Can’t get him down

Marshawn Lynch runs with fury and purpose, through defenders and occasionally carrying them, but is he the hardest man to tackle in NFL history?

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PHOENIX — In my Cleveland childhood, people talked about the long-retired Jim Brown like he was a Roman god. There was Neptune, god of the sea, and Mars, the god of war, and Venus, goddess of love. Then there was Jim Brown, god of all things fearsome and awesome.

One of the neighbors on our street of small aluminum-sided boxes was a leathery hulk of a man who had some imprecise factory job that I assumed to be something like bending refrigerators or squeezing couches into loveseats with his bare hands. He always wore one of those sleeveless white T-shirts Brando had on in “A Streetcar Named Desire” — even when the wind chill dropped below zero — and he smoked Camels, which always seemed the most suicidal of cigarettes. Every now and again, he might begin a short but eloquent lecture on the topic of Jim Brown, world’s toughest human being.

“You couldn’t tackle that son of a bitch with a baseball bat,” might be one example.

“You couldn’t knock him down with a Lincoln Continental,” might be another.

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It was like that everywhere. People talked about Jim Brown on the radio, on television, at the supermarket, in history and math classes at school. Understand, this was a decade or more after he had retired from football but time had little fading power when it came to Jim Brown. He was as alive and indomitable as he had been the year Kennedy was shot, as much a part of my Cleveland in 1979 as he had been of our teachers’ Cleveland in 1958. There was a good reason for this.

“Sometimes Jim would make up his mind he was not going to down,” his teammate and college football Hall of Famer John Wooten once said. “There’d be guys jumping on top of the pile and he’d still be standing there until the official blew the whistle.”

Yes. Jim Brown was timeless because the men who won’t be tackled — Brown, Earl Campbell, John Mackey, Mike Ditka, John Riggins, Christian Okoye, Jerome Bettis — never grow old in our minds. They are always smashing through tacklers, always dragging defenders down the field, always new and fresh and awesome.

Many years have gone by, but on command I still see Earl Campbell jamming his helmet into the chest of Isaiah Robertson and knocking him to the ground, just like it happened two weeks ago. I see Christian Okoye barely slowing down as a game but inefficient speed bump named Ken Stills throws his body in front of the Nigerian Nightmare’s casket-sized shoulder pads. I see Bo Jackson run through Brian Bosworth again and again as if it was just posted as a Vine loop.

Brown to me will always — always — be the toughest man in NFL history to tackle. But even as the Cleveland side of me rages, I have to admit the obvious: Jim Brown played in a very different time, when defenders were smaller and not quite as fast or as strong.

And if you consider the era, the preposterous size and strength of players and the complexities of today’s defensive designs, you can’t help but say that that Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch might be the toughest man in NFL history to bring down.

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Marshawn Lynch at Media Day on Tuesday. (Getty Images)

Marshawn Lynch begins by saying he’s thankful to answer questions from Skittles. It is unclear from the camera angle of the commercial what exactly this means. Are the fruit flavored candies themselves asking the questions? Have Skittles, like M&Ms before them, become self-aware treats? Or is Lynch replying to questions from the product Skittles, made by the confectioners of the Wrigley Company, a subsidiary of the $30 billion Mars, Inc.? Mysteries.

“What does it feel like to be in Beast Mode?” the mysterious Skittle asks, proving that candies like reporters everywhere are drawn to the universal “How does it feel?” question.

“You don’t feel in Beast Mode,” Lynch said. “It feels you.”

Yes, it does make sense for man to answer a candy’s question with a fortune cookie answer. How does it feel? Lynch has spent most of his life figuring out how to get into Beast Mode, that is how to run the football with such a wicked blend of speed and power and will and rage that no one can knock him down. Jim Brown never used the phrase “Beast Mode,” of course, but he also talked about running the football and having tacklers give way.

“It is,” he said, “the raw essence of being a man.”

