Marshawn Lynch changes direction

When the San Francisco 49ers meet the Seattle Seahawks in the biggest game of this weekend, the major storylines won't be hard to predict. The two star quarterbacks (San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick and Seattle's Russell Wilson) will receive ample attention while the NFL's hottest rivalry will be hyped to maximum effect. Probably running far behind all that hoopla is the importance of Seahawks Pro Bowl running back Marshawn Lynch. He's the epitome of everything Seattle has become, and he's only just beginning to show the world what he's really all about.

After all, Wilson wouldn't be nearly as productive if Lynch couldn't flip his game to its notorious "Beast Mode" and force opponents to keep eight defenders around the line of scrimmage. The same holds true for the dominant Seahawks defense, a hard-hitting unit that is able to stay fresh when Lynch is gobbling up yards. In fact, the entire Seattle team -- one that has become known for its aggressive, physical style -- owes a good portion of its tenacity to Lynch's hard-charging style. As Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said, "I don't know if we really had an identity before he got here. He helped give us the one we have now."

Lynch has gashed the 49ers for at least 100 yards in each of the last three games he's played against them. He's also been the least vocal member of a team that is filled with players who don't mind talking. Where All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman rarely has passed on the opportunity to utter a timely quote, Lynch has operated as if he's trying to maintain his stay in a witness protection program. The less he's let people into his life, the more enigmatic he's seemed to those outside of the organization.

Lynch has been the heart of Seattle's success since being traded from Buffalo midway through the 2010 season. At that point, Lynch was pegged as a problem child in need of a fresh start, a talented player with a gift for finding his way onto the radar of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. In 2009, Goodell suspended Lynch for three games -- after Lynch pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor weapons charge during that same year -- and the book was out on the troubled runner.

What Lynch has given the Seahawks is a nastiness that has been critical to Carroll's program. The progressive-minded head coach can use all the new-age thinking and outside-the-box tactics he wants, but when it comes to banging and grinding, he sees the value of old-school football as well. Lynch, on the other hand, has gone all-in with Carroll because the coach has given him the trust he's always desired. Carroll fought hard to make that trade for Lynch a reality, and the player has rewarded that faith with a relentless desire.

Lynch gave Seahawks fans a play for the ages in his first playoff game of the 2010 season, as he broke nine tackles on a 67-yard touchdown run against the New Orleans Saints. He followed that up with 1,204 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns in his first full season in Seattle and 1,590 yards and 11 scores on the ground last season. Lynch, now in his seventh NFL season, has elevated his game to a higher level with every passing year in Seattle. Just as importantly, he's realized that his power isn't limited to the football field.

This past July, he held what has become an annual event in his hometown of Oakland, Calif., a five-day party that is meant to shine a spotlight on a rugged city. There was a football game with relatives and old friends, a talent show for local kids, a charity bowling event and a football camp for children of all ages at his old high school, Oakland Tech. The same guy with the suspect reputation and the disdain for the media was even hoping local reporters would attend (as ESPN's "E:60" was there for an upcoming story). He wanted people to know he was raising money to support his plans for a youth center in the same rough neighborhood he escaped years ago.

At the camp during that event you could also get a glimpse of who Lynch really is. He raced onto the Oakland Tech field on a Saturday morning to face hundreds of kids who had been waiting for him to arrive. Lynch was late because he'd been arrested on suspicion of DUI the night before. He'd spent the ride from the jail to his camp trying to figure out how best to explain his actions to children who longed to enjoy his type of success someday.

It wasn't merely that Lynch did the right thing in being honest about his mistakes to those kids that morning. It's that it hurt him so much to think he'd let them down in the first place. Lynch knew he hadn't just made a mistake that could lead to another suspension and serious questions about whether Seattle was right to give him an extension earlier that year. He also was losing ground in a pursuit that had become important to his own maturation.

Lynch is learning that it isn't enough to lead from the shadows, not for a man who has as much to say as he does. At some point, the greatest talents also have to develop the courage to paddle away from their own comfort zones. Lynch could've easily remained the bruising runner who piled up yards and trips to Hawaii. Somehow he realized that he was smart enough to give the world a little more of himself.

After all, you can't sell dreams to poor kids in Oakland if you don't speak up. You also can't control your own image if it's always defined by police reports and misinformed impressions of outsiders. The irony of what Lynch is starting to reveal about himself is that there's always been substantial depth there. He just didn't see a need to share it with the rest of the world.

Today is a different day. He may not be completely in love with the idea of talking to the media constantly or even baring his soul. But he is growing in ways that are both noteworthy and essential to his own personal success and that of his team. The people in Seattle have known for the last couple of years that Lynch is impossible to contain. As his career progresses, the rest of the world would be wise to realize that the best in him is still yet to come.