SAN FRANCISCO – Whether he's fighting for extra yards near the goal line, battling his way through off-the-field troubles or confronting an uncertain NFL future, Marshawn Lynch(notes) is tough to bring down.
That was evident Friday afternoon when the Buffalo Bills' former starting halfback entered Octagon Football's temporary offices with his dreadlocks tucked inside a ski cap and a smile plastered across his broad face, a ray of sunshine amid the pastel-themed décor. "This is a niiiccceee spot," Lynch said to his agent, Doug Hendrickson, then lowered his voice. "I mean, it's kind of feminine in here."
Later Lynch would turn serious, making his first public comments since the Bills drafted former Clemson back C.J. Spiller(notes) with the ninth overall pick last month and revealing his intention to show up in Buffalo "sometime within the next week" to participate in some of the team's offseason training activities. In a wide-ranging conversation that mixed professional confidence with personal reticence, Lynch said he is driven to restore the luster to a career which began with a pair of 1,000-yard seasons and a Pro Bowl appearance before becoming derailed a year ago.
"I've never been a quitter," Lynch said. "My mentality is that it's time to get back to work. All I can do is showcase what I've got, and if they utilize it, they do. And if they don't, then you know what, they don't. At the end of the day, it's still going to be a business. It's not just an audition for them. Cause there's 32 teams in the league, and somebody is always looking."
Before Lynch and I spoke Friday he left with another Octagon employee to notarize a document for the homeowners' association of his Hamburg, N.Y., condominium complex – another reminder of the Oakland native's increasingly uncomfortable existence in Western New York since the Bills drafted him 12th overall in 2007.
After the association ruled that Lynch couldn't keep a pair of pit bulls on the property, he gave away the puppies last fall. The ordeal was part of a regrettable third season that included a three-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy (following his involvement in a hit-and-run incident and a guilty plea to a misdemeanor gun charge), the loss of his starting job to Fred Jackson(notes) and a string of unpleasant interactions that included a beer can being thrown at his car as he left the Ralph Wilson Stadium parking lot following a game.
"I did some things that got me in trouble, and I don't fault anyone but myself," Lynch said. "I suffered the consequences, and I moved on. But some of the things in Buffalo that have happened to me, it's been different. Like when [the homeowners' association] told me I couldn't have a dog. They told me that for every day I had them, they would fine me $100 a dog. The people next to me had dogs. The people down the street had dogs. But the homeowners' association said mine had to go. So I got rid of the dogs. And now they made me sign a paper saying I would never get another dog as long as I live there – and notarize it."
Before his rookie season Lynch signed his name to a five-year contract worth a reported $19 million, and he intends to honor it, despite having experienced unhappiness playing for the Bills. After requesting a trade in April, Lynch thought he might be moved during the NFL draft. According to a league source, the Seattle Seahawks and Houston Texans made overtures but didn't offer more than a third-round pick, and Buffalo wouldn't bite.
The selection of Spiller seems to leave Lynch third on new coach Chan Gailey's depth chart, but the 5-foot-11, 215-pound former Cal star insists he doesn't view it that way. Spiller, an undersized breakaway threat, isn't likely to be deployed as a traditional, every-down halfback. Jackson, a fourth-year player who gained 1,062 yards in '09, may not be a clear-cut choice to assume that role under the new regime. As one person familiar with the organization's thinking said recently, "Chan is cooking up creative ways to use all three."
Said Lynch: "I never feel like a '3.' I'm always going to be a '1' in my mind, regardless of how the situation plays out. I feel great going back. If I would have gotten traded, it would have been something different … but that's not the case. It's not about 'what ifs.' I've got to be realistic."
"It kind of wasn't really a surprise to me," Lynch said. "But I mean, you know, it was a good decision. It gave us another weapon. We should be able to utilize him in some exciting ways. I see it as a good thing. There's always going to be new talent coming in, and the reason for you going out and getting that talent is to make your team better. Hopefully this year we can at least get a playoff berth."
Bills fans embraced the hard-running Lynch after a strong rookie season that included 1,115 rushing yards. They loved the way Lynch talked about going into beast mode on crucial runs, something he describes as "the mindset of somebody who, at whatever he does, he's gonna make the most of it … basically taking what you want."
