Thursday, January 16, 2014

Before Marshawn Lynch Became "Beast Mode"

Before Marshawn Lynch Became 'Beast Mode'

Before "Beast Mode" began, Marshawn Lynch was a 180-pound scatback who drove his coaches crazy at Oakland Technical High School by avoiding contact.

"He used to get chewed out as soon as he hit the sideline," Virdell Larkins, Lynch's cousin and an Oakland Tech assistant coach, told USA TODAY Sports.

"In high school, he would hit the hole and he would juke, juke, juke. Our thing was, 'Marshawn, just hit the hole and stop trying to run around everybody.'"

It's hard to imagine that conversation taking place on the Seattle Seahawks' sideline with Lynch powering his team into the NFC title game against the San Francisco 49ers.

Here, he is Beast Mode — the Skittles-chomping, stiff-arming superhero who has rushed for more than 5,000 yards with 50 trips to the end zone since arriving from the Buffalo Bills in a 2010 trade.

But almost every Monday, Lynch takes the short flight to the Bay Area, where he's still Marshawn. The No.24 Seahawks jerseys seen in the heart of 49ers country Sunday will give away the pride his hometown takes in his success.

"He is definitely our star of Oakland, man," said Lynch's close friend, Kevin Parker, "and somebody I love dearly."

One of four children raised by a single mother, Lynch arrived on April 22, 1986, with an unexpected message from the midwife: he might have had a twin that didn't develop.

"They just knew that Marshawn was living off two placentas," his mother, Delisa, said. "She told me that with that, he may be an amazingly strong child. And I was like, 'For real?'"

From a young age, Lynch was "always the best at everything," said Larkins' son, Virdell III, another cousin who played with him at Oakland Tech. "Hella fast. Jump high. Run. Could kick the ball farthest in kickball."

On the football field, he was a quarterback until NFL-bound cousin Josh Johnson took the varsity job. Lynch moved to running back and led Oakland Tech to its first Silver Bowl city league title as a senior, sealing it with a tackle-busting TD run that has become his trademark.

"That was his first Beast Mode," former Oakland Tech coach Delton Edwards said.

"That put him on the map."

Parker recruited him to the University of California in Berkeley, a short drive from Oakland, keeping the self-described mama's boy close to home.

Lynch put in long days of weight training before arriving on campus. He was becoming a power runner, so strong he broke lifting records and grabbed the attention of then-offensive coordinator George Cortez during two-a-days.

"I kept hearing this collision behind me," Cortez said. "I finally turned around, and they were working him as a jammer on the punt-return team, and he was knocking all the gunners down on the ground and holding them down. I'm going, 'Oh, this is interesting.'

"We were worried when he was a freshman that he just wouldn't go down," Cortez added. "We were afraid somebody, when he was in a pile, was going to take his legs out and blow his knee up."

Lynch initially played some receiver but eventually became the starting running back his sophomore season in 2005. He gained more than 3,000 yards from scrimmage the next two seasons before the Bills drafted him 12th overall in 2007.

From the start, Buffalo was an odd fit for a 21-year-old West Coast native with dreadlocks, an affinity for gold teeth and a tight relationship with the family that suddenly was a six-hour plane ride away.

"We thought we were going to the Big Apple where we might have seen Jay Z and all the other big stars, and we ended up in Buffalo," Parker said of the first post-draft trip. "It had just snowed. It was super cold and real windy. It was a lot different than what we'd seen on TV."

Lynch ran for more than 1,000 yards each of his first two seasons with the Bills. He also ran into trouble.

In May 2008, he pleaded guilty to a traffic violation and admitted to leaving the scene after hitting a female pedestrian with his luxury SUV near Buffalo's bar district.

The following March, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor gun charge in Los Angeles.

The latter led to a three-game NFL suspension and set the stage for the Bills to trade him four games into the 2010 season to the Seahawks for fourth- and fifth-round draft picks.

"You have Oakland, where you have a melting pot," Edwards said. "In Buffalo, it's a big culture change. He couldn't adjust to it. ... But Seattle is more like a home atmosphere."

It helped that Lynch made the defining play of his career three months after the deal — a 67-yard touchdown run on which he was hit at the line, bounced off and broke another half-dozen tackles to put away the New Orleans Saints in a wild-card playoff upset at CenturyLink Field.

Just like that, Lynch was a star and "Beast Mode" was a part of the NFL lexicon, padding the pockets of the player who'd already filed a federal trademark on the phrase.

"He's a smart business guy, too," said Lynch's agent, Doug Hendrickson. "He's very, very savvy with everything he does off the field."

Beast Mode hats and T-shirts can be seen everywhere near during the Seahawks' playoff run. The team is selling a "Beast Burger" with sides of fries and Skittles — the fruit-flavored candy Lynch's mom, Delisa, used to give him as "power pellets" when he was playing Pop Warner.

When Lynch started playing high school ball, Larkins became the keeper of the Skittles on the sideline. In college, the duty was passed to Parker. Now, Seahawks fans are throwing them to celebrate his touchdowns.

"We talked about that every day, just becoming a star," Virdell Larkins III said. "All the kids say 'Beast Mode,' man. It's been a dream come true for me as well as him."

Lynch, 27, hasn't avoided trouble altogether. Four months after signing a four-year, $30 million contract extension, he was arrested in July 2012 on suspicion of DUI. The trial has been delayed several times, with the latest court date set for Feb. 21.

Upon being picked up from the jailhouse, Parker said that Lynch insisted upon going to his youth football camp. It's one of many initiatives tied to Lynch's charity, the Fam 1st Family Foundation, which plans to open a nonprofit youth center in Oakland soon.

"The look on his face — he already knew," Parker said. "We didn't have to say much to him about being arrested. He was like, 'Man, take me to my kids. I need to get to the kids.'

"The transformation of him shrinking his circle down a little bit and finding new friends, how to trust them, how not to trust them, how close to let them in and keep them at bay is a big thing."

Friends say Lynch is outgoing and funny off the field, though he generally shies from the spotlight. He recently was fined $50,000 for violating NFL policy by not talking to the news media all season before an appeal held it in abeyance if he complies going forward.

Before the appeal was heard, a group of Seahawks fans began an Internet campaign to pay Lynch's fine for him. It's another sign the tattoo across his chest may read "OAKLAND," but Seattle has adopted Beast Mode as its own.

"I think it's a really a blessing," Delisa Lynch said. "He's had a lot of positive people in his corner."

And to think at one time Lynch didn't want to run over people, to the point his high school coaches told him they no longer were counting his yards unless they came after contract.

"By his senior year, I said, 'Nephew, we've got college, but if you run with power, we've got hall of fame,'" the elder Virdell Larkins said. "He embraced it and he took it, and that started Beast Mode. He lived for that." — Tom Pelissero | USA Today

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