Marshawn Lynch, At Play

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Among the more omnipresent ads airing during NFL games during the playoffs is one featuring Houston Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt for the league’s youth fitness program, Play 60. Watt, in shorts and a padless jersey, tags along with some elementary schoolers from a fake school bus on a stage to a classroom to, finally, recess, where, under a pleasantly clouded sky, a kid swats a football from Watt’s hand and Watt complains, “Hey, that’s my move!”

If the league’s aim here is clear – to recast its athletes as role models, distract from football’s uglier issues, and draw a wholesome line from schoolyard fun to the strange and violent and hugely profitable thing the nation watches on Sundays – the reaction of all but the most naïve fans is obvious. Professional football left “play” behind long ago. Players move in hard, relentlessly choreographed, and sometimes catastrophic bursts. Coaches work extreme hours and behave like gamblers near disaster on the sidelines. Two or three times a game – more on unlucky days – a player drops and writhes or, scarier, drops and stays still. We go to commercial and see Watt again wiggle out of a too-small desk.

The NFL has built itself on importance, not fun. Its patrons want codes of war, parables of bravery, and high stakes. Its finest teams master efficiency and minimize risk. Its coaches say, “Do your job.” There can be no mistaking: football is serious shit.

But times of institutional dourness cultivate the occasional iconoclast. Enter Marshawn Lynch, the Seattle Seahawks’ running back, avatar, resident badass, Skittles-grubber, grill-flasher, and quake-inciter. The only way to watch Lynch is with a momentary disregard for the complicatedness of the task of offensive football, and the only way to talk about him is with a smile. With a football in his arms, Marshawn Lynch performs uncut joy.

Last Sunday, in a Divisional Round victory against the New Orleans Saints, Lynch turned in what has become a typical postseason performance. As Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson struggled throwing the ball in wet and windy Seattle, he turned again and again to hand it to Lynch. The back carried it 28 times for 140 yards and two touchdowns, the last chunk coming on a 31-yard dash-and-stiffarm that mostly (but for the Saints’ eventual onside kick recovery that added some interest to the final moments) ended the suspense and started the celebration. He was talked about as the difference in the game, and he was.

But though Lynch has great strategic value to his team, his aesthetic value dwarfs it for everyone else. In a world of proscribed vectors, exact duties, and tsk-tsk-ing yellow circles and lines, he moves freely and with spirit. He jumps at a mash of offensive and defensive lineman like that mash is something he loves and has been away from for a long time. His feet tear the grass; his arms are clubs. When he jukes, he seems about to shake himself apart, and when a linebacker snatches one of his legs, he looks like he’d just as soon leave it behind and hop along on the other.

With three minutes and forty-six seconds left in the game against New Orleans, Wilson handed off to Lynch for the 27th time. The result of the play was unexceptional; Lynch, facing second-and-ten, gained seven yards and set up a passing first down on the next play. In the moment, though, it thrilled. Saints defensive lineman Akiem Hicks had his hands on Lynch’s shoulders at the line; Lynch muscled through. Linebacker Junior Gallette took a swipe at him, but Lynch hopped back and sped forward again in an instant (no other back in the league approaches his ability to retreat for maximum effect). Lynch shoved past defensive back Malcolm Jenkins for a final yard or two before Jenkins held a leg and waited for a tide of converging Saints to stop the still-pushing runner, who got up more quickly than most of his tacklers.

It was a short, instinctive, and brilliant run, and its modest distance gave it a sort of permanence, an air of repeatability. Lynch, grinning behind a black visor and dangling purple mouthguard, could step and shimmy and fall and have five or six more yards behind him whenever he pleased.

This sense of permanence is at the root of the joy of Marshawn Lynch. Unlike almost every non-quarterback in the NFL, he sticks in the mind not via week-to-week accomplishments but as an entity. (For contrast, look across the playoff bracket to New England; they love Tom Brady for what he can do and thank LaGarrette Blount for what he did.) Running back has become football’s spot for clock-punchers and pain-takers, walking 40-yard dash times whose bodies are wrung with repetition. Lynch, though, is vigor in pads. Turn on a Seahawks game, and there he will be, playing.

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