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For nine seasons the running back known as Beast Mode shifted forms when confronted with the media, culminating at Super Bowl XLIX media day, where Least Mode sat silent. But since his retirement? An exclusive interview with SI and 60 Minutes Sports shows a far more garrulous fella.
If you think bringing Marshawn Lynch to the ground was a challenge, try getting on his calendar. The recently retired Seahawks running back (more on that later) agreed to talk during a tour of his hometown of Oakland—a serious achievement, given his arm’s-length relationship with the media—but then there was the matter of settling on a date. Since his exit announcement, slyly dropped during the Super Bowl, the five-time Pro Bowler has traveled to Haiti, Canada and Egypt, where he led a football camp, rode a camel and toured the Great Pyramid of Giza. A stealth visit to Flint, Mich.—he wanted to volunteer and lend solidarity to the citizenry—was postponed until later this summer; he appeared that week instead at a Clinton Global Initiative function in Oakland. When Lynch finally blocked out three free days, he warned that he would be spending one of those afternoons with his financial adviser. Then he would head to Seattle, where he would appear at a job fair as a favor to his friend, Starbucks' CEO Howard Schultz.
All of which speaks to this point: Lynch, maybe more than any other athlete, embodies the gulf between perception and reality. Make no mistake, Beast Mode is no façade. Lynch, 30, carries himself the same way he played during his potential Hall of Fame career, all bluntness and brute force. This is a man who, even with cameras rolling, uses the word “motherf-----” as if it were punctuation. But he is also a gracious tour guide, with a diverse circle of friends and a wide range of interests. With no threat of getting fined for noncompliance, he’ll happily talk about everything from Bay Area gentrification to the importance of authenticity to the much-talked-about status of his NFL career.
The following interview is excerpted from a joint 60 Minutes Sports/Sports Illustrated segment that debuts on Showtime on June 7. It starts at a park in Goldenville, the North Oakland neighborhood where he grew up.
Did your mom have rules about going to this park?
Hell, yeah. I got my ass whooped many a time for leaving home, coming to the park.
What was she afraid you might see?
We’ll start from the ground. When you look on the ground, you might see some needles. You might see some Pyrex [the cookware commonly used for making crack cocaine]—you know what I’m sayin’, Dawg? There was a lotta drugs. And if you lift your head up and open your eyes, you might see a prostitute walkin’. . . . What I would call real life, man. It wasn’t no bells and whistles.
Were you a happy kid?
We’d come to the playground, we was playin’—and then, you know, somebody would get knocked off, and that kid ain’t comin’ to the park no more. One of the OGs that usually ride by would tell you, “Make sure you don’t run out in the street chasin’ that ball.” It was what I would call livin’ and learnin’. But hell, yeah, I was a happy kid—especially when I came to the park.
This, today, is not the Oakland you knew.
Hell, no, it’s not. One day you wake up, you’ve got your neighborhood right here, then the next thing you know you see construction sites. And it’s like, “Hold on. What happened?” “Aw, yeah, well . . . [these people] had to sell their house for pennies or they was gonna take it from ’em.” “Huh? You mean to tell me people that have been staying here for the last 40 years had to sell their house?” . . . And it probably sounded like a lotta money. But what you really givin’ up is your history. You givin’ up your legacy. . . . I don’t even know if I feel comfortable comin’ back to where I grew up. Now I look like the outsider in my own damn neighborhood.
How does that make you feel?
I don’t have no problem with the change. Just give Oakland people—real Oakland people—our opportunity. Why not?
You said that as a kid, you came to this park and you had to be fully aware—and that helped you learn to deal with the media. What do you mean by that?
There’s nothin’ anybody could throw at me that I wouldn’t be able to handle.
Because of what you saw coming to the park?
Because of a lot of the things I dealt with growin’ up. Death. Being raised by a single parent—by a single mother who did a hell of a job, by the way. Goin’ at my early ages to the pen to see my pops. Losin’ close family members.
But you’re also aware of angles, agendas. You’re aware of power imbalances.
My momma instilled that in me. She gave me a sense to—I don’t wanna say read people, but to feel people. If you come to me with some f----- s---, I’m probably gonna see that a mile away. . . . I was one of [those kids] who didn’t believe you at first if you say, “Don’t touch that stove—it’s hot.” I’d wanna be the one that touches that stove, so I could find out what you mean by that.
You don’t strike me as a stove-toucher these days.
Hell, no. See, I had to learn, though.
Whether it’s, “You have to talk to the media,” or “You’ve gotta do X, Y and Z,” I think: If Marshawn Lynch doesn’t want to do something, he’s not going to do it.
Yup. If you tell me I gotta do something, I wanna know why I have to do that.
Because you have to.
I wanna know why. . .
Because those are the rules.
I wanna know why. . .
What do you mean? It says right there: Those are the rules. You’ve gotta do it.
Why is that the rules?
There was a story that you never cashed a game check—you saved all of your NFL salary money.
