Virdell Larkins steps outside the Oakland Technical High School weight room and into the sun. He has to take a call.
It's a Wednesday in early August, and he's not sure I'm supposed to be here, not certain he should be talking to me. But after a moment, he hangs up, steps back inside and keeps on anyway. The school, the neighborhood, the city — all of it is changing, and how's he supposed to feel about that?
"I never used to see white kids walking their dogs and riding their bikes," the 30-year-old Oakland Tech football coach tells me. "It's not even a bad thing. It's just changing, you know what I mean?"
Most of it he can deal with, progress and civic improvement and all that, but when the Oakland Raiders announced in March their plans to leave the East Bay, that was one thing he couldn't abide. Larkins protested by stashing his Raiders jersey in the closet, though not long after the announcement, something happened that made him pull it back out.
"I'm not even thinking about Vegas no more," Larkins says, and there's a distinct reason for that.
The coach agrees to join me for lunch, and he locks the weight room and we continue chatting and walk toward my rental car, on the other side of a football field surrounded by a chain-link fence. A moment later, Larkins looks behind him to see a gray SUV turn left onto the narrow path between a school building and the practice field, more of a walkway than a road.
It's a Tesla Model X, and we casually step out of its way — and as we do, the driver jerks the wheel, pointing the vehicle at me, and guns the motor. Larkins sprints to his right; feeling trapped and terrified, I bolt around a corner to my left.
The vehicle screeches to a stop a few yards from us, the door swings open and out steps the driver, Marshawn Lynch.
The Oakland he left behind 10 years ago is gone, and now Lynch might be the city's most authentic landmark of a bygone time.
The street corners and drug houses and poverty, which inspired a generation of rap songs and one young running back to not just carry a football toward the defense but to storm its gates, have been emptied or replaced with $3,000-a-month condos. A fried seafood shack is a vintage record store now, a braid shop is a high-end taqueria, a takeout fish stand converted to a restaurant that serves the date-night and Sunday brunch crowd.
"This ain't for us," says Too $hort, a rapper who grew up here and was among those who wrote the city's soundtrack in the 1980s and '90s. "I really love the look, but I hate what it represents."
There is gentrification, and then there is Oakland this past decade: skyrocketing home values, the departures of more than 100,000 longtime — and, in many cases, low-income — residents between 2010 and 2014. Tradition and authenticity have been replaced with trendy and hip: wine bars and tapas joints and artisan coffee houses, much of it to accommodate young and well-to-do newcomers who work in the tech industry across the San Francisco Bay.
"Man, if you'd been in prison the last 15 or 20 years, you wouldn't know how to get around right now," says Oakland native Money-B, one of the co-founders of the pioneering rap group Digital Underground.
Lynch, 31, hasn't been in prison, but he did spend the first 3½ years of his NFL career in Buffalo — before moving on to Seattle and becoming a Super Bowl champion and a crotch-grabbing, Skittles-chomping, profanity-flinging curiosity who's just 'bout that action, boss. "Beast Mode," as he's known because of an explosive running style that caused actual seismic activity in 2011, abruptly retired after the 2015 season. Then the Raiders announced plans to move to Las Vegas, and that inspired Lynch to return to the NFL and play for the Raiders, or to be entirely accurate about it: to play for Oakland.
"Every home game that I get to come to this motherf-----, I'm probably gonna be riding with the whole town," he told Bay Area reporters in June.
It was classic Lynch: unburdened by grace, uninterested in acceptance, unwilling to change to make anyone else less uncomfortable. They used to say similar things about the city that created him.
Just in the past few weeks, now that football's most intriguing reunion is on, Lynch staged a frenetic solo dance party on the Raiders' sideline; was fined for flipping the double bird at the Tennessee Titans; and answered a reporter's question about protests by pondering whether "elephants is scared of mouses."
"He's not what you typically would see from an athlete," former Seattle teammate Doug Baldwin says, "or a human being."
He is authentic, and authentically Oakland, and if there's any consolation alongside all this change, at least there's this: Marshawn Lynch never will.
'Can you fight?'
As a child, Lynch was a wanderer, moving with his mother from one public housing complex to the next as she worked two jobs and tried to get by. Dinner was cereal some nights, and other times he got by on candy.
Sugar was always among his vices, along with ambition and pride. He didn't have many outfits, occasionally wearing the same thing all week, but what he owned he'd wash in the sink at night and hope it'd be dry by morning. When it wasn't, the kids teased him about the musty smell that followed him, and Marshawn couldn't believe his friends would judge him that way.
He became withdrawn and suspicious, adopting a piece of Oakland slang used to defuse trash talk or excuses: "Be about that action," and that became his code. He collected broken promises, often from his father, and never forgot them. Friends and relatives disappeared following prison sentences or worse, and over time Marshawn perfected the art of social distance. "You start to expect the worst out of people," he told ESPN in 2013, though sometimes humanity could surprise him.
