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Marshawn Lynch remains one of sport's most captivating figures ahead of Superbowl showdown

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"The perception of me being a thug? I would like to see them grow up in project housing authorities. Being racially profiled growing up. Sometimes not having anything to eat.

"Sometimes having to wear the same damn clothes to school for a whole week. And then, all of a sudden, having a big-ass change in their life, like their dreams coming true, to the point where they're starting their career at 20-years-old and still don't know shit. I would like to see some of the mistakes they would make."

That's it. that's pretty much all we know about who Marshawn Lynch is. All you can really know, anyway, for a man who gives so little away. A 51-second answer in a rare interview granted to ESPN in 2013.

For Lynch the enigma wrapped in a riddle idiom was made. The 28-year-old Seattle Seahawks running back cuts a distant figure, hiding behind repetitious answers given to the media he dislikes so. He refuses to conform; after scoring a crucial touchdown during the Seahawks' remarkable comeback win in the NFC Championship game against the Green Bay Packers last weekend he didn't engage in ostentatious celebration but shook his team-mates by the hand. 

Marshawn Lynch Fine History

Of course that was just after he'd celebrated with a 'crotch grab' for which he was fined $20,000 and it seems a team-mate followed suit. He'd been hit with a fine of just over $11,000 for doing the same after a rampaging 79-yard touchdown run against the Arizona Cardinals in December. He was also fined $100,000 for avoiding interviews over the course of the season. He doesn't conform.

In the 2010 play-offs he scored a touchdown of such importance, one of such coruscant brilliance that the subsequent celebrations inside the Seahawks' CenturyLink Stadium registered on the Richter Scale. The man they call BeastMode caused a BeastQuake. He munches Skittles on the sidelines and was pictured smiling and dancing as the Seahawks were staring down the barrel of defeat against the Packers before their remarkable comeback which he ignited. He doesn't conform.

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He's considered, by some at least, to be rude, arrogant, crass, and, as already mentioned, a common thug. He lost his driving license after striking a pedestrian with his car during his time with the Buffalo Bills and been held on gun possession charges. He has his own foundation helping to improve the lives of under-privileged children, and in November he drove to the home of a man who had dropped his wallet in a Seattle gas station to return it personally. He's difficult to label.


Lynch starred for the Seahawks when they won Superbowl for the first time last year - he led the league in post-season rushing yards - and after another stellar season where he rushed for 1,306 yards and scored a league-leading 18 touchdowns, is close to helping his team become the first since the New England Patriots in 2005 to win the sport's biggest prize in consecutive years. He's then planning on walking away from it all after Sunday's game, apparently.

All in then, he's nothing if not a contradiction. In a world of black and white personas, of good vs evil narratives in professional sport, Lynch is an ocean of grey. Inevitably then, he's chronically misunderstood. 

Who is Marshawn Lynch?

But there's something more personal about his anti-establishment feelings, diatribes and actions towards the NFL than his background. After all, more than 66% of players in the NFL are African-American according to a study published in 2013, while national statistics show that more than 27% of black people in the US are officially deemed to be living in poverty. In other words, Lynch's background doesn't necessarily explain why the fire scorches inside him because the same issues affect so many.

After all, Denver Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas was just a child in 1999 when he was awoken by the sound of his mother and grandmother being raided by police for running a crack cocaine operation. Both are still in jail now.

Former scout and assistant director of pro personnel with the Dallas Cowboys Bryan Broaddus described the background of star wideout Dez Bryant as the 'worst he'd ever seen' during his time in the game. Lynch's upbringing was tough, no two ways about it, but not unusual for the NFL.

Going through changes

It may be difficult to pinpoint the time of change but there's no doubt that a switch has been flicked along the way. Go to YouTube and watch two videos of Lynch. In the first, in his time with the Bills, Lynch is playful during an interview with then-teammate Gibran Hamdan, claiming that he's the best swimmer on the roster before challenging - and losing - against defensive tackle Kyle Williams. 

Then watch the behind-the-scenes diaries filmed by team-mate Michael Robinson last season in which he steadfastly refuses to speak on camera; even if that camera is held by a good friend. Occasionally a smile is drawn and a glimpse of the kind heart those close to him speak about shines through, but nowhere near as strong as his desire not to be filmed. 

For Lynch it seems as though he's grown tired of hollow words without action, and grown tired of the fakery that surrounds professional sport in the modern era. His now famous remark before last year's Superbowl - "It's all about that action, boss" - seems to sum it up nicely. According to his mother Delisa, from his father Maurice Sapp's absence during his childhood trust issues manifested themselves, compounding an already introverted personality.


"He’s just a shy kid,” says Delton Edwards, a coach from Lynch’s football team at Oakland Technical High School and family friend.

“He don’t like too many people. He’s been like that all his life. It’s very hard to get inside him because he has to really trust you. When you put trust in people and people let him down, he closes those doors.”