The perception of him changed after he struck a female pedestrian with his car in downtown Buffalo in May of 2008, later pleading guilty to a traffic charge and admitting he prematurely drove away from the scene of an accident. Ten months later he pled guilty to the gun-possession charge following an arrest near Los Angeles.
Lynch, whose charitable efforts in the Bay Area include an annual football camp that will take place in July and efforts to provide housing for single mothers, made a conscious effort to be active in the Buffalo community. Among other endeavors, he joined teammate Terrence McGee(notes) in helping to sponsor a three-on-three basketball tournament last June that was sponsored by the city's Police Athletic League.
Yet on several occasions last year Lynch wondered if the negative public perception about him impacted the behavior of authority figures.
"When I'm out, I'm real cautious about what I do," Lynch said. "I've dealt with a lot. I don't want to call it unfair, but there's a lot of little things I have to deal with."
After a September home game against the Bucs, one of the contests Lynch missed because of the suspension, he was pulled over by police officers while driving out of the stadium parking lot.
"The police made a big deal that my music was too loud," he recalled. "I said, 'I am at the stadium. You've got people out here tailgating, having parties, with TVs, and music.' I mean, they actually had a live band playing. You had people drinking, making noise.
"[After another] game I was leaving the facility and somebody threw a beer can at my car. One of my teammates was behind me and saw it; he went to the police officer in front of me and told him what happened. The officer said, 'Well, there's a lot of people out here with a lot of beer cans. What, you want me to ask everybody if they threw a beer can and try to find out who did it?' "
In January, Hamburg police investigated an incident in which Lynch allegedly stole $20 from a Buffalo police detective's wife at a TGI Friday's. Hendrickson, Lynch's agent, called the allegations "false and malicious" and described the Buffalo police officer in question as a "racist rogue cop." No charges were filed.
Lynch said he got to the point in Buffalo where he felt like staying home was the best and only option. "I was staying in with my uncle Lee and my cousin Sam, and it got to a point where [playing video games] was all I was doing," Lynch said. "And I got so good at the Wii bowling game I could bowl a strike from the other room. That's how good I got.
"That's why I went out and got my two puppies – that's all I was going to do was take care of the dogs. … Then [the homeowners' association] started telling me they were going to fine me. I'd had 'em out playing outside, so I figured, maybe if I just keep 'em in the house it'll be OK. It wasn't.
"They called animal control and had 'em come out – they said my dogs were, like, vicious. The lady got over there to check my dogs. She said, 'Well, I couldn't see where they say these dogs are vicious.' I had bought a six-foot gate and put it in my garage, so I could keep 'em in, and she checked that out and found no problem. But I still started to get those fine slips.
"So now what do I do? I can only play so much Madden."
While Lynch may be tentative about going out in public, he is bringing a go-for-broke mentality into the 2010 season. He recently surprised Hendrickson by telling the agent he intended to participate in some of the Bills' OTA sessions and to fight for playing time in training camp.
"He's in great spirits," Hendrickson said. "He's looking forward to competing and being the back he's capable of being. People are writing him off, but he's only 24 years old and he has a lot of great football left."
Said Lynch: "People are going to have their doubts. They're supposed to, and that's the beauty of it all. They doubt you. You prove 'em wrong. Then they say, 'This guy is wonderful.' I love it.
"Coming from where I was raised at, there have been a lot of doubts. To finish high school was a big accomplishment. A lot of people didn't think that was going to happen. The next thing was, I went to college. A lot of people didn't think that would happen, and I'm two semesters away from graduating. Then it was going to the pros. I got the suspension, and then there were more doubts. That, in my mind, is an opportunity for success. I just take it and make the best of it.
"What will you see from me this year? Beast mode."
Whatever his football future holds, Lynch vowed that his days of misbehavior are behind him and that he'll work to change the way he's perceived in Buffalo and elsewhere.
"If I was that much of a menace, if I was really that bad – the way that people look at me, have this perception of me – I'd probably be in a much worse situation," he said. "Yeah, I've done some bad things. But I'm bouncing back.
"Anything that I see that's going to be a negative pull towards me, I'm not going to be interested. You just get tired of that negative light. It wears and tears on you. It's time for a change."