That’s false. I’m human. I’m very much human. If you pinch me, that hurts. I make mistakes, [but] I’ve also made some good decisions. But why would you wanna pocket-watch me?
What do you mean by that?
Your eyes is on my pockets—you wanna know about my money situation.
Everybody I’ve spoken to about you has referenced your financial savvy. What’s the source of that?
You ate cereal before?
I’ve eaten cereal.
Alright. Have you ever had a roach in your cereal before?
You haven’t, right?
I have not.
If you came from eatin’ cereal with roaches in it before, Dawg . . . Feel what I’m sayin’? You wouldn’t want to do that again, right? Once you’ve seen the lowest of the low, you don’t want to go back. But, like I told you before, it’s not me—I have a good team and some smart family members around me.
What does wealth mean to you, then?
You’ve gotta understand where I came from, Baby Dawg. Money wasn’t s---. It was the love and respect that I had for my family and for my peers [that mattered]. . . . Let’s say I went and got all that wealth—and then I had none of my family, none of my friends, none of my peers to enjoy that with. What would it have been [for]?
I’ve noticed that you’re much more likely to sign an autograph or take a selfie with a kid than with an adult. What happens when an adult says, “Will you sign this for my kid?” What do you do?
Where’s your kid at? Does your kid talk? And if your kid talks, let your kid ask me.
How does that play out?
If the kid’s not scared, the kid will ask me. And it goes over well. But if the kid shows a little bit shy or intimidated, I would do somethin’ to make ’em understand that I’m just a person. It’s O.K. to talk to me.
That’s important to you, isn’t it?
You’re goddam right.
You trademarked Beast Mode when you were in your early 20s, playing for the Bills. Now you’re making money off it. How did you know to do that?
It’s these smart family members that surround me and the team around me. I just listen a little bit.
If you were making a Marshawn Lynch’s Greatest Hits video, what’s your biggest football memory?
Truthfully? Me, Josh, Zell, Dirty Rel, MBs, in the back alley on 55th [Avenue] and Foothill [Boulevard, in Oakland]. Dirty Rel was guarding Josh [Johnson, now a Ravens backup quarterback]. Josh ran a fake. There was a big-ass van on the side of the road. And Josh ran a post. Dirty Rel bit on the post—and when he turned around, he ran smack dead into the back of the van. You feel me? Drop. Game over. . . . They got up. They had to fight—they had a slap boxin’ in the middle of the street over that.
You played in the Super Bowl, the Pro Bowl—and that’s the enduring football memory?
That’s it. My younger years. Everything was cool. Not to downplay [my professional career]; I had a hell of a lot of fun doin’ what I did. But when we kick back and we’re howlin’ about that . . .
Do you want kids? [Lynch is not married.]
Yeah, I want kids. Why not?
Would you let them play football?
I would let my kids do what they wanted to do, under [some] guidelines and knowin’ what’s really real.
You’re a guy who doesn’t do things he doesn’t want to do. That applied to football too: If you didn’t want to go down, you didn’t go down. But was there one guy who maybe made you do things you didn’t want to do?
I know somebody that got me good: Karlos Dansby, when he was playing for Arizona. . . . I thought I broke free, thought I was in the open, and he came, woke my game up. He had me running in the air.
[Seattle receiver] Doug Baldwin tweeted out that he didn’t want to see any Seahawks player wear your old number 24 for a while. You retweeted it. That moved you, didn’t it?
Doug’s a little edgy, but Doug’s my boy. Matter of fact, I call him my son. That was a big statement, what he said, not knowing if I’m done or not.
You’re O.K. with never playing another down?
Which camera you want me to look into?
You love Oakland, that’s clear. The Raiders could use a veteran running back. It seems like there’s an obvious story line there, doesn’t it?
No, I’m done. I’m done. I enjoyed my time playin’. Now it’s time to watch my cousins and all the athletes that I like watchin’. That’s what time it is for me.
Did you think of yourself as a football player while you were playing? I get the feeling you love football—
I identify myself as a person. I’ve got a homeboy, and he’s got this movement called Be Human.
What’s that about?
Just be a human. Other people will put a lot of different categories on what they feel . . . but in reality, all I have to be is human, be comfortable in my own skin. You know what I’m sayin’, Dawg? Comfortable with my own hair, with my own teeth, my own eyes. And my own mental.
Is there a bigger insult to Marshawn Lynch than being called a fraud?
Not being yourself—that’s the worst thing you can do. And why wouldn’t you wanna be yourself? It’s almost like lying. When you lie, you’ve gotta make up another lie to cover the [first], and by the time you figure out what’s goin’ on, you done lost yourself in a whole lotta lies. Why do that? All I can do is just show who I am, how I get down. And I’m gonna rock like that till the end. It’s really simple. Not everybody is going to agree with me. I don’t expect nobody to like the same food I eat—you know what I’m sayin’? But at the end of the day, I’m always gonna be me, regardless.