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We thought we knew Marshawn Lynch, but we didn’t. And that’s why we loved him.

On the occasion of Lynch’s decision to metaphorically and literally hang up his cleats—maybe not at the peak of his career but certainly before the inevitable decline that claims all thirtysomething running backs could begin in earnest—it’s only natural to look back at not just his play, but also his personality. His legacy, if you want to get all cliché about it. His play? It’s easy to describe: relentless, bruising, indefatigable, herculean. But if you can come up with more than three words to describe the man himself, well, you’re doing better than me. 

Russell Wilson is the classic Student of the Game, a quarterback who leads more by example than by force of will. Peyton Manning—who will spend this offseason digging out from under an avalanche of bouquets thrown at him for playing the game The Right Way—is the good ole boy, an aw-shucks charmer who tempers his near pathologic competitive fire with an admirable knack for self-deprecation. Tom Brady? He’s the GQ cover boy we all imagine is just as likely to rub elbows with Tom Ford than with Mike Ditka.

We put the Wilsons and Mannings and Bradys of the NFL universe into those boxes because they put themselves there. Make no mistake, those personas are the product of a careful calculus designed to maximize marketability. Those men you see on the field are the action figure versions of real humans, shrink-wrapped and barcoded for easy consumption.

But during his time in Seattle Marshawn Lynch was something altogether different. He had no persona, no focus group–approved personality—precisely because he gave us nothing to work with. Possibly the greatest insight into his character that he’s ever personally revealed is his preference in candy. And for some reason that fact was extrapolated and twisted to make the case that he’s in some way sillier, less serious—or, if you want to read a little deeper into the subtext, simpler—than the average NFL running back. (Because…no one else who plays football likes to taste the rainbow?)

So in our desperate search to understand him we’ve clung to the few scraps he’s given us: a bizarre local commercial here, a hesitant interview there. And then we chopped up and remixed his words, turning them into memes, hoping to divine some greater truth about a man who literally plays behind a mask. We only knew fragments, and yet we used them to build a picture of a man we could either hang on the wall—or, to be fair, set on fire: If you were inclined to love him, his refusal to give interviews was a middle finger by proxy to the tired media establishment. If you didn’t, he was a petulant dick because you just hate life.

Whether it was by accident or design, Marshawn Lynch offered a blank slate to Seattle and to the larger sports world. And it was the shrewdest move of his career. Because upon that blank slate Seahawks fans were given license to project whatever we wanted. And each of us will remember him as not just the player for whom we wanted to cheer, but the kind of player for whom we could.

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