Marshawn Lynch did not begin running like this. He was, at first, a scatback, a make-em-miss dancer, and even now you will see that side of him sometimes when he runs. But runners, like artists, evolve into what their souls demand. Lynch was a quiet kid from Oakland. His father was in prison. His mother for a time did not want him playing football. He has suggested, in the few snippets he has offered to non-candy reporters through the years, that he had a lot of anger in him. You don’t feel in Beast Mode, it feels you. He began to work out relentlessly, day after day after day. Weights. Sprints. Balance drills. Then he began to break tackles. He liked it.

“It’s a mindset,” says New England Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins, another man of few words. “(The running back) comes with what he’s got. I go with what I got. What happens when we meet? That’s just football. We’ll find out who’s got the strongest will.”

Lynch had the strongest will most of the time. When he didn’t, he heard about it. His uncle and high school running back coach, Virdell Larkins told the News Tribune, that he would watch film with Lynch. And whenever Lynch went down, Larkins would pose a question: “So one person can tackle you?”

No. One person could not tackle Marshawn Lynch, and so he worked out harder — more weights, more sprints, more balance drills. He worked his way to the NFL, and he did these things that, to the rest of us, looked impossible. There was the time against Philadelphia when he ran into a swarm of defenders, was engulfed, and then somehow reappeared on the other side.  There was the time against Washington when three defenders stepped in front of him and, with a combination of leverage, equilibrium and sheer will, he left all three on the ground while he ran on. There was the run against the Bengals when Cincinnati defensive end Michael Johnson leaped and grabbed Lynch and then spun off and dropped to the ground — it looked like he was trying to tackle a Ford Explorer in motion.

And, of course, there was the run against the Saints in the 2011 playoffs, the most remarkable run I’ve ever seen. Lynch ran into the line where he was met helmet first by linebacker Scott Shanle. Lynch plowed through. Tackle Shaun Rogers and safety Isa Abdul-Quddus grabbed at him at the same time — Lynch did not even slow down. Cornerberack Jabari Greer tried tried to pull Lynch down from the side; it was an almost comical effort. And the crescendo of the run came when another corner, Tracy Porter, caught up and had the audacity to try and tackle the man in full Beast Mode. Lynch with the left hand shoved Porter to the ground with such ease and disdain that, even as Porter’s face was concealed by his helmet, you knew exactly what it looked like.

Each of these runs is like a little miracle. You expect to see one thing and something very different happens. Marshawn Lynch puts up great numbers — this year, he led the NFL with 17 touchdowns, he has run for 1,200 yards and double-digit touchdowns for four straight years with Seattle — but every teammate and coach and even opponent will tell you that the yardage, the catches, the touchdowns don’t quite capture what he brings to the defending Super Bowl champions.

“Marshawn,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll says, “does things on the field that make everyone believe.”

“He’s the one,” Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork says, “who is carrying the torch for them.”

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Lynch's 67-yard touchdown run against the Saints in the 2011 playoffs. (Getty Images)

The Patriots, of course, will not say how they plan to deal with Marshawn Lynch in the Super Bowl. When it comes to future plans, the Patriots won’t even talk to candy. But they concede that much of their strategy will have nothing to do with schemes or drills. Much of it simply comes down to entering a Beast Mode of their own.

“You have to want to tackle,” Patriots linebackers coach Pat Graham says. “That’s really what it comes down to. When you face someone like him, there are no tricks. There are no little secrets where I can say to someone, ‘OK, you just do this and you’ll bring him to the ground.’ You have to want to tackle.”

“Sure, for us, it comes down to fundamentals,” said Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. “I guess that’s boring, but that’s what we do when faced with a great team and great players. It comes down to the fundamentals of tackling and a willingness to accept the challenge. He’s not going to go down. You have to bring him down.”

So many things change but underneath it all, it comes down to the same clash that faced defenders when Brown or Mackey or Emmitt Smith plowed straight ahead. Mean Joe Greene – a man with “Mean” in his name – said that facing Earl Campbell actually scared him. Hall of Famer Larry Wilson, when asked about trying to tackle John Mackey said it was something he would rather forget. Defender after defender would talk about the feeling of seeing Jerome Bettis (all 250 to 270 pounds of him) coming at them, and it was a time when they had to ask themselves if this was what they really wanted to do with their lives.

