?
Marshawn, isn’t this whole act just a way for you to get more attention for yourself?
Nah, man. By carrying on with this charade knowing full well that Lynch had no intention of responding, these reporters showed the same selfishness that they accused their subject of exhibiting. They knew Lynch would give them something easy to write about, more fodder for the hottest of takes grousing about how today’s athletes just aren’t respectful like they used to be. Their words were as self-serving as any that came out of any player’s mouth that day. But on an even more basic level, this criticism missed the point. Lynch is a quiet person who just happens to be very good at football. He was happy on the field and when he was helping others. Lynch correctly recognized that talking about the former did nothing to accomplish either goal, and reporters hardly ever asked him about the latter (notably, on the rare occasion that reporters did ask him about his foundation or his dream of building a youth center in Oakland, Lynch suddenly had plenty to say). So for him, media scrutiny was noise that served no purpose.
Fans who love a sport and love a team (and the press that serves those fans and covers those sports and those teams) often expect the same righteous passion and unquestioning loyalty from players, too. They demand visible buy-in from players that appears commensurate with their own fervor. But Lynch’s job was to work hard, to excel, and to win. Lynch’s job was not, however, to convince fans that he cared in the same way that they did. He should not have needed to convince anyone, either; his list of accomplishments speaks much more loudly.
It’s easy to mistake this response as ungratefulness, to portray Lynch as one blessed with a set of supernatural gifts who, maddeningly, didn’t or wouldn’t appreciate them. People who think that are wrong. Lynch worked hard at his craft, and clearly loved what he did. But his appreciation for his gifts didn’t translate into starring roles in Verizon ads, or holding court at press conferences, or tweeting inspirational quotes after every practice. Instead, he showed it by using his platform to do good things that he loved: he celebrated with his family, he clowned around with his friends, he gave generously of his time and resources, and then he went quietly home.
I’m glad Lynch became such a great player. I’m glad I got to cheer for him in college, and then to root for him all over again when he joined the Seahawks. When next season starts, I will miss him. But I’m also glad that he is retiring healthy and rich at the age of 29, and most importantly, that he never saw football as anything more than what it is: a game that is fun to play, but that is one of many components of his full and happy life.