- When the NFL’s most enigmatic star travels overseas—from Egypt to Turkey to Brazil to Portugal—he charms diplomats and budding young football players alike with his distinctive style. In the quest to spread the game abroad, Beast Mode is football’s best weapon
LISBON, Portugal — In early March, when a group of NFL players arrived here on a goodwill trip, the U.S. Ambassador to Portugal, George Glass, invited them to a welcome dinner at the embassy. The players presented Glass with a football, and they all took a group photo, and, when it dispersed, Glass started tossing the ball around the embassy living room near his fine china. Soon, Glass was down in a stance, in a full suit, firing off shotgun snaps.
Wait, Marshawn Lynch said, do that again.
Glass, the white-haired former high school center, got down into a three-point stance, and Lynch, the 215-pound Oakland Raiders running back, lined up across from him. Everyone pulled out their phones, someone yelled out a snap count—“ready, set, hut”—and then Lynch launched himself at the ambassador, wrapped his arms around Glass’s chest and plowed him several feet across the room. “He said, ‘c’mon, c’mon,’ and I thought he was just going to tap me,” Glass says. “He, like, drove me back into the chairs. No mercy.”
Lynch was in Portugal as a member of American Football Without Barriers, a nonprofit run largely by a group of current and former NFL players, including Breno Giacomini, Lynch’s former Seahawks teammate. Each year, AFWB gathers a group of players and travels to a foreign country to put on football camps, do some charity work and do some sightseeing. In 2014, after the Seahawks won the Super Bowl, Giacomini convinced Lynch, Russell Okung and Golden Tate to come on AWFB’s trip to Brazil.
While Okung and Tate and others have rotated in and out of the trips since then, Lynch has become a mainstay. He has been on four of their last five—to Brazil, Turkey, Egypt and Portugal —and he really gets into it. He sacks ambassadors, spends time visiting hospitals and orphanages, and teaches children how to play the game physically, the way he does. For most of these people, Lynch is one of the first NFL players they ever meet, and he shows them a side of himself that most people don’t see. Over here, Lynch is not the reclusive curmudgeon he’s sometimes made out to be in the States. Over here, he is our foremost American football ambassador to the world.
It seems fitting, then, that AFWB’s trips usually start with a dinner with officials at the local U.S. embassy, as a sort of welcome assembly. While the other players typically dress up in ties for these events, Lynch arrives in his own traditional wardrobe, sweats from head to toe. His look alone sets a tone for the night and allows everyone to loosen up. “You usually have a reverence or a respect [in those situations], and it always goes out the window with Marshawn,” says Pete Hammill, an AWFB staff member. “He’s dropping curse words, being Marshawn, not really having a filter. A lot of times the ambassadors don’t really know how to take it, so they just go with it. It’s funny to see ambassadors just, like, cursing.”
By the end of the night, Lynch has won over the crowd. “The ambassadors are [Marshawn’s] best friends everywhere we go,” says Todd Buelow, the AFWB strategy director. The U.S. Consul General in Rio, John Creamer, liked Lynch so much that, a few days after their dinner he presented him with a few gifts: a brimmed hat common to the region and a cigar. In Portugal, after two videos of Lynch and Glass made TMZ, one of the players joked that Glass was so famous that he could run for president. “Only if Marshawn is my vice president!” Glass said.
Going on these trips has helped Lynch expand his worldview. When AFWB visits historical sights, Lynch is curious and asks questions. He can also turn any tour into a party. In Egypt, Lynch and the other players went on a camel ride in the desert, and someone took another video of him that ended up on TMZ. Lynch is wearing a headscarf and rapping while sitting atop the camel. “We ghost-ridin’ the camel right now, you feel me?” he says, bobbing his head and waving his arms.
At the same time, when AFWB visits a local hospital or orphanage, Lynch is often one of the more attentive people there. In Brazil, for instance, AFWB visited an orphanage that did not have access to good footwear. AFWB had the children line up and the NFL players, Lynch included, went down the line washing the children’s feet and giving them new shoes. One of the young boys took a liking to Lynch’s colorful Beast Mode shoes.
Do those help you run fast? the boy asked. I want to run fast.
Well, you have to work hard to run fast, Lynch said.
As Ahmed Awadallah, an AFWB co-founder, recalls: “He started talking about you need to work hard, how you need to outrun people. ‘When you’re in the orphanage and somebody’s running, outrun them.’ ” Then Lynch gave the boy his shoes. “[Marshawn] went back to the hotel barefoot,” Awadallah says.
