Marshawn Lynch fits all of these descriptions: Bruising running back. Community activist. Restaurateur. Raiders marquee offseason signing. He could also be referred to as his generation’s silent film star, a professional football player who lights up the screen but speaks only on rare occasions.
But around here, even his whispers resonate. When Lynch decided to end his one-year retirement and sign with his hometown team – the NFL franchise that will abandon Oakland for Las Vegas in the next few years – Raiders fans remembered what it was like to be a winner. He picked them. He chose Oakland. He came home and moved right back in, immersing himself with youth programs, business tutorials, daily workouts. He even rescued a soul food restaurant that was on the verge of bankruptcy.
The fact that he sits for the national anthem? That he likes bananas? Or that he gives interviews about as often as Bill Belichick offers insight?
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None of that matters. Signing Lynch to a two-year, $9 million contract (plus $7.5 million in incentives) was the Raiders’ public relations move of the decade. Oakland fans are so obsessed with the Beast Mode, selective amnesia is spreading like a virus. The team’s looming departure is no longer the No. 1 talking point in the East Bay. That would be Lynch.
With his quirky persona eclipsing those of his teammates throughout training camp, and his No. 24 jerseys sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the stands, the attention shifts to the field and the second coming of the former Cal standout.
In an ideal Raiders world, the 5-foot-11, 215-pound veteran shows little rust from his season-long sabbatical and invigorates an already potent offense that features quarterback Derek Carr and wide receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. On the depth chart, his punishing downhill running style is a nice balance to diminutive tailbacks DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard, and his wide, powerful frame adds another layer of protection for Carr.
But he is 31, missed an entire season and has been used sparingly in the preseason. What does he have left? And when will we know?
Former Oakland Tech High School coach Delton Edwards, who coached Lynch for three seasons, believes his former star benefited from the layoff.
“I think that year away from football rejuvenated his body,” Edwards said recently. “I think you are going to see him running like he was just coming out of college. He’s refreshed, lighter, stronger, faster. In his last year in Seattle, I think he was closer to 235. He’s about 225 now, and you tell the difference.”
The reclusive Lynch, of course, seldom talks about anything. During his only media session thus far with reporters, he offered few details, but suggested his major adjustment has been adapting to the practice day routine.
“I would say getting my mentality back to waking up early and getting it going, and doing something physical, in order to get my body back to its playing ability,” he said. “That was the hardest thing for me because I’m not a morning person. After that was over, it was straight.”
Asked if he missed playing football, he replied with a blunt, “No.”
Obviously mindful of Lynch’s age – nearing the outer limits for running backs – and his injury-riddled final season with the Seahawks, Raiders coach Jack Del Rio sat him during the preseason opener and gave him three carries over the following two games. Coincidentally, the finale matched the Raiders and Seahawks in the Coliseum, adding a slice of preseason drama. Suffice to say, Oakland’s own endured more than a few sleepless nights in Seattle during his final two seasons.
A dominant force for the 2014 Super Bowl champions, Lynch expected to get the ball a year later on the potential Super Bowl winning drive. The Seahawks trailed the Patriots by four at the New England 4-yard line. A minute remained. Gotta go to Lynch, right? Coach Pete Carroll instead opted for a pass that was intercepted – the pass he still hears about – sealing the victory for the Patriots.
The 2015 season was more of a physical than mental downer for Lynch. After missing only one game in his previous four seasons, he underwent abdominal surgery and was only available for seven games. He announced his retirement in February 2016 with an emoji of a pair of cleats hanging over a clothes line, then slipped out of the public eye.
But like so many athletes who retire young, Lynch began to have second thoughts.
“I joked with him,” recalled Edwards. “I said, ‘You are gonna be bored.’ He is only 31 and he still loves the game. I am not surprised. And I think the fact he always dreamed of playing for the Raiders, and that they’re a young, exciting team, appealed to him. They seem to enjoy each other’s company and he (Lynch) adds a little more toughness, brings some of that old Raiders style back.”
Carr, who on the opening day of camp predicted Lynch “would run through some people’s faces,” said he was mindful of the energy in the Coliseum when the Raiders hosted the Rams on Aug. 19 and hoped he wouldn’t have to audible on his first handoff to his new teammate.
“Our crowd was so juiced,” the quarterback explained, “I was like, ‘I hope they give us the right look.’ But, yeah, to turn around and hand that guy the ball, especially as a guy that looked up to him and was a fan of his growing up, to turn around and hand it to him was pretty cool.”
The Raiders seem willing to accept Lynch for who he is, and don’t expect him to be someone he is not. While the running back sat near the Gatorade stand for the national anthem at the Coliseum one week after eating a banana while it was played, Carr and Khalil Mack stood on the sidelines, with the quarterback’s right hand resting on his linebacker’s shoulder. The two said the gesture was intended to show unity between blacks and whites, and the contrasting approaches to the pregame routine were met with shrugs.
Later, the 5-foot-8 running back Washington described Lynch as a “very smart dude” who brings energy to the team.
“It’s fun working with him,” Washington said. “He actually talks a lot. People don’t really understand that. It’s been great these past few weeks to pick his brain, ask him how I can get to the next level. If he sees something I’m not doing, he mentions it. Different reads, different ways of attacking guys … I feel like I’m learning a lot. It’s great having him here.”
As they say in Oakland, welcome home.
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