OAKLAND, Calif. — In the hills near his waterfront home in nearby Richmond, most mornings during the offseason you can find Marshawn Lynch climbing makeshift stairs he had built for his daily training regimen.
“It’s just putting in the time,” he said. “That’s it. It ain’t nothing too special to it, just putting in the time and the effort.”
Reports of Lynch not showing up for part of the Seattle Seahawks’ offseason program made news back in Washington. However, Lynch, 27, diligently trained at home, reporting to training camp in the best shape of his life.
“He’s really worked,” Seahawks running backs coach Sherman Smith said. “And we’ve just talked about him getting better this year, so in the fourth quarter when we go into our four-minute offense, he stays on the field. I told him that’s your job – to win the game for us in the end.
“So when we have to run the ball 10 times, 12 times – whatever it is – that he’s not on the sideline eating Skittles and drinking water.”
While other Seahawks generate more headlines – think Richard Sherman – and national attention – Russell Wilson – it is Lynch who is the engine that makes Seattle’s run-first attack go.
Lynch set a career high for rushing yards (1,590) and attempts (315) last season. His 2,531 rushing yards since Week 9 of the 2011 season is the most over that time frame.
He’s rushed for 100 yards or more in 16 of his last 25 games. He was voted to the Pro Bowl the past two seasons, and has earned the nickname Beast Mode because of his physical, relentless running style.
But you won’t hear him talk about it, because Lynch evades reporters like the would-be tacklers he dodges and plows through on the field.
“I just feel it’s crazy how much time people put into this media stuff,” he said. “If they put as much time into the media as they put into something else in life, they’d be great at doing something.
“I mean, what am I going to talk about?”
It’s not the spotlight Lynch avoids as much as it is who he is.
“He was always a real quiet kid,” Lynch’s mother, DeLisa Lynch said. “But if he set his mind toward it, then that’s what was going to happen. He’s been like that.”
Added Virdell Larkins, Lynch’s uncle who served as his running back coach at Oakland Technical High School: “All those personal accolades, that don’t mean nothing to him. He loves the game. And when the game is not fun for him, then he’ll probably let it go.”
THE BIRTH OF BEAST MODE
DeLisa Lynch didn’t want her son playing varsity football at Oakland Tech.
She watched him excel as a running back in youth football. But the boys were much bigger and rougher tackling her son during his freshman year.
“It was different than Pop Warner,” she said. “They were crunching and hitting, and I was like, ‘No, my baby ain’t playing no varsity. That’s out.’ But for some reason over the summer, he just grew. He just got real big and real strong.”
By the time he was a sophomore, Lynch was starting at running back. According to Larkins, Lynch was more a scat back then, known more for making people miss than running over them.
But the transformation from a Barry Sanders-type runner to what NFL observers see now on Sundays took years of work in the weight room, along with daily work out on the field with Larkins, cousin Josh Johnson, who now serves as the backup quarterback for Cincinnati Bengals, and Larkins’ son, Virdell Larkins Jr., now a defensive backs coach at New Mexico Highlands University.
“Once he came and started running with power, that was Beast Mode,” he said. “I was his strength coach. They would lift weights every day, until 9 o’clock at night. Six days a week we trained. The seventh day was Sunday, and they watched film. So it was non-stop.”
When Lynch returns home, part of his workout includes bag drills with Larkins back at his old high school field, which he considers getting back to the basics of what established his power and balance as a runner.
The drill is simple – a runner has to maintain his balance while keeping his knees high running over bags on the ground while trainers on either side of him try to knock him off balance or strip the ball out.
“Being able to get back to those bag drills, that’s just automatic – that’s consistency,” Lynch said. “That’s something I’ve been doing, and I’ll continue to. I think I’ll keep doing the bags even when I’m done.
“Those are defenders. I know they’re just bags, but to a running back it teaches them to never stop their feet from moving and keep their legs high.”
Larkins also kept it simple on game days – one defender should never tackle you.
“We started counting the YAC yards – yards after contact,” Larkins said. “And when we would come in and watch film, I’d ask him, ‘So one person can tackle you?’ ”
He said that if Lynch got tackled by just one person, he’d have up-downs to do the following practice on Monday.
“He was a kid that was always going to persevere regardless, and I think that’s how he runs,” he said. “He lives for today, knowing that tomorrow is coming. But he has to make what’s happening right now.”
No story about Lynch would be complete without mentioning his affection for Skittles.
His mother first introduced him to the candy during youth football games. But the story is a little different than how it’s been recycled on TV.
“I would always have candy in my purse – just something to kind of calm him down,” DeLisa Lynch said. “So I would give him the Skittles before the game, and tell him, ‘Here baby, you eat these. These are you power pellets.’ ... It was just a joke for me and him.”
GET SOME SQUARE IN YOU
Ask Lynch about personal goals for the season and you likely won’t get a peep. But a number he does care about is the 21 kids under the age of 18 that have been shot and killed in Oakland since 2011.
In order to fight that statistic, Lynch started his annual football camp every summer at Oakland Tech. The free camp, now in its seventh year, has grown to 600 participants, and offers kids a chance to interact with Lynch and other pro athletes up-close.
Also, Lynch lets kids know that there’s more to life outside the streets of Oakland.
“We had to bury a few kids that had been there that a lot of the kids had seen,” Lynch said. “So it was more of how we perceive the community being from Oakland. Making it out of Oakland and going to other places, seeing other places. And being able to come back to Oakland and share that with the youth is something that helps open their eyes.”
Johnson, who helps run the camp with Lynch, described it as “Getting some square in you,” – understanding and adapting to your surroundings so that you can make connections and excel outside of the streets of Oakland.