Lynch also has a special affinity with the younger players at the football camps. In Portugal, AFWB put on a camp for elementary school children, and in one wide receiver drill, Lynch stood in as a cornerback playing press coverage. He’d hold the kids for a second and then let them run and catch a pass. On one rep, Lynch fell back and pretended to be bowled over by a little boy. On another rep, he chased after a little girl in pigtails, who giggled all the way downfield.
In Turkey, an AFWB camper dropped a few passes, got frustrated with himself and started walking off the field, crying and looking for his mother. Lynch pulled the boy, about 12 or 13 years old, aside and spoke to him for more than 20 minutes, and when the boy rejoined the drills, Lynch gave him the sweatshirt off his back. “I spoke to this kid a while after and he was like, ‘Marshawn changed my life. He taught me so much in such a little amount of time,’ ” says Deniz Somersan, an AFWB staffer based in Turkey. “The kid still talks about it every time I see him. He’s like, ‘[Marshawn] really changed the course of my life.’ ”
Lynch will even do things out of his comfort zone if it means advancing the mission of AFWB. That year in Turkey, the Seahawks had lost the Super Bowl after Malcolm Butler intercepted Russell Wilson at the one-yard line. Everyone in America wanted to know what Lynch thought about not getting the ball on that play, but Lynch naturally refused to discuss it—until he got to Turkey. A Turkish reporter requested an interview, and Lynch agreed to answer a Super Bowl-related question, in part so he could promote the AFWB camp. “Typical Marshawn: won’t talk to the U.S. media but talks to some random guy in Turkey,” says Buelow, the AFWB strategy director. “We were all shocked that he did it.” (Lynch declined to speak to The MMQB for this story on him, nevertheless.)
The Beast Mode side of Lynch finally comes out when the older campers arrive and the serious football starts. As the running backs go through footwork drills, sometimes Lynch stands at the end, waiting to hit them with a pad, to simulate being hit in a game. He doesn’t hold back, either. In Portugal, Lynch hit one running back so hard he fell down and drew a roar from the crowd. “I received [the hit] with honor,” the player said, smiling.
Later on, the running backs were working with the linebackers, going at each other one-on-one without pads, when Lynch decided they needed to take it up a notch. He brought on an extra defender and a blocker, making it two-on-two. “We got anybody that ain’t scared?” Lynch asked turning to the crowd, looking for volunteers. “What [kind of] running back gets scared when they start hitting?” Soon, the drill expanded to three-on-three, and then half the camp was gathered around Lynch’s corner of the field, hooting and hollering over the action. With every big hit, every big collision, Lynch amped up the energy.
At one point, he walked down a line of campers, calling them out.
“Are you scared?”
“Are you scared?”
“Are you scared? Let me see you run the ball.”
“Marshawn wants to hit people; that’s all he wants to do,” says DeAngelo Williams, the former Panthers and Steelers running back who usually organizes the running back drills alongside Lynch. “He loves that aggressive nature. We have a great balance, because I don’t want to hit at all, and Marshawn wants to drill people. Literally every drill we take about five minutes of us arguing, him wanting to do something and me not letting him do it.”
Every now and then, a camper decides to challenge Lynch, the same way someone might pick a fight with the biggest guy in the bar. Usually Lynch shrugs it off, but at his first camp in Brazil, he didn’t. A linebacker had been talking trash all camp, challenging Lynch. “Everybody in the camp was like, ‘No, Marshawn, you’re not doing this,’” Williams recalls. “And he was like, ‘No, I’m not gonna just let this kid call me out.’ I was like, what? And he said, ‘If I let him do it, everybody else is gonna want to do it. I’m going to shut all of this up right now.’” Lynch put on pads and a helmet, went one-on-one with the linebacker, and … leveled the guy. “You could see Marshawn pull up a little bit, otherwise he would’ve really [done some damage],” Williams says. “That’s when I knew then, he knows exactly what he’s doing.”
At the end of the Portgual camp—Lynch’s fourth—he lingered around and spoke with a group of about 20 of the campers, and one of the more talkative players kept yapping at him from afar. “Don’t make me put some pads on, bro,” Lynch warned. Another camper removed his pads and offered them to Lynch, but this time, he thought better of it.
An AFWB staffer announced that the bus was leaving, and the crowd dispersed. Soon, Lynch was alone on a bench, sitting next to a young man who appeared to have been crying. Lynch waited until almost everyone had left, and then he handed the young man his cleats, wrapped him in a hug, and headed for the bus, having won another lifelong fan.
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