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Marshawn Lynch resists easy media definition

1/27/2015

You want a quote from recalcitrant media-phobe Marshawn Lynch in advance of Super Bowl XLIX? Here's one that stretches nearly 100 words.

"My mom raised me by herself with no help, basically," Lynch told USA Today in 2007 before he was drafted in the first round by the Buffalo Bills. "She worked three jobs for me, and it's not just what she did for me but (for) my older brother and my two younger siblings.

"She made it to each and every one of our games. That was kind of hard, because I'm playing, my little brother had a game and, probably later that night, my sister might have a basketball game. And she would still manage to go and be able to feed us and clothe us and pay the bills. She's just my Superwoman."

Sounds like a selfish guy with misplaced priorities, eh?

This very reporter had a pleasant chat with Lynch not so long ago. Well, it was nearly a decade ago, about Lynch becoming a college superstar similar to USC's Reggie Bush and Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson. Lynch had two responses. First, he didn't want the attention. Second, who is Adrian Peterson?

"I really don't pay much attention to football when I'm not practicing or playing it," Lynch said in 2005. "I don't really keep up with football, period."

Lynch has been called many things. Some just love his "Beast Mode" on the football field and that's all they care about. His cousin, NFL quarterback Josh Johnson, has heard people refer to Lynch as a "thug," seemingly oblivious to the racist connotations of the term as well as the irony that the foundation Johnson and Lynch founded is expressly aimed at helping inner-city youths escape the so-called "thug life." The NFL believes he's a problem. He has been fined twice for grabbing his crotch after scoring touchdowns, most recently when he was fined $20,000 for making the gesture after scoring a touchdown in the NFC Championship Game.

Lynch also was fined $100,000 earlier this year for not talking to reporters. He did not speak after the NFC title game, and that's making required media interviews in advance of the Super Bowl a front-and-center issue -- a media storm, in fact -- a consequence that puts his desire to avoid the glaring spotlight and his unyielding will to do things his way at loggerheads.

He's never liked talking to reporters, which isn't unusual for star athletes, but Lynch's refusal has spiraled into the ultimate tempest in a teapot. It's a controversy that feasts on itself and will be resolved only when Lynch spouts cliched pabulum for a few minutes to reporters who will immediately become bored with the very thing that they clamored for over the past few months.

The least interesting thing about Lynch is probably what he will say when -- if? -- he speaks. The most interesting thing is that just about everyone who knows or has played with him only has good things to say about him. The negative public image as it is often articulated seems to say more about the speaker than Lynch himself, a construct of folks who don't actually know the man.

“There’s no question," said Jeff Tedford, Lynch's former coach at Cal. "I think it’s a total misconception of Marshawn. I think it comes across that he’s selfish. It’s totally the opposite. He’s never wanted attention put on him. He’s a quiet guy, he’s to himself, unless he’s within his circle of trust. Then he’s got a great sense of humor. Loves to laugh and have fun.”

To Tedford, the quintessential Lynch moment was when he commandeered a stadium cart on the Memorial Stadium field in 2006 after the Bears beat Washington in overtime. He waved a Cal flag and celebrated with fans. It was fun-loving and, yes, just a tad rebellious (Tedford was immediately told by administrators it couldn't happen again because of liability issues). It's probably also worth noting that Lynch played the game on two sprained ankles and rushed for 150 yards and two touchdowns, including the 22-yard game winner.

There's also depth to Lynch beyond "Beast Mode" and an array of fun-loving instances that became public, such as his commandeering a bottle of whiskey from a fan during the Seahawks Super Bowl parade last winter. There's strong loyalty within his circle of trust.

Tedford was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator this year but was forced to take a leave of absence due to heart trouble. Early on, he received a text from Lynch -- he calls Tedford "Bossman" -- checking in on his health.

“He’s a real caring guy," said Tedford, who is back on his feet and now the head coach of the B.C. Lions in the CFL. "But people don't get to see that side of him."

In the biopic film "Ali," about former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali -- now perhaps the most beloved figure in all of sports -- Ali is asked by a skeptical reporter if he was going to be "the people's champion." While Ali's approach with the media was obviously different from Lynch's, what he said probably explains a lot about why Lynch conducts himself how he does.

Said Ali: "I'm definitely gonna be the people's champion ... but I just ain't gonna be the champ the way you want me to be the champ. I'm gonna be the champ the way I wanna be."

Lynch has a right to be the way he wants to be. He has a right not to speak to the media, just as the NFL has a right to fine him for not doing so, though excessively escalating the dollar amount seems dubious.

It's important to remember that speaking or not speaking to the media doesn't define Lynch as a person and it certainly doesn't make him a bad guy. His mother, Delisa, is probably no more a fan of the crotch grabs than the NFL. It's also possible that Lynch deep down wishes he could hit a reset button on how things have spun forward.

Lynch -- quirks, flaws, unassailable physical talent and all -- is his own man. One day, he might change his perspective and how he conducts himself, but we -- those outside the circle of trust -- are not going to change it for him.

At some level, that's pretty damn cool. Pretty damn American, in fact.