Or, in Lynch's own snapped words for people who let him down which he spits like a reflex before catching himself in one interview; "fuck 'em". It seems the NFL and the media which the league controls so tightly is on his ever-growing list of those he distrusts. 

"I wouldn't do this interview with you if I didn't have to," he told a reporter last year. It was an interview to promote his foundation. He continued: "I don't feel this is really my calling, to be stood in front of a camera, talking to a reporter to get my word out. Because it's just words to people. But when you're actually out there, in the field, in the streets doing it, then they understand."


Paradoxically then, it's that air of mystery that makes Lynch one of the most captivating sportsmen on the planet. He offers visceral authenticity amidst a sea of pre-prepared orthodoxy. He looks intimidating and his stare could cut through a defensive line as well as he can. He's different. He's not a product or brand, and Seahawks' fans, known as the 12th man, or 12's, respond emotionally to that. There's no doubt he's loved.

His running style certainly adds to his appeal. If Darren Sproles can scythe through a gap then Lynch bludgeons his way through. He runs with his heart as much as his legs, fighting as though he's gasping for one last breath in a struggle for life. 

In the interview with ESPN from 2013, he compared his iconic run against the New Orleans Saints that caused the "BeastQuake" to his struggles through life so far and that seems more apt than ever. Over the past two seasons, Lynch leads the NFL in yards after contact (1,281).

He wasn't born to run, but runs as though he has to, as if he has no other choice in order to survive. He's the type of figure that stirs the blood and quickens the heart. If he's playing, you're watching. He has that air of flawed genius about him that so few possess; they just don't make them like that anymore.

"With any sportsman, their performance on the field is the most important factor to build a relationship," Hugh Bevan, who runs a UK-based Seahawks fan group, told GiveMeSport.

"The fact that the media have created this battle with him has only served to enhance the relationship in my opinion. We all love Lynch and as long as he keeps performing on the field I don't see that changing."

That's a feeling felt across the fan base too; over 50,000 fans have signed a petition calling on the NFL to let Lynch off his media obligations. 

There's no shortage of journalists willing to stick the boot into Lynch for his reluctance to talk to them, although they seem to miss the point that his one-word answers actually generate more coverage for them than any "110% effort" response might.

"I think he has some genuine anxiety issues, and doesn’t like dealing with the media, but I don’t think he’s misunderstood. I think he quite clearly has no interest in speaking to the media," Sky Sports analyst Neil Reynolds told GiveMeSport.

"It’s interesting - some of his family members said he doesn’t suffer from anxiety so if he doesn’t have that then I think he’s being arrogant. I think all players should have a responsibility to speak to the media.

"Actually, him sitting there and answering the way he did yesterday should still result in a fine. He’s still not co-operating. He answered everything to the letter of the law - but to me that still wasn’t very good."

Perhaps, given it's their job to get the scoop, it's understandable but Lynch's curtness seems to do more than deny them a story, it exposes the inherent flaws of their banal questioning and belief that athletes should cough up stories - a point well articulated by Deadspin's Barry Petchesky. Long story short, Lynch is giving them the answers their questions deserve.

New England, New Era

This week Lynch will be forced to face the assembled media in Phoenix, Arizona ahead of Sunday's big game. He'll be fined once more if he doesn't fulfil his obligations to talk, which somewhat inevitably means more one-word answers. He's been in the league since 2007 but still they don't know how to deal with him. 

Last year he spent much of Superbowl week with his sunglasses on and hood up, talking to team-mates behind a barrier, offering to speak to only NFL Network's Deion Sanders - which produced one of the all-time great catchphrases - and Armed Forces Radio. He also participated in a frankly awkward press conference alongside Michael Robinson but that was it.

Lynch may not be comfortable in front of the camera but he's evidently found a home in Seattle and a team that matches his ethos. If his actions can be perceived as arrogant, then he plays for an arrogant team; or at least one with the swagger to attempt a fake punt, a two-point conversion and an onside kick in one of the all-time greatest play-off comebacks.

“I kind of love his act,” Seahawks General Manager John Schneider told reporters on Friday - which other organisation would indulge him so? - and it seems like he loves Lynch enough to offer him a new contract too. 

Too bad then that he's never found a home in the league which generates so much publicity off his back. Marshawn Lynch is that rarest of beasts in modern sport; he's real - for better and for worse - and that makes him a problem to his employers.

He spends the off-season back in Oakland where he grew up. He says he doesn't want to talk and 'just wants to play football'. He is, at times, vulgar. 

"If people come up to me and say "what's up? They get a real "what's happening?" back," Lynch said earlier this season. "If I'm at my camp I'm actually at my camp. It ain't like I'm going to sit and talk to the media so people see me and the public are gonna love me. All of that is superficial."

For him, being real means not playing the game. Because of that his fans may never fully understand who he is and what makes him tick. And you know what? That's just fine.

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