(Written By Tom Shanahan)
Here’s my defense of Marshawn Lynch:
The Seattle Seahawks running back has been called everything from Greta Garbo for his three-word answers during the season and a thug for his failure to appear at Tuesday’s NFL media day with his thoughts buried between headphones.
Thug, now there’s a word we want to stay away from in this era of sports radio, Twitter and snap judgments.
You want to see a thug, head down to the gang-infested mean streets of Oakland that Lynch and his best buddy in high school, Cincinnati Bengals’ backup up quarterback Josh Johnson, survived. They were high school star athletes at Oakland Tech with academic records strong enough to be admitted to august institutions such as Cal (Lynch) and the University of San Diego (Johnson).
The thugs on Oakland’s mean streets won’t resemble Lynch (or teammate Richard Sherman).
Something happened to Lynch’s personality from his time at Cal to his controversial stint in Buffalo as a first-round draft pick to his resurrection with the Seahawks as one of the best players in the league. And for a running back, that’s a mouthful in this era of a pass-happy league with rules tilted toward “hands off” the receivers.
I’ve never spent time with Lynch, but I have spoken with him about his friendship with Johnson.
Before they went separate directions from Oakland Tech to college, Lynch was the big-time recruit who landed at Cal. Johnson was the untapped talent that then-newly hired USD coach Jim Harbaugh recognized as a late-bloomer and recruited to play for the Toreros. Johnson was 5-11, 145-pounder when he attended recruiting combines before his senior at Oakland Tech, so that’s why no one but Harbaugh noticed his arm strength. He grew to 6-3, 180 at USD and plays for the Bengals at 205.
“All the men in my family grew after they were 18 or 19 years old,” Johnson once explained.
In the 2006 season, Lynch was a Cal junior and leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy. Johnson was a junior at USD and leading candidate for the Walter Payton Award, the Heisman Trophy for the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly called Division I-AA).
Midway through the season, Lynch told me if he was forced to choose, he would give up winning the Heisman so Johnson could win the Patyon. That’s how much he thought of his friend since kindergarten.
“If Josh can win the award, I’ll take it and run with it,” Lynch said. “He’s my boy, my cousin — he’s family to me. He might be surprising people, but not me. Growing up as kids, we called him the ‘The head coach.’ He was always the one who took charge. He made everything right.”
In 2006, Ricky Santos of New Hampshire won the Payton and Troy Smith of Ohio State the Heisman. Santos never played in the NFL; Smith has bounced around between the NFL, Canadian Football League and Omaha Nighthawks.
Another friend of Lynch’s later in life is Gavin Newsom, the former San Francisco Mayor and current Lt. Gov. of California. He’s also a long-time San Francisco 49ers fan who endured watching Lynch beat his team in the NFC championship game.
“The man’s empathetic,” Newsom told NFL.com. “Not long after Sunday’s (NFC title) game, he called me from his house and said, ‘Sorry, man. I hate to do that to your team.’ I’m thinking, ‘Hey, Marshawn’s a politician!’ But really, that sums him up — even in that moment, he wasn’t celebrating or boasting or rubbing it in. He showed compassion, which is the norm for him.”
Lynch declared early for the NFL draft in 2007, and Johnson joined him in the NFL as a 2008 fifth-round draft pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Johnson might have gone higher, but he hurt his shoulder before the 2008 NFL Combine. I’m not sure he’s ever fully recovered since he was a deadly accurate passer and hasn’t become a regular NFL starter. As a senior at USD in 2007, he finished with a FCS career passing efficiency record (176.88). He threw 43 touchdown passes with one interception. That one theft bounced off the chest of his team’s best receiver and landed into the hands a defensive player. But I digress.
Lynch and Johnson sponsored their initial “Family First” youth football camp in 2007. The event has grown to encompass more than football as they and staged their seventh annual camp last summer. Johnson spoke for Lynch when I asked him his motivation to put on such a camp.
“In Oakland, it’s not necessarily gangs, but a lot of small groups in areas where you don’t go,” Johnson said. “Athletes in Oakland have to help do something about it. Too many kids want to be in the streets instead of playing sports. We want to show kids with our camp there is another way.”
Think about that picture of Marshawn Lynch before you label him.