36 Hours in Beast Mode
Marshawn Lynch doesn’t talk, but he has a lot to say
UPDATE — Marshawn Lynch reportedly has agreed to a two-year contract with the Oakland Raiders. The Seattle Seahawks will trade the retired running back’s rights to the Raiders.
There is a brief window at Marshawn Lynch’s surprise 30th birthday party where I’m almost convinced that the potential Hall of Fame running back and I are simpatico.
Like we’ve made this connection and all those artificial distinctions — he’s a newly retired NFL star with a legendary disdain for media, I’m a sports reporter on assignment — seem to fall away.
After months of reaching out to those around him, I’d flown from D.C. to Oakland, Calif., on positive thinking. I arrive at the recently opened Beast Mode clothing store, where a crowd spills onto the sidewalk, the bass line thumps overhead and Lynch and I come face to face. He’s gotten no heads-up about me, and I hadn’t known I’d be crashing his party. I feel tentative and foolish in the No. 24 tribute sweater I’d bought from the store a month earlier — though the sweater is dope.
I ask him for a drink.
“Fo’ sho!” Lynch nods and pours me a glass of courage from the fifth of Hennessy he’s walking the party with. It burns going down.
It’s late April and we’re surrounded by his family in Oakland — Oaktown! —which he swears he’ll never leave. Where the compelling, you could also say complicated, former All-Pro is trying to grow a store, a brand, maybe even a full-out urban ecosystem with everybody, every single body, he loves and trusts.
He says he’s doing “Town Bidness” and I want to understand his heart for the city. I want to do 36 hours in Beast Mode. “Can you show me the Oakland you see?” I ask.
“No, I’m not the one to do it,” Lynch says immediately. Then, he offers a piece of daylight. “But I’ve got some people who are.”
He introduces me to his cousin Josh Johnson, 29, a free agent quarterback, most recently with the Bills, and founder and president of their Fam 1st Family Foundation. “I think she’s on to something,” Lynch tells him.
With that he folds back into the crowd. His mother Delisa is across the room. She does a few old-school dance moves, checks her Fitbit, then starts to dab. There are aunties and assorted nieces and nephews. A rack of cousins and play cousins (The Town is big on fictive kinship) are putting together a new pingpong table. Overhead, the music cranks.
Another reporter drops by and Lynch asks if he’s “one of them snitches?” I think he’s joking. The party goes until after 10 p.m., when folks start to clean up and prepare for the store to reopen the next morning at 11 a.m.
The next couple of days are queued up. I’m going to meet people who know Lynch, love him, hang with him. People who are looking to help change Oakland while staying true to themselves and the place they knew growing up.
“Da Town,” pingpong and Hennessy. A loose confederation of cousins and them and talk of snitches. I’ve done my first hours in Beast Mode.
It’s Friday afternoon at the store and a woman from Amazon — Lynch recently partnered with the company in a marketing deal — is installing a voice command device that plays music and answers to the name Alexa.
Lynch, who just back from helping rebuild a school in Haiti, wants to know: “Can you make her answer, ‘Yes, Daddy?’”
The store is on a changing stretch of Broadway downtown, between a Starbucks and a high-end Japanese kitchen store, across the street from mom-and-pop Asian and Cambodian restaurants. The space has high ceilings, exposed brick, pendant lights. There are photos of Malcolm X and Oakland’s own Black Panther Party for Self Defense. Customers who wander in often get fanstruck when they see Lynch behind the counter.
Oakland, a city of roughly 415,000 people, saw its African-American population decline from 43 to 26 percent between 1990 and 2011. The tech boom has accelerated gentrification, displacing poorer residents even as Lynch is looking to bring jobs and money back to their neighborhoods. At the store’s opening in early February, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf read a proclamation establishing Beast Mode Day and Lynch shouted: “Town Bidness!”
