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Marshawn Lynch leaves football just as he played it

Marshawn Lynch was just as comfortable on the field in those harsh lights as he was profoundly uncomfortable explaining why this was so.

If you’re lucky enough to write about sports for a living, maybe you’ll also be lucky enough somewhere along that path to see a great team built before your eyes. That happened to me when I started covering the Seahawks locally and nationally in 2010, the year the team hired coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider.

In that first year, Carroll and Schneider cycled through a record number of players, trying to make magic with a roster that had been left mostly barren by the previous regime. Among those first-year transactions was an Oct. 5 trade with the Bills in which Seattle sent a couple of mid-round picks for running back Marshawn Lynch, a somewhat disappointing former first-round pick. Taken 12th out of Cal in the 2007 draft, Lynch topped the 1,000-yard mark in his first two seasons, but given the perception that he could do more and his various small-time run-ins with the law, it seemed that the Bills were just as happy to move on.

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As much as any of the other brilliant moves Carroll and Schneider made over the coming years, that trade defined the new-look Seahawks. Lynch, who unofficially announced his retirement on Twitter during the Super Bowl, became the heart of the franchise right away. This young team had a flair for drama, and that was made most clear during the first playoff game of the Carroll/Schneider era. The 7–9 Seahawks “won” a historically bad NFC West and thus had the honor of hosting the defending Super Bowl champion Saints at Qwest (now CenturyLink) in the wild-card round. The key play came with 3:22 left in the game: The Seahawks had the ball at their own 33-yard line, up 34–30, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck handed the ball to Lynch, and then ... well, it happened.

Lynch broke tackle after tackle, refusing to go down, splattered Saints cornerback Tracy Porter with one of the most brutal stiff-arms ever seen, jumped up as he reached the goal line, held his junk in mid-air, and came down with perhaps the most amazing touchdown in Seahawks history. The crowd, already known as a rabid bunch, jumped up and down with such fervor that they literally shook the earth, their celebration registering as a seismic event.

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I was on the sideline for that quake, and although I felt it, I didn’t know what it would mean for Lynch and the team going forward. Lynch had already become the beating heart of the locker room, something unknown to most outside of that locker room, and that run multiplied his effect on the team and on the city. There would be run after run like that—plays in which Lynch had several defenders around him, and would seem to say, “Forget this, chumps. Get off me now!” and that would be that. There would be times when the Seahawks were down and needed a shot of toughness, and Seattle’s quarterback would hand Lynch the ball, and Lynch would turn the field his way, seemingly bending it to his will.

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What was just as interesting was Lynch’s reaction after the game. In his first season in Seattle, he was fairly open with the media. But he bailed out of the locker room after Seattle’s 41–36 win over the Saints as quickly as he possibly could. Lynch always seemed uncomfortable talking about himself in those crucial moments, but back then, if he’d fumbled to sink a game, he’d sit there and take every question.

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Of course, that relationship with the media took a weird turn during Seattle’s Super Bowl run to end the 2013 season. Lynch seemed genuinely baffled by the attention paid to him, and even more baffled when his refusal to speak to the media blew that attention out of proportion. I always wondered why he didn’t just take the pill and do the dumb stuff, but he’s always marched to his own drum.

I tended to understand Lynch’s aversion to the media as Super Bowl week wore on and a cabal of writers stationed in New York City decided that they would gang up and force Lynch to speak—basically round him up and make him sit there and take questions. I had one esteemed media member—a friend and colleague—basically explain it to me as the media’s divine right to have players bow to the media’s needs. I heard another colleague tell me that I was considered for the cabal but was rejected because I wasn’t black, and thus wouldn’t “relate” to Lynch as well as someone who was.

I left that media session slightly nauseous, wondering to myself, “Who the f--- do we think we are?”

After that day, I left Lynch alone. I didn’t want to be part of that problem. I simply watched the man work on the field and occasionally chuckled when he’d crank his music as loudly as possible at his locker during media availability. Yeah, I get it, man. You want to be left alone. And maybe your only obligation should be to do what you do on the field.

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Because what Lynch did on the field for the Seahawks was about as good as it got. From 2011 through ’14, Lynch ran for more than 1,200 yards in each season, led the league in touchdowns in ’13 and ’14, and cemented his status as the team’s pace-setter on and off the field. Whatever the media thought of him, you could go and speak with anyone who wore his same colors, and they’d tell you: Marshawn Lynch is the greatest teammate we’ve ever had. Marshawn Lynch is the leader of this locker room. We go as far as Marshawn goes, and no further.

That finally started to change in 2015, of course. Lynch missed nine games with injuries, undrafted rookie Thomas Rawls replaced him adeptly until Rawls succumbed to an injury of his own, and Seattle’s offense started to revolve around Russell Wilson more and more. It wasn’t a surprise that the Seahawks were talking about life without Lynch as they headed into the 2016 season—running backs approaching age 30 with $11 million cap hits are an endangered species. And it wasn’t a surprise, if his tweet holds up as the official announcement, that Lynch took the decision out of his team's hands, retiring without a word during the NFL’s biggest game.

Marshawn Lynch was just as comfortable on the field in those harsh lights as he was profoundly uncomfortable explaining why this was so.