Family members took him in during particularly turbulent times, sometimes for a night but occasionally for months. On his birthday one year, he was so hungry he wandered across the street to visit a woman who ran a restaurant and catering business. He told her he turned 7 that day, and she made him a hamburger; he'd never forget it.
"He had to get in where he fit in," says Virdell Larkins Jr., Marshawn's uncle and his cousin Little Virdell's father. "He is who he is because of this lifestyle, these streets that make us."
The elder Larkins was a guard at San Quentin State Prison, and Marshawn decided he wanted to be a parole officer. He liked what that kind of job provided his uncle: respect and authority, to say nothing of coming home each day to the same three-bedroom house in the suburbs — something like a dream.
He spent nights at his uncle's, eventually moving in for about a year, one of a dozen or so stops of varying elegance around the East Bay. He was enchanted by the wonder of laundry machines and steak and onions over rice whenever he wanted it. He and Little Virdell, a talented defensive back who would play in college, dreamed of growing up to play for the Raiders — their skull-and-crossbones logo a symbol of unapologetic defiance, perhaps sports' best match of a team's identity and its fan base.
Marshawn was dazzling with all he could do on a football field, his vision and athleticism, but back then there was a downside to his game: He was afraid of being hit. That's right: Before there was "Beast Mode," some coaches believed Marshawn was soft.
"Can you fight?" Oakland Tech's running backs coach once asked him, and the boy said he could; he'd been fighting his whole life.
Then be about that action, the coach said: Think of opposing defenses as a revenge apparatus. The cycling from house to house? The hunger and heartbreak? The kids who said he smelled?
The coach pointed toward the players across from him, telling Marshawn he should take it out on them.
About that action
That Wednesday in August, Lynch's cousin was gathering trash in the weight room, an unexpected part of the head coach's job description.
"Five cents. We'll take it," Larkins says, reading a label and explaining that California refunds a nickel for each recycled bottle; if he cashes in enough, Oakland Tech can afford to play football this season. "Now we get to see something — something out of our trash."
He appreciates symbolism, even the kind he seems to be fighting: Temescal, the high school's north-side neighborhood for more than a century, seems to belong more to the city's newcomers these days instead of the kids who attend class here.
Six blocks away from Oakland Tech's crumbling football building is a restaurant with two Michelin stars; even closer is a duplex listed for sale at more than $1 million.
Meanwhile, the nearby recreation center, where Lynch played as a boy and one of the few constants in his life, burned in November and hasn't been rebuilt. Oakland Tech provides Larkins with $450 per football season — barely enough for one pregame meal, he said — and mentors can be scarce. But he nonetheless believes sports are powerful motivation for poor kids who grow up with few role models.
So he collects garbage, sells popcorn and peddles Bulldogs apparel. And, occasionally, invites his cousin and Oakland Tech's most famous alumnus to swing by with a few words.
Speaking of, why not just ask Lynch — who reportedly has lived off endorsements, has saved nearly $50 million in playing salary and whose new contract will pay him at least $9 million over the next two years — for a donation?
That, Larkins says, would miss the point. He wants his players to watch him doing this, to hear about Lynch's sacrifices and see his rewards. What could be a more symbolic way to teach them to be about that action?
"I want to teach these kids to stop waiting for what people are going to hand you," Larkins says. "Don't wait for s---. Go get s---."
'Born and raised and bred'
Lynch spent offseasons here and heard locals' stories and saw the changing landscape for himself.
A fledgling civic leader in dreadlocks and sweats, he saw businesses fold and return as something unfamiliar, heard from residents being pushed out, listened as members of Lynch's innermost circle described feeling like outsiders in the only city they'd known.
The Oakland they knew wasn't just changing; it was disappearing, and the "honeycomb," as they called it — hangouts where the bees come to gather — was gone. Now, Larkins says, if he and his friends congregate on a front porch or sidewalk, invariably one of their new neighbors calls the cops.
"We can't even sit outside the house no more," Larkins says, "without somebody saying something."
As he once did during more meager times, Lynch listened and quietly contemplated. At least off the field, he prefers subtlety to grandiosity. One example, friends and former teammates believe, is when he refused to answer reporters' questions in the traditional sense throughout the 2015 season — "I'm just here so I don't get fined," he said, again and again, in a particularly famous episode before Seattle's second consecutive Super Bowl appearance. Whether Lynch intended it or not, he was — in his own strange way — delivering a message about the absurdity of NFL rules forcing players to say something to the media, and besides: Weren't his responses, while unusual, a more revealing look into his psyche than typically bland talking points?