It’s a decades-old reference, says Suhayla Sabir aka Sweet L.D. from the late ‘80s/early ‘90s rap group Oaktown 3.5.7. “MC Hammer said the same thing, ‘Town Bidness.’ E40, Too Short, we all reference that” Subhir says. It means “we know where we come from. We know what we have to offer and we’re willing to give back.”
Oaklanders often describe themselves as having a chip on their shoulder, of having to dig deep to find their shine in the shadow of San Francisco. They describe themselves as perpetually on the grind.
After the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, blacks and Asians were pushed to Oakland where land was cheap and they were able to find shipyard, railroad and factory jobs. Federally sanctioned housing restrictions locked them into pockets of the city, engendering powerful community identities, loyalties and creativity. In the mid-1960s, the Black Panther Party formed as a reaction to urban disinvestment and police brutality. Much of the city, including the North Oakland neighborhood where Lynch grew up, has been plagued by privation, crime and violence.
“What does it mean when you’ve got that Town inside you? That Town is tough,” Sabir says. “If you’ve been touched by it, then you’re rich for life, and that’s for real.”
Lynch could have put Beast Mode anywhere, but “he put it right in the heart of Oakland and it shows his love and his care for the city,” says Draymond Green, who plays forward for the Golden State Warriors. When the Warriors won the NBA championship last year, Green invited Lynch to ride with him on their float. “The one thing I remember him saying that will never leave me, he looked at me almost in tears as we were riding through the parade and he was like, ‘Bruh, thank you! I’ve never seen this many people gather in my city for something positive like this and what y’all have brought to this city can never be replaced.’”
People call Johnson “Head,” because they say he has a big head, though I don’t see it, and because he has a reputation as a thinker. He and Lynch founded Fam 1st Family Foundation which has grown to more than a half million in assets, according to its 2014 tax report. They sponsor financial literacy workshops. They award scholarships, give away holiday turkeys, hold talent shows and barbeques. The annual free summer football camp at Oakland Tech High School, which Johnson and Lynch both attended, draws hundreds of kids. They hope to one day build a community center and school.
The store employs eight, including four security guards, all but one family. Early on, Johnson said, people warned them about mixing business and family.
A decade ago, “we wouldn’t have been able to do this with our family because they wasn’t mentally ready and we wasn’t mentally ready,” Johnson says. “But because we never turned backs, and we’ve been going through this ride together” now everybody understands the difference between family and work time. “Our upbringing didn’t teach us how to separate the two because we hadn’t been in these types of situations with the type of success that football brings.”
Johnson, who studied communications at the University of San Diego, has bounced around the NFL. He’s been with the 49ers and the Bengals. He’s played for the Colts and the Bills. He spent time in the United Football League.
Johnson says people think “you’re rich as hell” so they can just rely on you. But that’s not how this works. The Beast Mode philosophy: “Bring something to the table that we both can benefit off of. Then we’re gonna grow this together.”
One person who has benefited from that philosophy is Samuel Taylor III, CEO and founder of TESH (The Evolution Starts Here), a 7-year-old athletic footwear and apparel company that produces performance apparel for Beast Mode. Taylor, who formerly played baseball for the Angels and Reds, calls Beast Mode a one-stop shop for athletic and active wear, in the vein of Under Armour or Adidas.
He calls Lynch’s ability to monetize his football persona part of his smarts. He “has taught me little things that I need to know just about running a business,” Taylor said. “I’m supposed to be teaching him the fashion industry, but yet he’s teaching me, strategically, how to maneuver.”
The stereotype with athletes “is that we make a bunch of money, but don’t know what to do with it,” Taylor said. Well, Lynch and Johnson, “pretty much shatter that stereotype.”
Lynch’s personal finances have been the subject of much speculation, even down to the seemingly straightforward question of whether he has actually retired from football. Days after Beast Mode’s opening, during Super Bowl 50, Lynch tweeted a picture of green cleats hanging from a power line, seeming to signal his retirement. On May 4, the Seahawks placed him on the NFL’s reserve/retired list, but Lynch hasn’t officially filed retirement papers.
