Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Town Business and the Beast

Let me tell you a story:

Once upon a time, there was a boy who grew up to be a beast. When he left home for another country, he never forgot where he came from. Once his journey was over, he decided to come back home to become an even bigger beast. And it's no where close to being "The End"...

Much has been made about Marshawn Lynch, AKA Beast Mode, signing a contract to play for the Oakland Raiders this coming NFL season. After famously "hanging up his cleats", retiring after a mostly-stellar-but-sometimes-rocky career, he was personally moved to leverage a transition to play football for his hometown team. But it's not as simple as that.

If you look at his resume - born and raised in The Town, Oakland Tech HS legend, star running back at Cal, Super Bowl champion, and potential future Hall of Famer - one would argue that he has accomplished enough. But the Raiders' controversial decision to move to Las Vegas within the next 3 seasons was inspiration enough for Marshawn to make sure that the exit would not be as painful for many kids in Oakland and the Bay, especially children of color.

And like an unofficial "people's mayor" of Oakland (no offense to Libby Schaaf), he has the street cred, social capital, and entrepreneurial vision to leave a lasting legacy. Juxtaposed against that is his current team, one that seems to miss all of these things and will likely leave nothing to the city of its birth...not even a team museum.

So here is how Marshawn is doing this:
  • He started a charity, Fam 1st Family Foundation, that is involved in the empowerment and academic excellence of underprivileged children;
  • He held his 11th annual Youth Football Camp this year - free of charge to all kids who attend - complete with a movie night, a trip to the Raging Waters water park, a talent show, and a bowling outing;
  • He opened Beast Mode Apparel mere yards away from the official heart of downtown Oakland, 14th and Broadway;
  • He has shown up for events in the area - most recently playing at JaVale McGee's celebrity charity softball game at the Oakland Coliseum and throwing out the first pitch at an A’s game;
  • He has offered free haircuts to kids achieving better than a GPA of 3.0;
  • He has even influenced people to make transformative life changes...
And the list goes on. To borrow from LL Cool J, I imagine that Marshawn is "just gettin' warm"...

All of this coming from the same dude who reluctantly answered questions at the Super Bowl Media Day in 2015 with his “I’m just here so I won’t get fined” quip. BUT...this is the same dude who said these words to Deion Sanders in an interview at that same Media Day:

"I'm just 'bout that action, boss..."

For anyone who grew up or spent a significant part of time living in Oakland, you will likely agree with me that this statement is about as Oakland as it gets. And he is a living representation of this...a walking definition of Town Business.

Now, if you have ever heard or seen Marshawn in real life or on camera, you can probably tell that he is not necessarily the most polished or professionally diplomatic person in the public eye. One might look at his appearance and wonder why he doesn't look, sound, or act like, well, Russell Wilson. There is at least one good reason why: he is from The Town. That's not an insult. In fact, to many Oakland natives it's a badge of honor and credibility. This is what I mean.

Here is a recent interview about his opportunity with the Raiders this season:
I got the whole town, you feel me, though, riding with me. I’ve got all Oakland behind me, though. … So every home game that I get to come to this mother (expletive), I’m probably going to be riding with the whole town...Beside the billboards and all that, I really just get out with the people. The billboards are for the commercial people. But when you get outside and you walk in the cracks, you get to find out what’s real. (emphasis added)
And Oakland is real...arguably the nation's capital of realness. Marshawn is about as Oakland-real as ghost ridin' the whip, Flint's BBQ, and the Festival at the Lake. (I won't need to explain all of these things if you're from Oakland.) Which makes him a tailor-made ambassador for The Town. Which also makes him a necessity for the Raiders at this point. The organization known as the Silver and Black lost major realness points with their Las Vegas decision in the eyes of many authentic Raider Nationals, despite what Derek Carr sheepishly tried to walk back.

The reality is that Beast Mode represents the best of what the Raiders should be in totality and covers up the worst of what the Raiders are becoming off the field...looking less like Oakland and more like Las Vegas. In other words, the organization - not the team - is no longer a proprietor of Town Business, even though they will have one of the main principals of Town Business starting in the backfield come September. So without even trying, Marshawn has created a paradox within a paradox: raiding the Raiders who are attempting to raid Las Vegas. And, honestly, the Raiders need him more than he needs them.

In all he endeavors to do from the gridiron to Ghost Town, he will do this and much more his way...dreads, grill, and all. Yet note that for every person not understanding Oakland who may criticize Marshawn, there are probably five who understand Oakland and will appreciate in a general sense how authentic he is...expletives notwithstanding. Not to get into a larger discussion of role models, but implicit bias will prevent people from seeing what is in the cracks of a person. And inside every crack of Beast Mode you will find Oakland bubbling, about to ooze out like a pyroclastic flow. And everyone who makes contact with the emerging lava possibly stands to benefit in some small way from his contributions that seek to put Oakland residents first. On the surface, his example of making Oakland better is worthy of imitation, without the necessity of imitating him.

Marshawn during his Cal days: being his usual Beast self close to home.
And regardless of what you may think or perceive of him, you can't argue the fact that he is doing what many people - especially athletes - fail or forget to do. He remembered (and never forgot) where he came from, came back to that place, and put his heart as well as his money behind his return. Even if he doesn't come ornately wrapped like a Neiman Marcus or Nordstrom gift box.

Besides, what has not come out of Oakland that did not fit the mold of the establishment or society at large? I'll run down some for you...

Fred Korematsu, Bill Russell, The Black Panthers, Curt Flood, Tower of Power and Lenny Williams, Morrie Turner, East Bay Dragons, Pointer Sisters, Mother Wright, Rickey Henderson, MC Hammer, Tony! Toni! Tone!, Denzil Foster/Thomas McElroy, Keyshia Cole...

And yes, Al Davis.

And when it's all said and done, Marshawn's past (and possible future) foibles, in quasi-Biblical style, may likely be swallowed up by his present and future contributions to this city...on and off the field. If he keeps doing what he's doing, he could be a major part of the balm that soothes a city that will be burned twice by the same NFL team. And if the current team ends up parlaying its promise on the field into a Super Bowl victory before leaving its real roots, not only will it be a curtain call on a great career, but it will also be the culminating point of satisfaction for this hometown-boy-turned-beast.

Until that happens, I'm sure Marshawn will be on his grind, getting in the cracks and figuring out what The Town needs on the street level. In his own unique way, with his heart in full gear. And he just might say something in the process.

Now that's action, boss...

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