"They just think it's: 'Oh, Marshawn is just being funny; he's being different; he's being anti-authority,' " says Baldwin, Lynch's friend and former Seahawks teammate. "But no, he's making a serious point: 'You're forcing me to come here and talk to the media when I'm an introvert.' It just went over everybody's heads."
Anyway, Lynch retired in February 2016 — following nine seasons, six of which he rushed for at least 1,000 yards, after five of which he was named to the Pro Bowl — and announced it on Twitter in a most Marshawn way: with a "peace out" emoji and a pair of bright green cleats hanging from a power line.
After that, he became something more serious than a mascot and more fun than an activist. He opened a "Beast Mode" store in downtown Oakland, not just running the place but sometimes working the counter and inviting youngsters with at least a B average to sit in the in-store barber chair for a free haircut.
He attended sixth-grade graduations and stopped by Oakland Tech practices and organized group bike rides from Oakland to Berkeley.
He heard about a northside restaurant closing, its owner retiring after more than 50 years, and Lynch called her. He told Cassie Nickelson, 79, that she probably wouldn't remember him, but she made a hamburger for a hungry boy on his seventh birthday. Lynch and Nickelson "got to talking," Nickelson would later say, and before they hung up, Lynch offered to buy Scend's, keeping it alive, and rename it for a friend who'd been shot to death in Oakland in 2007. And sure enough, Rob Ben's is expected to open later this year.
Then in March, the Raiders announced they'd be leaving the East Bay, and Lynch again felt a responsibility to his hometown. After a year away, he lobbied the Seahawks to relinquish his NFL rights and trade him to Oakland.
Lynch visited Raiders headquarters in April and tried on a silver and black helmet, and it felt so good he left the facility wearing it. The Seahawks traded Lynch to Oakland for draft picks and, though he had been living around town for more than a year, becoming a Raider meant he was home.
"Yes Lawd," Lynch tweeted after agreeing to a two-year contract, which will expire just as the franchise leaves California.
A few weeks later, Lynch appeared at a news conference. Playful at times, difficult at others, Lynch sped through answers until someone asked him about the Raiders' young players and the team's chances of finishing this season in the Super Bowl.
"All that [is] good s--- you just said, but I got a whole new Oakland behind me, though," Lynch said. "And I mean, the way we feel just about where we're from and why we represent where we're from so hard is because we know what the struggle is and how we get down."
He was speaking directly to Oakland, speaking its language, no point in subtlety.
"It ain't like, you know, I'm coming to y'all's city and I'm riding with y'all," he said. "This is actually born and raised and bred, pissing in them hallways and running down them alleyways.
"And I really did that."
A place of his own
The Tesla's motor is still running, its door still open, its driver still angry a few minutes after slamming on the brakes outside Oakland Tech. One way or another, Lynch knows how to make a point.
"This is me being protective over my family," he tells me, though by now I realize he's standing up for more than just his cousin. Oakland isn't just a city to Lynch; it is — particularly away from the tapas and wine-bar district — his castle. An outsider entering his space to talk to his guy about his town? That's trespassing.
I tell him I'm here to write about his life and a changing Oakland, to see the places meaningful to him, to understand why the city matters so much to him.
He ignores me.
"When's y'all's first scrimmage?" Lynch asks Larkins.
"Of August? I might not be able to make it, bruh," he says, genuinely bothered by the prospect of disappointing Oakland Tech's players. He and Larkins go on talking about the neighborhood, the increased "surveillance" around here and a "big-ass water hose thing" Lynch hasn't seen before.
Finally, he orders Larkins into the Tesla before turning toward me.
"But yeah, man, they got tours and s--- like that," he says. "You can get on a bus and they'll take you around and s---."
Larkins climbs into the passenger side, nonetheless shouting out places I should visit: the burned-down rec center, the old neighborhood, the downtown area. Lynch, in his way, also says farewell.
"You have a nice day, boss," he says, and I tell him it wasn't my intention to overstep. "It's all good, pimp. Don't even worry about it."
He drives away, his exit less dramatic than his entrance, and after a while I head downtown. The Beast Mode store is there, between a coffee shop and a specialty beer cafe, and when I arrive, I see Lynch's Model X parked out front on Broadway.
Relatives are among the staffers, and I watch as friends park in front of Lynch's Tesla, presumably at his invitation, and some stay for a few minutes while others are inside for much longer. One visitor brings his lunch, and another stops by with his family.
As I walk toward the storefront, it occurs to me that Lynch opened more than just another retail place. This, in the heart of Oakland, is the new honeycomb — a gathering spot for the people who matter to Lynch; a space that's theirs and will remain that way, no matter the changes surrounding them.
I want to see this place, to fully understand its importance to Lynch. But some places are protective of their culture and don't care if outsiders understand them, and the same goes for some people, and so I reach the door and hear their chatter and just keep walking.
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