The misunderstood Marshawn Lynch

E:60 - Marshawn Lynch: Beast Mode (11:37)

They call him "Beast Mode" because with the ball in his hands, Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch is ferocious, and nearly unstoppable. In an exclusive interview, Lynch discusses how the violent and crime-ridden streets of Oakland shaped him. (11:37)

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Marshawn Lynch sat in an empty corner of that cramped cell of the Santa Rita jail in Dublin, shaking his head while thinking about his stupid decision. Outside, the sun was rising on what should've been a beautiful Saturday morning in mid-July, a day when he would give back to all the kids who attended his annual football camp. The more the Seattle Seahawks' Pro Bowl running back thought about his predicament, the more his heart ached. I told myself I wouldn't put myself in this position, he thought to himself, and here I go again.

The children who gathered at Oakland Tech high school that morning had no idea what was going on as they clutched their helmets and tied up their cleats. They only knew that the man they were dying to see was nowhere to be found. Before long, a panic erupted among coaches and relatives. Kids kept asking questions, and the adults had no answers.

Lynch couldn't hear that growing commotion from his jail cell, nor did he know what damage he'd done to his career after police arrested him for driving under the influence. All he could do was the one thing very few people have ever seen him do: fret. "Hey, man," Lynch said to an officer near his cell. "What time are you letting me out of here? I got a football camp up there with 600 kids. And I gotta get to them."

• • •

It's a safe bet that nobody who follows the media coverage leading up to Super Bowl XLIX will hear Lynch recite that tale. He rarely speaks to reporters, and his silence during last year's Super Bowl became one of the biggest stories of that week. During Tuesday's media day, Lynch answered every question with some variation of "I'm here so I won't get fined." But Lynch's arrest on the morning of July 14, 2012, is revealing because his recollection of it -- which came during a three-hour interview Lynch taped for ESPN's "E:60" in 2013 -- provides a rare glimpse into the soul of the NFL's most enigmatic star. It's not that Lynch has nothing to say; it's just that he too often doesn't see the point in doing that publicly.

For Lynch, there is no mystery to his ultra-private nature. "Being from Oakland, you see a lot of things," Lynch said. "You see friends turn on friends all the time. You see family turn on family. So I feel like if I'm going to rock with you, then I'm [in] 100 percent, and you're going to know that. ... I've been pretty good at reading people. If you rockin' with me cause you're just a solid individual, then we're rockin'. But if you got a motive or something, I am going to probably see right through that."

The problem, of course, is that Lynch has created his share of problems with that approach recently. He received a $100,000 fine by stiffing the media until the end of the 2014 regular season. The league also has fined Lynch twice this season for grabbing his crotch after touchdowns -- $11,050 after a Dec. 21 win over Arizona, $20,000 following Seattle's 28-22 overtime win over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game -- and announced that any similar gestures during the Super Bowl would result in a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. If that isn't enough, he planned to break out gold cleats against the Packers until the league said he wouldn't be allowed to play if he wore them.

The people close to Lynch can't really explain the crude behavior -- "It doesn't affect him because he only wants the money to go to a good charity," said Kevin Parker, one of Lynch's longtime friends -- and Lynch has never made any attempts to explain it, either. Lynch insists he's "not a media whore" while adding, "I don't play ball because I want attention. I do it because it gives me the opportunity to bust somebody's head. And I just love to do it. I love what I do."

Lynch also continues to excel at what he does. The consensus view of running backs is that they decline the closer they get to age 30 and the more often they carry the football. Although he'll turn 29 in April -- and has averaged 295 carries over the past four seasons -- Lynch has seemingly only grown stronger. This year, he led the NFL with 17 touchdowns (13 rushing and four receiving) while rushing for 1,306 yards. Lynch was a force during the NFC Championship Game, as he rushed for a career-high 157 yards and helped Seattle overcome a 12-point deficit with five minutes left.

When the Seahawks were struggling late in that game, television cameras found Lynch dancing on the sideline, as if Seattle was in perfect position to derail Green Bay's upset hopes. He had been equally confident at his home earlier that day, when family and friends gathered to see him off to the game. When somebody told Lynch that Parker was especially nervous for the contest, Lynch chuckled and asked Parker why. Lynch hadn't been nervous before a game since his freshman year at Cal.

"He was just alive -- ripping," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He had a couple catches, too. It's been an extraordinary season that he's put out here because he's been so consistent for so long, and he's been so physically right for so long. He looked explosive again. He looked fast. His attitude is always there."

"He's hands down the best back in the game, because he can hurt you any time he has the ball in his hands," said New England Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. "I think it's going to be so important for us to have more than one defender tackling him, because he's shown over the years what he [can] do. He'll make some defenses and he'll make some players look stupid on the football field."

