It’s a hot, sunny Saturday in Oakland, California, and Marshawn Lynch is standing on the artificial turf of a high school football field, watching grown men knock children to the ground. The kids are local students, ages six to 18, who are participating in the Fam 1st Family Foundation Football Camp, which the indomitable Seattle Sea-hawks running back hosts every summer in his hometown. The ball-security drill he’s supervising now is clearly his favorite part of the day. The goal is to run through a gauntlet of blocking pads without fumbling. As one skinny adolescent after another is bashed around, the normally taciturn Lynch goes into Coach Eric Taylor mode.
“You’re gonna get hit. That’s the life of a running back,” he announces. “You don’t like it? Just let me know. I’ll send you over to the receivers.” Every time the ball squirts loose, Lynch calls the offender over to his “workstation” for a set of push-ups. Lazy reps beget further punishment and another lecture. “Either you’re gonna work or you’re gonna get the drill right,” Lynch barks, his face impassive behind oversize gold sunglasses. “You don’t stop until I get tired.”
He’s not getting tired, but he is getting hungry. It’s after two o’clock and Lynch, who’s been on the go since 8 a.m., hasn’t eaten lunch yet. He was supposed to get a break at noon, but so many more kids showed up than anyone was expecting—about 1,100 in total—that he spent that time signing T-shirts instead. So when Lynch’s aunt walks up to him holding out a stainless steel bowl of chicken wings, he does what anyone would do: seizes a double handful of them and then jams as many as he can into the top of the tube sock on his right foot. He then resumes coaching, reaching down to his ankle for a fresh wing every few minutes.
OK, maybe that’s not what anyone would do. But Lynch has never done things like anyone else. His running style, a bandy-legged stagger, resembles a toddler’s gait. He makes $10 million a year but shares his Seattle home with a roommate, reserve tight end Cooper Helfet. He’s the face of Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, but at home he and Helfet are more likely to play dominoes than video games. (“He’s actually pretty damn good,” Helfet says of Lynch’s skills.) And while plenty of professional athletes dislike giving interviews, Lynch has elevated press aversion to performance art. “I’m just here so I won’t get fined,” his rote answer to more than 25 different questions at a pre–Super Bowl media day last January, became so infamous that he’s trademarking the sentence.
Seahawks tight end Cooper Helfet in Beast Mode.
He also owns the rights to his other, more celebrated catchphrase: Beast Mode. It describes a way of life, he says. It’s also the name of his line of streetwear, designed in collaboration with Nike veteran Christopher Bevans. Beast Mode includes T-shirts, hoodies, and hats—the objects Lynch loves-—because Lynch has a simple style mission: “Mainly just comfort,” he says. “I don’t worry about too many people or what they got on. I just do my thing.” Many items sold out immediately after the line debuted in June 2013, but now Lynch regularly releases new styles and designs. Profits go to his charitable foundation, Fam 1st Family Foundation.
At 5′11", Lynch is shorter than many of his campers today, but his torso has the dimensions and solidity of an antique armoire. If any of the kids are intimidated, they’re careful not to show it. Many seem eager to impress him with their indifference—scowling, not smiling, when he singles them out for a critique or a compliment. “Most successful people who make it out of here, they don’t tend to come back and show their faces,” says Josh Johnson, Lynch’s cousin and a quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals. “These kids don’t have many role models that they get to see, touch, interact with.” Contrary to his public image, Johnson says, Lynch is “actually a very sociable individual. You’ve just got to engage him the right way.”
Baltimore Ravens running back Rob Jordan in Beast Mode
Maxim can attest to that. Though he lets a rare reporter inside his world today, there is still a limit: During what is intended to be a private moment, as he gathers the camp kids around him to deliver some hard-won advice, a pen scratching in a notepad proves too great a distraction. “Yo,” he says. “You gotta go.”
But a few minutes later, sermon concluded, he is happy to sit for an interview and relate some of the content of his talk. “We let ’em know, all of y’all are not going to the NFL, but that doesn’t mean what you learn here at this camp can’t apply to your life,” he says. Those push-ups and rebukes were meant as broader lessons: “There’s consequences to everything you do. You don’t do something right, you gotta pay the price for it.”
Lynch’s outsize personality offers a lesson of its own: that doing it right and doing it your own way aren’t mutually exclusive. Speaking of which, what was the deal with those wings? “I don’t have pockets on my shorts, so I had to use what I had,” he says. Beast Mode’s design team is sure to take note: Don’t forget the pockets.
Photos by G L Askew II