Cal can embrace Marshawn Lynch again.
Lynch, in his college days, was a friendly, fun-loving running back who earned All-American honors and Heisman Trophy attention. He played for the Bears from 2004 to 2006, compiling 3,230 career rushing yards to rank second all-time at the Berkeley school.
Yeah, that guy –not the sulking, entitled pro athlete who stubbornly avoided talking to the media during back-to-back Super Bowl runs. That Marshawn Lynch, known as Beast Mode with the Seattle Seahawks, was in many ways unfamiliar to Cal fans.
The latter persona chose to pay the NFL $100,000 in fines instead of simply answering questions at Super Bowl XLVIII and enjoying center stage at a grand spectacle. He remained obdurate the next year at Super XLIX, answering every question: “I’m just here so I won’t get fined.”
Then he compounded his image problem, allowing commercials with Skittles and NFL XBox to exploit his insolent behavior into a brand-based reputation. That’s marketing in America. In the NFL XBox commercial, he’s the guy who enters the classroom late and takes a seat in the back, uninterested in learning.
That’s not exactly the student-athlete image they promote at Cal.
Sure, Lynch gained plenty of money for the ads. You might dismiss it as just a funny commercial, but it’s not so funny if you understand the challenges middle school and high school teachers face when dealing with that attitude. Teachers, especially at under-funded schools, can do without that image disrupting a classroom.
If you don’t believe me, NBC analyst Rodney Harrison, a longtime NFL star safety, harshly criticized Lynch for the example he portrayed.
Most Cal fans probably wish Lynch had not courted a portrayal that was markedly different from the player they cheered. Bears fans remember the Marshawn Lynch who was the inspiration for an upcoming bobblehead giveaway. He celebrated the Bears beating Washington in 2006 — 31-24 in overtime — with a unique joyride. He hopped into the driver’s seat of an injury cart and swerved across the center of the field before he rejoined his jubilant teammates.
The first 10,000 fans at Memorial Stadium will receive a bobblehead of Lynch driving such a cart for Cal’s Nov. 5 game against Washington. Bobblehead dolls as sports giveaways have become routine, but this idea has gained national attention on all media platforms.
I once interviewed that fun-loving college kid during the 2006 season. I asked him about his childhood friend and high school teammate at Oakland Tech, Josh Johnson. They were so close it took college football recruiting to separate them.
Lynch signed with Cal as one of the nation’s top running backs in the nation. Johnson was a lower-level recruit, but Jim Harbaugh signed him when the current Michigan boss was the new coach at the University of San Diego.
By 2006. Lynch gained Heisman Trophy notice, and Johnson was a candidate for the Walter Payton Award, the Heisman equivalent for the Football Championship Subdivision.
I had contacted Cal’s sports information office requesting a phone interview with Lynch. Athletes weren’t often available in those days, but an exception was made. No doubt that was due to the friendship between Lynch and Johnson. This wasn’t an ESPN College GameDay request.
They put me on the phone with a guy who was such an easy interview, a few years later I didn’t recognize the sulking figure at Super Bowls XLVIII and XLIX.
Lynch told me that day if provided a choice, he would give up the Heisman Trophy so Johnson could win the Payton Award.
“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.”
Lynch has regained his old persona since he retired from the NFL after the 2015 season. Phrased differently: Now that he’s back home in Oakland, he’s allowing fans to see his true self.
The reshaped image began with interviews he gave last spring that appeared in The Undefeated, Sports Illustrated and CBS 60 Minutes Sports. The stories included a look at all the good work Lynch and Johnson have done in Oakland.
They founded Fam 1st Family Foundation. They’ve sponsored free football camps, literacy workshops, scholarships and much more, such as giving away turkeys for holidays. Lynch also has a clothing store, “Beast Mode.”
The articles made it sound like this was something new, but they had long envisioned the project and launched it once they had the resources that come with playing in the NFL. That was a decade ago.
That’s the real Marshawn Lynch.
That’s the Marshawn Lynch Cal is honoring with a bobblehead doll joyously driving a cart.
Follow Tom Shanahan of Today’s U on Twitter: @shanny4055