Around the same time as the cleat tweet, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that Lynch, who’d helped teammates understand their 401K plans, had banked all of his estimated $50 million earnings as a player. He has supposedly lived off endorsement income from Skittles, Pepsi, Nike, Vita Coco and others which total nearly $5 million, plus another $2 million from sales of Beast Mode merchandise, according to Forbes.
Johnson, 29, doesn’t speculate about what’s in Lynch’s bank account. “Even though he’s my cousin, I’m not going to ask him. His money is his money. We call it ‘pocket watch,’ ” and that’s not what they do.”
Telling your story
He understands his cousin’s reluctance to talk to media — which includes Lynch’s infamous 2015 Super Bowl media day appearance where his repeated “I’m just here so I won’t get fined,” earned him cultlike status. That followed a 2014 season during which the NFL fined him $100,000 for refusing to speak with reporters.
According to Johnson, Lynch has always preferred for others to do the talking. The problem with media is that “you got someone who is telling your story who don’t know you,” Johnson says. Or where you’re from and what you’ve been through. “On top of that, the story is already written. They just want a couple of quotes to confirm what they want to put out there. To me that’s not real. It’s a created perception. And the media doesn’t have to live with that perception, we have to live with that perception.” It affects their family and friends, the community and their ability to make money going forward.
Lynch’s story is one of peaks and valleys. He earned the name “Beast Mode” in high school, along with Super Prep All-American honors (His mother, Delisa, who ran track at Oakland Tech, once held a 200-meter record.) A running juggernaut known for shaking off defenders, he was First Team All American at Cal Berkeley. He left after three years to enter the 2007 draft and was selected in the first round.
In nine NFL seasons, Lynch was an All-Pro five times, a game-changer who led the league in carries, rushing yards and rushing touchdowns from the 2011 through 2014 seasons. His six 100-yard playoff games rank third in league history behind Terrell Davis and Emmitt Smith.
But off the field, he ran into trouble. In 2008 in Buffalo, where Lynch spent his first three seasons, and where his media aversion began to garner notice, Lynch was involved in a hit-and-run that resulted in a misdemeanor charge. The following year, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor gun charge and was suspended for the first three games. In 2012, while with the Seahawks, he was arrested and charged with DUI, and later pleaded guilty to reckless driving.
He talked about those incidents — about feeling that he’d let himself and others down — in an interview with ESPN’s “E:60” in 2013. And about how he’d come out stronger. Asked about the perception that he was a thug, Lynch takes a moment to gather his thoughts. To those who say that, he responds: “I would like to see them grow up in project housing authorities, being racially profiled growing up, sometimes not even having nothing to eat, sometimes having to wear the same d— clothes to school for a whole week. And then all of a sudden, a big a– change in they life, like they dream come true to the point where they’re starting their career at 20 years old when they still don’t know s—. I would like to see some of the mistakes they would make.”
“You’re going to make mistakes,” Johnson tells me. “In the media, it’s like you have to be perfect. But perfection doesn’t exist.” You can have a work ethic that’s going to make you better, “But why can’t I mess up? Your biggest lessons come from your mistakes.” He cites his own experience being cut multiple times. People said, You need to give it up, “but I’m like no that’s just another lesson to make me stronger, make me better.”
Ten hours in, I realize Beast Mode is, in part, a renegotiation. It’s about insisting on terms that recognize where they’ve been, what they’re trying to do, in the ways they’re trying to do it. And, about giving no headspace at all to folks who can’t get down with that.
“Beast Mode is an ecosystem,” or at least it has the potential to be, said Adam Turner, a graphic designer who writes about information technology for The Oakland Post, the African-American weekly. It represents “technology, fashion, art, lifestyle, music.”
Lynch’s cousin, Mistah F.A.B., aka Stan Pablo aka Stanley Cox, a three-time platinum hip-hop artist and songwriter, calls them a tribe. Beast Mode is not solely, or even primarily about blood, says Cox, 33.