What Lynch certainly understands is that this Super Bowl isn't merely an opportunity to win a second championship. It also very possibly will be his last game with the franchise. That was a big factor in his decision to hold out this past offseason -- the Seahawks eventually bumped his total earnings from $5 million to $6.5 million this year -- and it's no secret that the team is looking to clear cap space to sign star quarterback Russell Wilson to a long-term extension. Lynch, who has one year left on his current deal, even joked about the likelihood of his departure earlier this season, saying, "I had better ask the owner [Paul Allen] for some money for my foundation before they run my ass out of here."

"He knows they have to take care of the quarterback, but I hope they don't forget what helps the quarterback do his thing," Parker said. "That team plays the game differently when Marshawn is on the field."

• • •

The morning of July 14, 2012, started with a mix of excitement and anticipation for Lynch. The night before, he had held a bowling tournament to raise money for his foundation, "Family First," which he runs with his cousin, San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback Josh Johnson. Lynch had $20,000 worth of merchandise for the kids attending his camp as he wheeled a Ford van out of the bowling alley parking lot around 3 a.m. A few minutes later, an Alameda County sheriff's deputy pulled him over because Lynch was weaving in and out of the northbound lanes of Interstate 880 in Oakland. A police report said Lynch registered a .10 on a Breathalyzer test. (Lynch's attorney later said the test resulted in a .08, which is the lowest level above the legal limit in California.)

For a man who already had two run-ins with the law during his eight-year career -- Lynch pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge involving a hit-and-run in Buffalo, New York, in May 2008 and to a misdemeanor gun charge related to his carrying a concealed weapon in Culver City, California, in February 2009 -- it was the last thing he needed. He'd received a three-game suspension from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after the gun charge. But failing to show up for his camp would be far more painful for him. Said Lynch: "The whole night that I was in jail I was like, 'Damn -- I got this good thing going and I just put myself in a position where I'm not gonna even be a part of it.' ... I just thought to myself, 'Why? How did you even let something like this happen?'"

Lynch knew all too well what it was like to be disappointed by an adult. He grew up in a rough area of Oakland where drugs, gangs and violence lingered right outside the gate of the home he shared with his single mother, Delisa, and his three siblings. Lynch's father, Maurice Sapp, was around until Lynch was 11, then disappeared shortly thereafter. Suddenly, Lynch went from having a father who would take him to church and sing with him in the choir to having someone who was in and out of jail and, as Delisa said, "decided he just didn't want to be there."

Whatever Lynch was before that point, something changed in him after it. He became more guarded and more suspicious of people's intentions.

"He doesn't want people to let him down," said Dalton Edwards, who coached Lynch at Oakland Tech. "And so it's hard to get inside that zone with him. If you get into that little zone, in that little shell, you're good. He'll love you for the rest of your life. But if you let him down, he holds grudges. ... And I think that was built because of a relationship he didn't have with his dad."

Building a tight inner circle eventually became one of the most important priorities in Lynch's life. He became close to his uncle Phil Larkins and Edwards because they treated him like a son, pushing him on and off the field as he became a high school sensation. Lynch chose to attend Cal because Berkeley was right next door to Oakland, and two cousins already were on the team (Robert Jordan and Virdell Larkins, Phil's son). When Lynch played for the Golden Bears, he would run onto the field for home games and seek out Delisa in the stands, where she would be surrounded by other relatives.

Even when Lynch decided to leave Cal after his junior season, he didn't want to travel to New York for the 2007 draft. Instead, he gathered all his loved ones into the gym at Oakland Tech. Fittingly, Lynch was running around with a bunch of children when the Buffalo Bills called to say he'd been selected with the 12th overall pick.

Lynch couldn't see it then, but leaving Oakland for the first time would be a challenge for him. He had chafed at all the media demands that came with his heightened success at Cal, and he had clashed with some coaches early in his college career. "They didn't think Marshawn was taking it to heart," Delisa said. "Like [he] was slacking or cheating himself, where if you told him to do five push-ups, Marshawn might do three." Delisa also feared so much for Marshawn's reputation that she asked a Buffalo-area reporter not to judge Marshawn on his appearance, because "They see the gold teeth and the dreads and they automatically think here comes a thug or a bad guy and ... and he's really not."

Delisa's fears were realized as Lynch's tenure in Buffalo played out. Lynch gained at least 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons but amassed only 450 yards in his third season, largely because of that three-game suspension, the emergence of fellow runner Fred Jackson and the hiring of a new coach (Chan Gailey), who, as Lynch said, wanted players who "were accountable on and off the field." Lynch also said local police officers stopped him so routinely that he called a meeting with the chief of police in the city of Hamburg to complain. "I was paranoid to the point where every time I saw a police officer I pulled over to the side of the road for them to come and start to talk to me," Lynch said. "It just wasn't working out. And then with not playing and getting carries, I mean it probably was just time for a new scene."

• • •

When the door to the holding cell opened in that Emeryville jail, Lynch trudged out with a weary look in his eyes. He glanced toward Parker, who had come with Lynch's agent, Doug Hendrickson, and waved them off. "You don't even have to say anything to me," he told them. "I know I screwed up."