“We can’t treat Lynch any differently,” the Patriots’ safety Patrick Chung says. “But we’re not dumb. We know he is different. We know he’s a hard man to bring down.

“But this is the game. Sometimes he will get you. But sometimes, you will get him. You know, we can hit too. A good hit can change the way a man runs.”

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Picking the 10 hardest men in NFL history to tackle is ridiculous, of course, and so that’s why we’ll take a stab at it:

Bonus pick: Ben Roethilisberger. He isn’t the type of player this story is about, but he gets mentioned anyway because just about every Seahawks and Patriots player I asked about hard-to-tackle players mentioned Big Ben, so he goes on the list. He obviously is not hard to tackle like Motley or Mackey; he doesn’t break tackles and run for big yardage. It’s just that defenders hit him and pull him and shove him, and he doesn’t go down. He keeps moving until he finds a small opening and then he throws the ball downfield. “Man, he’s frustrating,” Patrick Chung says.

10. Mike Ditka. You might not know this, but Mike Ditka planned on becoming a dentist. This is one of the most jarring images the mind can imagine. His rushing style did not blast through defenders so much as he just kept running while they tried to tackle him. He was the kind of man to always get two more yards than he should get.

9. Bronko Nagurski. It is hard to put Nagurski into a modern context because he was 6-foot-2, 226 pounds at a time when some of his best offensive linemen – Joe Kopcha and Bill Karr and others – were much smaller. He was just so much bigger than almost anyone else that when teams tried to tackle him, it often looked like they were his little brothers.

8. Jerome Bettis. The Bus. He was the bowling ball. They were the pins.

7. Marion Motley. Again, a different time, but Motley was a defining character in football history. The story goes that during a game, Motley ran the wrong way and sort of collided with quarterback Otto Graham. But once Graham gave Motley the ball, there was a giant hole to run through. This was the first draw play, and Motley made it famous. The draw sprung him into secondaries where 180-pound men had to figure out how to bring down a 6-foot-1, 240-pound freight train.

6. Larry Csonka. The Csonk tells a great story of how he became a running back. He was way too big to be one – coaches had him at defensive end – but one time in kickoff coverage the ball bounced to him. “I ran over two defenders before I knew what I was doing,” he wrote in “Always on the Run.” He was the sort of power runner who moved piles. Defenders didn’t fall off him, they traveled on him for longer than they wanted.

5. John Riggins. Sometimes called the Diesel. He was 6-foot-3 or so, weighed 230, and he grew up in small-town Kansas, not unlike Superman. He was hard to pin down. On the one hand he was just a country boy who loved to hunt and drink beer. On the other hand, he was an iconoclast who constantly changed hairstyles, wore wild clothes, lived for a time in a storage shed and once said to coach Joe Gibbs, “I’ll make you famous.” He ran ferociously. Defenders who hit him high had no chance, as the Miami Dolphins found out in Super Bowl XVII.

4. John Mackey. He was not very big — he probably weighed 225 pounds at his heaviest — but there was something uncontainable about the way he ran. He would run straight at defenders, without the slightest hesitation or doubt, and there’s power in that sort of assertiveness and boldness. You cannot write about John Mackey without mentioning the sadness of his later life; he died at 69 and suffered from dementia for years before that. The pain that comes with playing football the way John Mackey played, well, we’re all still to make sense of that.

3. Earl Campbell. I once sat down with Earl Campbell and asked him what it felt like to run over people; in retrospect this wasn’t any different from Skittles asking Marshawn Lynch what it feels like in Beast Mode. Campell said the feeling wasn’t in running over the player, it was in the instant before he collided with the tackler. In that instant, he would think, “You don’t really think you’re going to tackle me, do you?”

2. Marshawn Lynch.

1. Jim Brown. Well, as I mentioned at the top, I was going to put Lynch at No. 1. But the Clevelander inside would never have forgiven me.