clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Mythology of Marshawn

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

It all started with a rumble, and then he became famous.

This is less a story about Marshawn Lynch the man.  That story is known only to a select few.

This is a story about Marshawn Lynch the myth.  About how Lynch and the media combined to create a mythology, a near demi-god, out of a football player.

The reputation is not undeserved. As a player, Lynch was the rare home-run hitter.  Even non-Lynch fans knew that, when he got the ball, there was more than a small chance he could break out an improbable run.  Those improbable runs were graceful at times, hard hitting and brutal at times.  Some were long; others just a few yards.  But every time Lynch carried the football, it seemed as if fans of every team held their breath, waiting for the next impossible thing.

If there was ever a moment in professional football when an athlete became a living legend, an instant pop culture icon, it was the first BeastQuake run.  During the run, Lynch not only helped put the game out of reach--€”such a thing now seems to pale in comparison; just a football game!--€”but he also created the new mythology.

Let's not forget the entire story. The sad sack 7-9 Seahawks, undeserving of a playoff spot, and certainly not a home playoff berth.  The idea was so ludicrous that pundits were begging for a near-immediate reseeding of the playoffs.  It was inherently unfair that the 11-5 Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints would have to travel across the country to play a team that could not even bother to put together a winning record, even in the ramshackle NFC West.

For Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, this would be his last victory as a Seahawk.  He threw four touchdown passes while battling a broken wrist on his non-throwing arm and a bum hip.  Not counting the 67-yard run, Lynch would finish the day with 64 yards on 18 carries.  It would be Lynch's first 100-yard game of the season.

All of this would be forgotten in the bright glare of the BeastQuake.  All of this would be burnished away in the continuing glare of the media spotlight on Marshawn Lynch.  How easily a playoff game, a valiant performance by a hobbled quarterback, and a near-legendary upset disappears in that glare.

Soon, every single tidbit about Lynch would become like a trickle of oxygen to one locked in an airtight chamber.  Just enough sustenance to move onto the next breath:  His love of Skittles.  His trip on a Go-Kart after a college game.  His high school interview where he promised to take his linemen to Sizzler.  His returning a lost wallet.

It came in the form of a biographical film that is at once awkward and intriguing.  In the film, Lynch plays any number of his past selves, at once aged and ageless, inhabiting some neutral sphere between reality and fiction and yet making both seem perfectly logical. It is this tension, the push and pull between Lynch the quiet sage, Lynch the joker, and Lynch the brutal football player, that helps feed the mystique.

In the aftermath of the BeastQuake, the play would be continuously dissected, frame by frame. Sportswriters would spend countless words interviewing everyone associated with the play, diagramming it out in a millisecond-by-millisecond recap, quoting from Seahawks tight end John Carlson, who collides with his own teammate, missing a crucial block, to Saints cornerback Tracey Porter, who infamously tumbles to the ground like a small child after Lynch's stiff arm.

But Lynch found a moral to the story.  It was more than just a play, it was more, somehow, than football. He viewed it as a parable for his life.  It was, frame by frame, a struggle, and then a breaking free, all helped along by the people he trusted and believed in and those who believed in him.

On the eve of Super Bowl XLVIII, NPR's Youth Radio did a brief exploration of Lynch's run and his personality, but moreso, his growth as an icon in the Oakland community.  Listening to the clip, there is a near-mythological element to the idea that they are talking less about a man and someone who has somehow transcended those earthly shackles.  There is a quiet awe among the children in that clip, an innocent, non-cynical, but deep reverence that is normally the domain only of children, but, in the case of Lynch, often spills from the lips of adults as well.

He moved well beyond being a simple role model; he had instead become someone who had accomplished the impossible and thus nearly became impossible himself.

Lynch's silence helped build this mythology.  When he spoke, his very phrases quickly became water-cooler discussions and Lynch even trademarked them, turning them into a sort of Gospel of Beast Mode.

If this sounds sacrilegious, consider the universality of some of his statements.  People trapped in any number of endless, pointless, meetings think to themselves "I'm just here so I don't get fined," or some variation thereof.  Lynch's words provide some concrete meaning to thoughts that were once abstract, and the sentiment can be understood by all people, regardless of their background, €”or Lynch's. Take a moment to think about just how ubiquitous the words have become.  They appear on t-shirts, mugs, hats, even flesh, and they at once summon Lynch himself but also the ideas, which are somehow larger than he is.  People now go Beast Mode while fixing their dinner, while studying, or when jogging down the street. Lynch, in those few words, somehow leveled the barriers of culture itself.

The mythmaking continued, nearly veering into the absurd.  His mother, Delisa, spoke with interviewers about how, in the very womb, he was fed by two placentas. It was an explanation of his strength and durability. Lynch, in other words, had a pre-birth background befitting a Greek god.  He was Hercules, complete with feats of infant strength and a continual achieving of the impossible tasks that lay before him.

And those impossible tasks: Lynch's rise from a poor background to Cal to the NFL.  His trouble-haunted days in the NFL backwaters of Buffalo.  His misery at finding himself in that snowbound city, far from home.  His trade to the Seahawks, to play for a new coach whose first forays into the league were considered failures by many.

To be sure, his final season as a Seahawk should have tarnished the image, removed some of the luster.  He was injured and he had to have his first surgery in his career.  Some pundits who knew, and plenty who didn't, predicted his demise, sounded the death knell, hinted he was not only broken, but an outcast in an organization in which he was the cornerstone.  His final game, against the Panthers in the divisional round, would bear the stat line: 6 rushes for 20 yards.

He was, in a word, mortal.

But, somehow, the idea didn't stick.  He remained a myth, and the final season of his career, which for many running backs, in the period at the end of a long, meandering sentence, is merely a endnote, shuffled off to the back page of the book.

Now, Lynch has accomplished the impossible again.  His agent claims Lynch has saved up every paycheck he made from playing football.  He has retired from the game at age 30 with his health and more money than many of us will see in our lives, combined.

Lynch's retirement itself was stunning in its simplicity: a simple image on Twitter posted during the Super Bowl.  The image may as well have been carved into a clay tablet, to be dusted off by archeologists. A pair of bright green cleats hanging from a line.  It said nothing, but spoke volumes, ascending somehow through symbolism to some sort of deeper metaphysical ideals.

It was both literal and figurative. He was not only hanging up his cleats.  He was closing an era.

Even in his retirement, it is easy to see the tension that creates the Lynch myth.  He is retired, but for now, he also isn't.  This contradiction, this swing of ideals, this tug of dueling actions, fuels the myth.  Quiet and outspoken, gregarious and shy, retired and not retired.

Somewhere within the rubric of Lynch the mythological being, feted by fans, the press, and pop culture, there lies Lynch the man, the very engine of the myth.  That engine, that heartbeat, has already started the next phase of his career as an entrepreneur and pop culture icon.  Even the most mundane moments, such as ”his brief appearance in the crowd at an MMA tourney, for example, creates headlines.  And his Beast Mode store sells apparel that lets everyone know that you, too, speak in the Gospel.

It is hard to say what happens next.  He may fade away from the public eye, which seems, right now, unlikely. Lynch may become like Earl Campbell or Walter Payton, remembered in bright, vivid colors by those who watched him play, and understood by younger generations that he was somehow special. His absence will make people want more; his presence will make people want more.

Whatever happens, the myth, if it doesn't grow, will become static, frozen in the era where fans would rain Skittles over every Lynch touchdown.

The myth endures.