Marshawn Lynch channels Willy Wonka on 'Conan.' (TBS)
On the afternoon of Friday, Sept. 23, Marshawn Lynch walks slowly through the Bay Street shopping mall in Emeryville. Under one massive arm, he carries a chess set, a flier for an upcoming chess tournament at the Hilltop mall in Richmond, and a Willy Wonka-esque top hat. With the other, he supports a tiny elderly woman -- his grandmother, who was wearing, like him, a t-shirt emblazoned with the word “Beastmode,” Lynch’s own brand.
The pair pass shoppers hurrying into Sephora and H&M, customers who didn’t give them a second glance. They draw attention only after approaching the line of people queued up outside the IT'SUGAR, an upscale candy shop where Lynch’s latest venture, Beastmode-branded chocolate bars, are about to have their world premiere (hence the Wonka hat, which Lynch wore on national television on Conan a few nights before).
If you are Marshawn Lynch -- recently-retired Super Bowl-winning running back for the Seattle Seahawks, former California Golden Bears and Oakland Tech superstar -- it is apparently possible to be one of Oakland’s most famous sons, and still walk in near-total anonymity through the evening crowd at a busy shopping center just a few blocks from where you grew up, went to school, and first became a celebrity.
Near-total, because the 80 people lined up outside the candy shop are definitely here for Lynch, who, at 30 years old, is enjoying a second act as an entrepreneur -- and, increasingly, as an in-demand media personality. This is a role he plays strictly on his own terms, something Marshawn Lynch will enforce within minutes of arriving at the store, where Mitch Grossbach and Jean Thompson, the GMs of Beastmode and Seattle Chocolate, respectively, are already inside waiting on their star.
Shortly after the scheduled 4 p.m. start time, after Marshawn has finished greeting all the cashiers and clerks inside and posing for pictures, the line of fans outside starts moving. Inside the store, piles of Beastmode chocolate bars are stacked underneath mannequins dressed in Beastmode leggings and Lynch's new Cal-branded Beastmode shirts. Everyone here will get a chocolate bar, a photo, and a second or two of Lynch's time. No autographs and no interviews will be given -- which gets rid of the two TV cameramen who have shown up, seconds after they film his entrance.
More notably, the reception Lynch gives his fans, who have dutifully lined up to get a photo of him in his Wonka hat, depends entirely on who they are. The fawning grown men in Seahawks and Raiders garb, he will politely tolerate; the women he may greet warmly, flashing an electric smile, but the kids -- the kids get the VIP treatment. Lynch mugs with them, prods them into smiles, and breaks the ice if necessary.
“When I went up there, he said, ‘Don’t be shy -- get over here,’” says Oakland resident Autumn Jacobs, 13. She arrived today with her older sister and her father (who also got a picture with Marshawn, albeit the serious and unsmiling one).
“You think about him as maybe shy or standoffish...I think he is more shy than standoffish,” says Seattle Chocolate’s Thompson, adding that Lynch took a little while to open up before becoming nothing but charming and affable during the yearlong process of launching their product. “I think the press, they take things out of context sometimes.”
In Seattle, Thompson says, Lynch is a certified A-lister: a big star. (The following day, when Lynch appears in Seattle for the grand opening of a second Beastmode apparel retail location, "several hundred" people will show up for autographs). Seattle being a small market, one might think that would make Lynch a niche star, but he's proving otherwise.
“I didn’t realize his fame and attraction had such legs across the country,” she says. He's quirky and famous enough to have been on O'Brien's show now four times, and he's a big enough name for his personal peccadilloes to become selling points.
After it became known that he was an aficionado of Skittles -- his mother would feed him the candy before his schoolboy football games, calling them his “power pills” -- he started appearing in commercials. These days, you can see Lynch next to other current NFL superstars in commercials for XboX, uttering the punchline “Y’all need to work on y’all people skills," poking fun at Lynch’s own notorious reticence during his playing days, when he clowned the soundbite-addicted football media with a series of one-answer press conferences. (“I’m just here so I won’t get fined,” he said in response to every question asked at one, a phrase since trademarked and printed on his t-shirts.)
The joke is on them now, as Lynch has beaten them at their own game. He clowned them, hard, and the public ate it up, making his celebrity even bigger, his personality more enjoyable. "I love him," says a flushed Melissa Espy, a woman in her thirties, still flustered after her encounter. Espy drove three hours from Monterey County to be the first person in line.
But the scene is incredibly mellow. By 5 p.m., the line has dissipated enough for the security guards outside to start rolling up and putting away the retractable belt-line barriers, leading Espy to hop back in line for a second photo. Other fans sit on benches outside in the sun, next to the signs with Lynch’s face advertising his appearance, to compare photos and brag on social media.
Lynch was scheduled to be here another hour. After that, he and Grossbach have a few more hours before they had leave for SFO and the flight north for the Seattle Beastmode grand opening. In between receiving visitors -- by this time, a young girl has become Lynch's companion in all photos -- Grossbach asks Lynch if he wanted some Skittles.
“Nah,” Lynch said, shaking his head, one arm around the shoulder of the girl, who is all smiles. “I’m good.”