“You become accustomed to it because you’re around it so much,” Johnson said. “And that’s the part I’m trying to get them to understand. It’s OK to embrace certain things. We embrace Oakland. We embrace our Oakland culture. But there’s some things out there that you have to understand that you shouldn’t embrace, because it will head you down the wrong path.”
Lynch has had success stories emerge from the camps. DiAndre Campbell and Marcus Peters play football at the University of Washington. DeJon Gomes plays safety for the Detroit Lions. But there’s also kids that have moved on to attend college, become coaches and are active in the business world.
“He has been a great mentor for me,” Peters said. “I give him a call when stuff I need (answers for). I talk to him, and he keeps in touch with all of us from the Oakland area, you know. He is just there if we need anything, just to call and talk to.”
Lynch was one of those kids from Oakland headed down the wrong path. He showed a lack of interest in school, skipping classes, something DeLisa Lynch worked hard to change.
“I would work like noon to 8, and Marshawn would have like English and Spanish in the morning,” she said. “And he was having trouble in those classes. And I would go with him and sit in class. I did that for my son.”
While attending her son’s classes, she recognized that Marshawn had trouble seeing the chalkboard up front and took him to have his eyes checked. She found out that Beast Mode needed glasses.
“Once he got glasses, he was able to see better, and it helped him,” she said.
Lynch stayed local for college, attending Cal where he became the fourth player in school history to gain over 3,000 yards rushing. The Buffalo Bills then selected him with the 12th overall pick in the 2007 draft but his time with the team was marred by off the field incidents, which is how the Seahawks came to acquire him four games into the 2010 season.
In 2008, Lynch had his license revoked after he hit a 27-year-old woman and kept driving. The next year, he was suspended for three games after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor gun charge.
Lynch also has an alleged DUI charge still winding its way through the Alameda County district court system. His next court hearing regarding the matter is scheduled for Nov. 1.
The Seahawks understood the risks in giving up fourth-round and fifth-round picks to secure the services of Lynch. But they felt comfortable enough with Lynch to offer him a four-year, $32 million deal in free agency during the 2012 offseason.
Other than the pending DUI case, Lynch has stayed out of trouble.
“The growth he’s experienced in his maturity level is huge,” said Kevin Parker, a family friend who recruited Lynch to Cal. “He’s had his stumbles and setbacks, but he’s continued to move forward.”
‘A UNIQUE PERSONALITY’
You never know what Marshawn is going to do next.
He can be walking and joking with fellow teammates one minute, and all of sudden break out in a full sprint through the locker room.
Sometimes you will spot him riding his mountain bike along the road in front of the team’s facility from his home nearby in Renton.
Before practice starts, he’ll work with the defensive linemen on pass rush drills, with his gloves attached to his face mask.
“He has a very unique personality,” Johnson said. “He’s hyper – a big, grown kid.”
“They see the dreads and the gold (teeth) and think, “Oh, he’s a thug.’” Larkins said. “But they don’t know his heart.”
Former Seattle running back Justin Forsett, now with Jacksonville, was Lynch’s roommate at Cal. A son of a preacher, the humble Forsett is much different than the spontaneous Lynch. Still, the two are good friends, with Forsett returning to Oakland each summer to help out with Lynch’s camp.
“We have two different personalities, but it’s one of those things where real recognized real,” Forsett said. “He has a genuine heart, and I have a genuine heart. And we just stayed close friends.”
Smith calls Lynch the most talented running back he’s ever coached, and that includes his days in Tennessee working with Eddie George.
“He can do all of it,” Smith said. “He can make you miss with power. He has decent speed. He doesn’t have speed that some other guys have. And he has elusiveness. Now, if you’re a tackler, you don’t know what you’re going to get from him – Is he going to stick his foot in the ground and run by me? Or is he going to try and run over me?”
Forsett takes it even a step further, saying Lynch will go down as one of the best runners to ever play the game.
“He just has a unique balance of speed and power,” Forsett said. “A lot of guys just have power, or they just have speed. But he has it all. He can shake guys, or he can run through you. And I think that’s what keeps the defensive players off guard.
“There’s countless runs that I’ve seen in school, and I was there in Seattle for Beast Quake. So I’ve seen a lot of it first hand. He’s one of those guys that will go down I believe as one of the best to ever do it. He’s got that type of skill set. He runs with such toughness and violence. Right now, Marshawn and Adrian Peterson are at the top of the game.”
Seahawks offensive line coach Tom Cable called Lynch football brilliant, saying what made him so special is his ability to quickly adapt to new schemes or changes in the offense.
“He doesn’t need a lot of reps,” Cable said. “He doesn’t need to go to the board and rehash it over and over, or look at it on film. He can get it right then and there. So that’s a real gem in terms of skill set.
“He wants to be special, and I think that’s our mentality. We try to do everything better than someone else can do it, or has done it. And he’s adaptive to that. Plus, I think he understands he’s profiting from that, too.”
Offensive lineman Breno Giacomini says Lynch’s relentless running style rubs off on the rest of the offense.
“It’s pretty cool to block for him really,” Giacomini said. “It’s awesome. He’s the type of runner every offensive lineman wants. So we’re very lucky to have him, and I’m very lucky to block for him.
“We just respect the hell out of him. We respect the way he runs, and that’s why we’re trying to be perfect out there, so he can be perfect.”
But for Lynch, the accolades and praise don’t matter – wins do.
“I just go out there and play like it’s my last game,” he said. “Everybody’s living through social media. Everybody is like a surrogate. Nobody’s real anymore. If you don’t have a thousand followers on Instagram, you’re not smacking. Nobody wants to talk to you.
“That’s not real life. Don’t feed into that. What’s real is this life.”