“Leave it up to us, it’s the whole city, you know,” he says. The store and the foundation are the hub, but under that umbrella, everybody can also make their own way. “Ain’t no big me’s, little you’s,” he says. “We all have a significant role in what it is we wish to accomplish.”
Cox is one of the many artists in the Beast Mode collective, which is looking to branch into entertainment, with the possibilities ranging from production to distribution. He says there are deals in the works, although none have been announced yet.
But the vision is to take their Oakland hustle worldwide.
“Which is amazing,” says Cox. “Cuz is really making some real business, big mogul moves.”
“We’re still young, man. We still got so much more to take it to another level.”
Cox says he wants to be mayor and says they have the organization to make it happen. But only on their own terms that don’t include censoring themselves.
He tells a story about Lynch and others from the foundation visiting a juvenile detention facility and making a connection with the young people there. But some staffers weren’t keen on their language. They didn’t care. There are ways they need to reach people, Cox said, and they’re not going to “give them the ‘Blues Clues’ version.”
And when Bill Clinton brought his Global Initiative University to Oakland in April, Lynch insisted the former president throw up the North Oakland sign — fingers splayed, middle finger folded down — before he would take a picture with him.
Eighteen hours in, you understand Beast Mode is always representing.
Lynch is taking his pingpong table to the streets.
Actually, to the sidewalk in front of the store. As he rolls it across the floor, a group of guys walk in and stop short when they see Lynch.
“Yo’ a– just gonna stand there, or are you going to help me?” Lynch asks them and they hurry to help push the table out of the door. Lynch then beats one of them handily in a quick game.
He plays cousins Marco and Anzel, two of the four lookalike Reed brothers who work store security.
Clerks and customers from the nearby salon and a Starbucks gather, and pull out camera phones as Lynch takes on all comers. “You ready for that challenge?” he asks passers-by.
Fans want pictures and Lynch says no — “only with kids.”
A small, older looking white woman walks by.“Pingpong!” she exclaims.
“Yeah! You look like you want some,” Lynch tells her. “I’ll whup that a–.”
She giggles, waves and walks away.
Lynch plays with Johnson’s young daughter and son. He warns them to stay on the sidewalk and he’s the first to chase the balls between cars.
At one point, Johnson’s son, “Little Josh,” who people call “Little Head,” and I are playing against Lynch, and Lynch smashes the ball past the boy and into the store window.
“That’s weak! You’re soft!” Lynch taunts Little Head, and I rush to his defense.
“He’s not soft,” I protest, “he’s 5!”
Lynch shakes his head, “No, he’s not. He’s 4.”
The cousins urge Little Head to keep his paddle up. “Come on, you gotta be strong. Be strong,” they say.
Twenty-four hours in, you realize the boys in Beast Mode are always hard.
In West Oakland
We’re in West Oakland driving past the old Wonder Bread factory where Marcus Peters, who is riding shotgun, recalls hearing stories of how badly black employees were treated. Peters, who’s been mentored by Lynch and calls him a cousin, is a cornerback for the Kansas City Chiefs and was the NFL defensive rookie of the year last season.
We pass DeFremery Park where guys play basketball. Everywhere we go, heads turn because the music is bumping. And because we’re in Johnson’s black Tesla Model S P85D. Little Josh is asleep in the back.
Johnson stops to talk to a group of women sitting on lawn chairs near 24th and Chestnut. Rilisha Jones offers to do my hair for me and gives me her card. She had a feeling Lynch was going to make it big in high school, she says, and wanted to snuggle up to him, “but we turned out to be family,” she said, laughing.
We stop to talk to Dre Norwood who owns Room to Groom barbershop in North Oakland. “The one thing about these guys, they go to the same barbershop they went to as kids. It’s the same barbershop they go to now.” Where Lynch still gets lined and trimmed. Where Johnson used to sweep the floors for money to go to the movies. It’s like home cooking, Norwood says, and they’ve never outgrown it. “These two dudes, they never change.”
