By Mark Emmons
Cal tailback Marshawn Lynch is a big fan of cartoons. So he probably could appreciate the humor of the scene. There was Lynch, pretending to make a dash up the Memorial Stadium steps after practice Monday. But a Cal media relations staffer was tugging the back of his jersey, holding on for dear life. (This, by the way, is how defenders often end up trying to tackle the elusive Lynch.) ``I'm not anything special,'' said Lynch, after the notoriously media-shy sophomore was all but dragged back to the field for an interview. Actually, ``special'' is the perfect description. Despite a broken finger and other circumstances that have limited his playing time in what was expected to be a breakout season, Lynch enters Saturday's Big Game against Stanford with 929 yards rushing in 148 carries and six touchdowns.
Yet in the look-at-me world of big-time college athletics, Lynch remains old school in his attitude toward fame. He's unimpressed with his budding stardom and holds on to the fleeting hope that he can be just a face in the crowd, not the face of the Cal program. ``Growing up, my mom taught me that I'm no different than anybody else,'' said Lynch, an Oakland native. ``We all put our pants on one leg at a time.''
Maybe, but his pants are the ones that always seem to be sprinting toward the end zone. The 5-foot-11, 215-pound human highlight film has a rare combination of speed, strength and ability to change direction. He can run around or over opponents -- the choice is theirs. Cal Coach Jeff Tedford has said Lynch ``might be the best all-around player I've ever seen.'' Added Cal running-backs coach Ron Gould: ``Many guys have talent, but he has a gift. He has something that you just can't coach, and it's effortless.'' But all of this fuss has come as a surprise to Lynch, who never even had college on his radar as a youngster. He was raised by a single mom. His father hasn't been a factor in his life -- Lynch is his mother's maiden name. He didn't realize the opportunity that football might provide -- in part because his TV viewing habits have never included ESPN. ``I'm into cartoons, so I used to watch a lot of Nickelodeon,'' Lynch said. ``I'd have the `Rugrats' on all the time.'' He hinted at a less-than-idyllic childhood but declined to elaborate, saying: ``I don't want to talk about that stuff.'' Delton Edwards, Lynch's coach at Oakland Tech, filled in some of the blanks. ``It's the same story for every kid in Oakland,'' Edwards said. ``There's choices, and a lot of kids go in the wrong direction. He had opportunities to do the wrong things. He had friends who did things and went to jail. But he kept his focus. He's a really good kid who figured out that sports could carry him to a better place.'' Lynch's uncle, Lorenzo Lynch, who played 11 seasons in the NFL, was among those who opened his eyes to the possibility of college. Then Lynch and his cousins, Virdell Larkins and Robert Jordan, hatched the idea of making themselves a group package to the same school. ``I always said that wherever my cousin was going, I was going,'' Lynch said of Larkins, a defensive back who is being redshirted this season. ``And he always said he wouldn't mind going to school here if Cal got into the top 25 and got the Nike contract.'' Explained Jordan, now Cal's second-leading receiver: ``We're all Nike fanatics.'' So, they ended up at Cal, in part because Tedford turned around the program and switched the team's apparel deal to the Swoosh. It also didn't hurt that they could play close to home, and for Lynch that meant being near his mom, Delisa, two younger siblings and grandfather. Although he rushed for 628 yards in just 71 carries as a freshman, Lynch was more proud of his 3.0 grade-point average -- especially because some of Cal's rivals on the recruiting trail had suggested Lynch couldn't handle the academics at Berkeley. ``Where I come from, there's not that many people who make it out of there,'' Lynch said. ``And there's especially not many people who get to come to a university like this. I guess I can understand why people doubted me. ``But if I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it to the best of my ability.'' There was never any doubting his football ability. Lynch's numbers this season -- he's 12th in the country in all-purpose yardage, averaging 158.6 per game -- are remarkable considering how much time he has missed. He broke the little finger on his left hand in a September game against Washington, missing most of the second half as well as the next two games. Other time spent on the sideline could have been avoided. He was late to a meeting, so he was held out of the first quarter of the loss to UCLA. Two fumbles against Oregon State resulted in being benched for the second half of another defeat. ``The expectations have been extremely high for him, and he's learning that there are consequences if you don't adhere to the policies of the coach,'' Gould said. ``But it's a true testament of a young man when you can persevere through the tough times, and he's done that.'' Lynch has run for 426 yards in the past three games. And he remains a happy-go-lucky free spirit. Jordan, laughing, tells of how his cousin has the odd habit of eating Skittles during games.
``He's always saying that his stomach is hurting him, so at halftime I'll see him eating them,'' Jordan said. ``He's one of a kind.'' Nuggets like that must come from others because Lynch steadfastly refuses to talk about himself, the chance of breaking the 1,000-yard barrier Saturday, or anything else that sounds remotely self-important. Edwards calls him ``a simple dude who is just a kid at heart.'' Or maybe he's something more old-fashioned -- humble. ``Sometimes,'' Lynch said quietly, ``I will think to myself, `You made it.' '' And that's as close to bragging as he'll get.