Once Lynch arrived at Oakland Tech, his Uncle Phil knew how bad things had been. "That was the first time I could see anything affect him outside of football," Larkins said. "He was hurt, almost teary-eyed, when he got to the camp that morning." Said Lynch: "I saw those kids' faces, and it was just like, damn -- I am going to explain to these kids that I was in jail because I made a dumb decision. So, as the kids all surrounded me, they asked me where I was at. I said I was in jail. And then something [happened] that I was not prepared for. [One] kid asked me, 'Why? You killed somebody?'"

Lynch might have been caught off guard by that question, but he knew the news wouldn't play well in Seattle. Carroll and general manager John Schneider had given Lynch a four-year, $31 million contract extension on March 4, 2011. They had engineered a midseason trade for Lynch in 2010, largely because they believed he was a critical piece to the physical nature they wanted to instill in the team they were building. They believed Lynch could be a leader -- Carroll had sensed that trait in him while recruiting him to USC when Carroll coached the Trojans -- and more than anything, they trusted him.

At the time of Lynch's arrival, his reputation was so tainted that former Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson initially thought the team had acquired a player who was lazy. Josh Johnson said, "I've heard people call him a thug. ... I actually had people tell me personally that I shouldn't hang out with him because he can possibly get me in trouble."

"When they acquired me, people were probably saying, 'That's a bad-ass dude,'" Lynch said. "Going to jail and being in trouble every offseason. They had to have some kind of feeling toward me to want me. And if people did forget about me and what I stood for, somebody in that organization didn't."

Said Carroll: "When we went after him the way we did, he knew we wanted to put him in our program. We appreciated who he is and what he brings to this club and the loyalty that he stands for and the toughness that he stands for. ... I think he sensed that that we love him and he's a part of us."

It certainly helped that Seattle also had some of Lynch's former Cal teammates on the roster when Lynch arrived, including running back Justin Forsett and defensive tackle Brandon Mebane. Lynch also felt right at home as the Seahawks' workhorse. In his first full season with the team, he sealed an NFC wild-card win over New Orleans with a legendary 67-yard touchdown run that involved Lynch breaking eight tackles on his way to the end zone. He followed that iconic moment with a steady stream of impressive numbers, averaging 1,339 rushing yards over the next four seasons, scoring 56 touchdowns and earning four Pro Bowl selections.

Though Seattle had more media-friendly stars, such as Wilson and Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman, Lynch emerged as the heart and soul of a team known for its collective perseverance. Even when Lynch missed the first eight days of training camp this year in that holdout, he still wanted to be a part of what Seattle had built. "I always thought he was going to play," Parker said. "He just wanted his due. The talk was that they were going to get rid of him, and he was thinking, 'Why would you want to get rid of me? I'm working my butt off.' He never said anything, but I know it weighed on him."

The only thing on Lynch's mind these days is getting another Super Bowl ring. His family and friends don't fear how he'll handle the media this week, because they know he doesn't spend much time thinking about it. After the league fined Lynch for grabbing his crotch in the NFC title game, he didn't gripe about the punishment. He simply took to Twitter to say he was "embarrassed" to work in a league that saw fit to fine Seahawks wide receiver Chris Matthews $11,025 for celebrating with Lynch (Matthews was fined supposedly because he also grabbed his crotch, although it wasn't clear from replays if he actually did).

It's not surprising that Lynch cared more about Matthews' treatment than his own. When he was in college, he wanted to do interviews with teammates also present to answer questions. When Jackson took his carries in Buffalo, Lynch was genuinely excited for Jackson's success. "He still doesn't like being out front," said Edwards, the high school coach. "He's the type that if you play the same position as him, he'll take himself out to make sure you're happy. He does that with all his teammates, and that's why so many guys love him. He's not self-centered. He wants everybody to grow together."

That mentality is a big reason Lynch feels so compelled to help others in his beloved hometown. He no longer has to fret about his most recent legal problems -- he pleaded the DUI down to a lesser charge of reckless driving and received two years' probation in February 2014 -- but he'll never forget the pain that resulted from his poor judgment. Lynch delights in seeing kids walking around wearing his camp T-shirts, and he hopes to build a community center in the near future. When he grew up in Oakland, he didn't see any homegrown celebrities giving back.

Once Lynch explained that he was jailed for an alleged DUI on that fateful morning, he realized that those kids had no idea what that charge was. One boy said his father was facing a life sentence for murder. Another told Lynch how his uncle was in jail for selling crack. The stories kept coming so quickly that Lynch took a step back and thought: I'm letting them down, but they're facing rougher things than I ever imagined.

It's thoughts like those that drive Lynch today. It's why he's not concerned with speaking to reporters, opening up his life for examination or even where his NFL career will head after this season. "I don't know what's in store for me," Lynch said. "I don't know what tomorrow is going to bring. But I can continue to strive to be the best me I can be [and] along the way, help as many kids as I can. ... I don't see myself living my life for anybody other than me."