Marshawn Lynch: The Beast (Mode) Who Couldn't Be Tamed By The NFL

Late in the second quarter of the Super Bowl, the lede of the most significant story of the evening was buried amid the collective timeline of the NFL-watching world. Marshawn Lynch tweeted a photo of a pair of cleats hanging from a telephone wire and a peace sign emoji — a simple metaphor, yet surprisingly personal.

Lynch was one of many NFL retirements announced by some of the game’s best: Charles Woodson, Jared Allen and Calvin Johnson. There is meaning in all four retirements, but it’s Lynch’s decision to leave years on the table that’s stayed with me. That pair of cleats was more than just a symbolic trope to let us know he is moving on to the next phase of his life — it was also a totem representing his proclivity for singularity.

Perhaps the most significant thing the NFL has done since the 1970s is reduce the number of athletes who are allowed to break the normative boundaries of expected social interaction. Even with the league’s biggest stars, we know very little about who they are as people, and what we do know is often controlled by the NFL and the teams that employ them. As wildly different as they’re treated by the media, my knowledge of Cam Newton’s personal life isn’t that much different than that of Peyton Manning's. The robotic nature of the way these players interact off the field is rarely evident until an individual violates those boundaries.

As strange as it sounds, Lynch existed in the NFL as a person. Even if you couldn’t relate to the circumstances in which he grew up or the way he handled his day-to-day life, you could, at some level, relate to his humanity. An overwhelming majority of the players in the NFL are faceless, and those who are recognizable feel more a part of an organizational machine than an autonomous individual. The NFL is a mere extension of who he is. His identity transcended football during an era in which self-actualization becomes increasingly more rare with each passing year.

Consider the conversation surrounding the post-game interviews of Bart Scott and Richard Sherman in recent years. Without even mentioning the content in either interview, football fans can recall how fervid those interviews felt in the moment. It's rare we see that kind of raw emotion in the NFL, especially outside the confines of the 60 minutes players take the field.

Lynch’s even demeanor never reached the peaks of either Scott or Sherman, but he always spoke what he felt. Unlike very few during his era, Lynch reached the peak of Maslow’s pyramid while on the field and transcend it in street clothes.

We’re all a product of our environment, but what made Lynch so unique is that more than anyone else, he is his environment. When you watched Lynch, you were brought into the ambit of Oakland. From the first day he stepped foot in Buffalo through tweeting a pair of cleats hanging from a phone wire, there was no disruption of his identity’s stasis. He was never reshaped by the NFL’s culture mainly because he was essentially bringing his own to the league. In most cases, the NFL is a gift to whomever is allowed to work under the ideology of the shield. However, in Lynch’s case, he was such an idiosyncratic personality that he became a rare gift to the league, the teams he played for and fans across the country. It wasn't a privilege for him to play; it was a privilege for us to watch.

And what a privilege it was. Lynch was nearly everything you wanted in a traditional running back: imposing physicality, the power of an elk and an agility that was much more high-brow than expected. His ability to make defenders miss only made his strength a better weapon, and his fearlessness tied everything together. Lynch consistently challenged the laws of physics with his light feet and heavy shoulders. He kept a low center of gravity and only let our planet’s greatest force bring him down with the help of three to five other men. Despite the apparent lack of speed most of the league’s other featured running backs have, Lynch has a collection of some of the most impressive runs in NFL history.

Lynch’s propensity for turning the mundane into the spectacular became a part of the game’s lore. At his best, the Beast Mode moniker became a philosophy in the same way that Randy Moss’ surname became a verb. His nickname became a lifestyle on and off the field, an ethos that can only begin to be replicated on the field by a select few, off the field by none. Beast Mode not only captures what he did, but who he is — and that’s what makes Lynch so special. He defied behavioral physics as easily as he reduced natural physics to theories. He left the game with one of the most unique personalities because the NFL couldn’t create enough friction to change his identity’s inertia in the same way that defenses couldn’t slow him down enough to keep him out of end zones.

Considering he cut his career short despite still having plenty left in the tank, debates about his Hall of Fame worthiness will rage when he becomes eligible five years from now. His career numbers seem to hover right on the cusp. He wasn’t better at his job than draft-mate Adrian Peterson, and you can make a case for a few other backs during his era providing more statistical significance, but Lynch is undoubtedly the most important back of his era. He scored four of six offensive touchdowns for the Seahawks team that won the Super Bowl, he scored a 25-yard go-ahead touchdown the next season to get them back to the Super Bowl and he should have scored the go-ahead touchdown in the Super Bowl two weeks later.

His run against the Saints will go down as one of the best in postseason history with an asterisk noting that disrespectful stiff arm. Peterson et al did amazing things on the field, but none of these other backs changed the culture — no, existed beyond the culture — in the way that Lynch did. He’s leaving a void that his peers are wont to fill will numbers but not with transcendence. Lynch was a one-of-one edition of Oakland’s finest. He was a soul-destroying, golf-cart-swerving football player who was "all about that action, boss.”

I’m not just going to miss him because he was a hell of a football player, but also because he was human. It’s so little to ask, but so few football players allow themselves to be. Although unfortunate that his career is over, it ends on a pleasant yet subtle hint of irony: The Beast was more human than the rest of them.

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