But the city has changed, Johnson says as we drive through the most hardscrabble part of West Oakland, the Lower Bottoms. Narrow streets, abandoned warehouses, liquor stores and broken-looking men on broken-down bikes, all under a canopy of leafy trees. “Now white people are moving to the Lower Bottoms to be closer to the BART,” he remarks. It’s the first stop on the east side of the bay.
Face to face
We’re rolling four cars deep and pull up outside the A & M market in East Oakland to talk to Devon Porter, a hip-hop artist who goes by Sleepy D. Lynch goes across the street to talk to a car full of women who’ve just pulled up.
I’m standing in front of Peters and he looks at me and frowns. “Wipe that mess off your mouth,” he commands.
“You mean my lipstick?” I say.
Yeah, wipe it off. He thrusts a bottle toward me.
“Hit the Henny!” he commands. I haven’t seen a glass since my first two hours in Beast Mode so Peters shows me how I need to wrap my thumb around the neck and throw the bottle back.
I take a sip, and Peters sneers. “That was weak,” he says.
After I talk to Porter, we jump back in the Tesla with Fab’s brother, Teej, Johnson’s daughter, Jhai, 8, and Little Josh. The window is down and the music is loud — “Make a Living” by Philthy Rich and Birdman’s “Out Da Ghetto.” It’s a beautiful night in Oakland.
Back to the store and it’s time for the kickback in the parking lot. Sitting on cars. Drinking and talking aloud — about the cousins rapping, about how Sleepy D’s flow is nice. About how that N-word — I don’t remember who — couldn’t drive.
Suddenly, Lynch walks up to me. “This better not be some b——-,” he says. “These are all grown men and they made their decision to talk to you, but you better not show them in a bad light.”
I glance around and the lot has grown quiet. People are watching our exchange. Lynch and I are face to face, and we start to circle each other slowly. I feel no menace, but he is animated, insistent. He wants to be clear. “You flew in here to exploit this story and now you’re going to go back,” where editors can twist their words and faces and turn them into something unrecognizable, he tells me. And he’s not having it.
“I flew in to try to tell your story”, I say. “To try to get with other people because I didn’t even know if you would talk to me.”
He twists his lips, “I’m still not talking to you,” he says.
“You’re talking to me now,” I think to myself. Then I take a deep breath and relax. The words of Johnson and Fab, the authenticity of Cousin Marco, the wisdom of Sleepy D and Norwood run through my mind, and I reframe the conversation.
This is not about me, I think.
I am here with Beast Mode — the cousins, the ecosystem, the tribe —whatever you call it, and I have been rolling with them to the places that shaped them. Talking to the people they love, watching them and their kids and none of that has happened without Lynch’s consent.
The parking lot, the Town, the business. The pingpong tournament on the street. All those will be here after I’m gone and no matter what I write. The cousins will be here. The Family will be here, none of them are leaving so this is an assertion. A defense of place, an affirmation of self, and of beloved community and expletive the rest of y’all if you don’t get it.
I hear the question he is really asking.
Do you feel me?
After 35 hours in Beast Mode, I get it. “I understand,” I tell Lynch.
“You understand?” he says. “Because you was acting like you didn’t understand.” We’re still face to face, but we’re better now, even though I recognize we might never be simpatico.
“Lemme see that ball,” Lynch says to one of the cousins. He walks away to play catch with Little Head.
I lean against the car and gather my thoughts. Johnson comes over, “What you standing here all by yourself for? I told you, you stress too much!” he jokes.
Peters walks up to me. “Hey! You heard what Cuz said. This story better be right!” he warns. “Hit the Henny!” he says and thrusts the bottle my way.
I shake my head no.
“Hit the Henny!!” he says louder. I hit it a couple of times and the guys start to laugh. It still burns going down.
Beast Mode means never say die.
Martenzie Johnson, senior researcher, contributed to this report.