There is a point where Oakland and Berkeley cozy up next to each other, though hardly holding hands. The California campus -- bastion of free thought, home of Nobel laureates -- shoulder-to-shoulder with gritty, urban Oaktown.
"It's probably a lot different than a lot of places in the world," said Robert Jordan, a junior receiver at Cal from East Oakland. "It's everything that you see in the movies -- high crime, drugs. ... You just have to keep your head on straight."
|Marshawn Lynch, a high school QB, might be the best thrower among top college RBs. (Getty Images)|
"You know Marshawn when you see him," said Jordan of the Bears' increasingly hyped Heisman candidate. "Most people do. They know him because of his dreads. Everybody starts playing with his hair."
Hairstyles at liberal-thinking Cal shouldn't be a big deal. These grateful dreads, though, bridge a gap -- between two cities and between two cultures.
The clash of cultures has to do with the one that doesn't want to accept Cal into the club of major-college big timers. Coach Jeff Tedford has the program in contention for a BCS bowl -- if not the national championship -- with a preseason top 10 ranking. Known as a master developer of quarterbacks, Tedford might have to rely on the kid with the grills from Oakland to elevate his program to the next level.
It wouldn't be the first time. J.J. Arrington ran for a school-record 2,018 yards in Lynch's freshman season. At Oregon and Cal, Tedford has helped produce eight 1,000-yard backs in the past seven years. Cal junior Justin Forsett came within a yard last season of becoming the ninth.
"He's as talented a back as I've been around," Tedford said of Lynch. "A guy who can run in traffic or cut outside. He can throw it as good as anybody, too."
"I could probably get it about 65, 70 yards," Lynch says of his quarterbacking days at Oakland Tech.
This is a slice of one of the more obscure of last season's 46 1,000-yard rushers. As a freshman part-timer in 2004, Lynch averaged 8.8 yards per carry while playing in Arrington's shadow. Last year, despite missing 2½ games because of a broken finger, he threw up 1,246 yards in only 10 games.
Among returning rushers, only Northern Illinois' Garrett Wolfe averaged more yards per game.
Lynch's running style is both unique and eerie -- punishing one moment, incredibly quick and vibrant the next. Somehow Lynch knows when to lower his pads and when to break ankles.
"Sometimes it scares me," Tedford said. "He's going to (take) shots because he runs so hard for so long. He moves the pile by himself."
To his teammates, Lynch has a goofy running style, one born of riding a bicycle as a youth around North Oakland and Berkeley.
"The team makes fun of the way I run because I don't have any form," Lynch said. "It's due to the fact that I used to ride when I was younger, rocking the bike from side to side."
"That's what makes him, him," Jordan said. "You can't tell if he's going to run past you or run through you, stiff arm or juke you. We used to ride a lot of bikes, racing on the street. Look at film, you can tell."
The school has obliged, in a sense, developing a website -- marshawn10.com -- for curious Heisman onlookers. In the process, Lynch has become a market force on his own. In the football micro-climate of Berkeley, he became an instant celebrity two years ago. After that impressive freshman season, souvenir stories laid in a supply of his No. 24 jersey.
Lynch decided to switch to No. 10 -- uncommon for a running back -- before last season. It was done to honor a brother who had worn the number playing basketball in high school. The San Jose Mercury News reported that retailers, stuck with the No. 24s, asked Lynch to switch back.
Because of Lynch, the Bears' season opener Saturday at Tennessee might be the most curious of kickoff weekend. A true intersectional. Good Ol' Boys vs. West Coast, with a detour to suburban Chicago. Offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar was hired from Northwestern to install elements of the spread option, specifically to take advantage of Lynch's talents.
Try this for curious: Cal hasn't been to the Rose Bowl since 1958, but is the only school to defeat dynastic Southern California in the regular season since mid-2002.
Cal comes in much more highly ranked than the tradition-rich Vols. Tennessee is down, coming off a 5-6 season. But the Vols are a slight favorite, indicative of two things -- this is the SEC, and Cal isn't in it.
"I know they're fast, I know they're strong," Lynch said. "They say it's going to be the loudest experience I'll have in my life."
Not counting the gunshots, perhaps. Marshawn was shot at this summer while riding in a car with friends near Oakland Tech. A still-unknown shooter riddled the vehicle. Lynch wasn't believed to be the target.
"It just broke my heart," Marshawn's mother, Delisa Lynch, told the Oakland Tribune. "Words can't describe it. I thanked God that nothing happened to him. Oakland isn't the safest place."
Ask Kevin Parker. The Cal recruiting assistant and Oakland native played at Oregon but now makes it his job to sell Cal to inner-city Oakland kids. Lynch was close to playing for the Ducks until Parker entered the picture with a simple message: Oregon is good, Cal is better.
"It absolutely helped that Kevin was here," Tedford said.
Parker convinced a load of East Bay kids to go to Cal -- receiver David Gray, quarterback Kyle Reed, Lynch, Jordan. Another Lynch cousin, defensive back Virdell Larkins, recently transferred in search of more playing time.
"I miss him already, that's my dude," Lynch said. "It's a weird little circle we had."
The circle is unbroken. Lynch has made his body an ink shrine to his family. A tat honoring Delisa reads "Mama's Boy." There are a couple of others that refer to his grandparents. Hardly the picture of gritty, urban Oakland.
It's the face, though, of Berkeley's favorite football team.
"It was kind of simple being five minutes away," said the Heisman candidate with dreads, grills and a support system. "Berkeley is like in Oakland's backyard."