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Beastmode in Pullman: An oral history of Marshawn Lynch’s recruiting visit to WSU

PULLMAN – Marshawn Lynch’s 2010 NFC Wild Card stiff-arm of Tracy Porter shook Seattle’s tectonic foundations and symbolically initiated a new era of professional football in the state of Washington.

For the next half-decade, the Seahawks were postseason fixtures (except for 2011), offensively anchored by a punishing running back who seemed to inflict more damage than he received, made rainbow-colored candy cool again and strung together more touchdown drives than complete sentences during his six seasons in Seattle.

Lynch announced his retirement from professional football earlier this month, probably whisking a peerless character out of the gridiron consciousness in the country’s upper-left corner. With Lynch’s career in Seattle ending, it’s worth looking back at when his relationship with the Pacific Northwest began.

It started way before that fateful swindling of the Buffalo Bills in 2010, and even before he drew some heat from Washington fans after a celebratory hijacking of an injury cart to ride around the field following an overtime victory over the Huskies.

No, Lynch’s affiliation with Washington state goes all the way back to his 2004 visit to Washington State, when one of the country’s most highly-recruited high school running backs decided to check out a small-town program that was coming off trips to the Rose Bowl and Holiday Bowl in the previous two seasons.

First, the Cougars had to convince Lynch to come to Pullman for a visit, which is not an easy trip. Lynch was known as a homebody in recruiting circles and it was so widely assumed that he would stay close to home that some programs did not bother recruiting him. But Lynch had a good relationship with WSU running backs coach Kelly Skipper, so he, recruiting coordinator Robin Pflugrad, defensive coordinator Robb Akey and first-year graduate assistant Fred Shavies all made the trip to Oakland Technical HS to watch Lynch play.

This is the story of Marshawn’s recruiting trip to Pullman, told by those who were there:

Fred Shavies: “My younger sister was really good friends with his younger sister. She actually went to high school with them. (Later when Marshawn played with the Seahawks) we always would go and stay with Marcus (Trufant) and Marshawn and I would always talk (about the visit to Pullman).”

Leon Burtnett: “Kelly Skipper was our running back coach at that time and he had recruited the area for us, and he knew the head coach at the high school. What was so funny, the head coach was not really at the school. He worked somewhere else and he’d come in when school was out and coached the football team. We dealt more with this lady, the athletic director. When the coach would come, we would see him at practice.”

Shavies: “A kid actually got like stabbed at the game or something. So it was me, Pflugrad, Kelly and Rob Akey and there was some kind of fight, some kid got stabbed and the game ended. Somehow he still wanted to come up on this trip.”

To show Lynch how much they wanted him, head coach Bill Doba and linebackers coach Leon Burtnett made a separate trip.

Bill Doba: “Burnett and I went down to Oakland and watched basketball practice.”

Burtnett: “He was really a quiet guy. He didn’t say much, but he was very polite and very humble for somebody of his magnitude. When you’re recruiting somebody like that you never know a lot of times how those guys will come across. But he did not come across that way at all. He was very, very humble and it was a pleasure having him.”

Doba: “What I always did was bring in all our hosts after the visits. One hosts said (about another player), ‘Coach, he better be really good, because he’s nothing but an (obsenity).’ And we tried to keep team chemistry, so I can remember the kids really, really liked (Lynch). He wasn’t the (obsenity) kind.”

Lynch agreed to come up for a visit in early October, when the Cougars would be hosting a number of star recruits such as Ra’Shon Harris (signed with Oregon), Eugene Germany (USC), Keston Cheathem (Michigan) and Michael Bumpus (WSU).

Burtnett: “You don’t just blanket recruit somebody like that. You take special interest in those players and they’re the ones you take to see the (school) president and things like that.

“We flew them into Spokane and then the recruiting coach would pick them up and drive them down. That would give you another opportunity to talk to them. You tell them what the academics are like and kind of set the routine for the weekend. If we have a bunch of them, sometimes we’d take a van up there and take them all back together on the van and have drinks for them, soda and potato chips if we had a bunch of them coming in at the same time.”

Shavies: “He had a decent time. I think obviously Cal was a lot closer, which is probably why he ended up going to Cal. I thought he had a good time. We had a few players from the Bay Area that had had success. I had played there and I was coaching. Lamont Thompson had just been drafted and it was a good time for Cougar football.”

Burtnett: “Him and his cousin come up. His cousin could throw a football and was highly recruited. Not as highly recruited as Marshawn, but he was recruited by Pac-10 teams. So that was not a problem, only he couldn’t qualify.

“His visit really went well. He made it out to campus and he really liked the place. I thought we were in good shape for him. Now his cousin, I don’t think he liked it as much as Marshawn did, and that hurt us at that point in time.

“Naturally he goes to Cal and plays, and his cousin went to junior college. Well his cousin called one night and asked us to recruit him out of the junior college. And we thought, well this doesn’t make much sense, you didn’t want to come here the first time.”

Michael Bumpus: “Actually, the first time I met him was at the golf course. There used to be a golf course down by where the tennis courts are, back in the day, and I met him there. They took us swinging clubs and all that stuff. We came in at different times, and from there we played together in (a California high school all-star game).

“He didn’t run up and whack it, but guys think you’re trying to smack the heck out of a golf ball, but there’s a lot that goes into it. There were a lot of us out there, guys playing for the first time who didn’t know what they were doing, but it was a good time.

Of course, during any recruiting visit the highlights will be the accommodations and the food.

Shavies: “I hosted him, even as a coach. So I spent the majority of the weekend with him. I know he had a good time because even now every time I see him he remembers it. We always talk about it.”

Bumpus: “They didn’t do anything extravagant. You hear about guys getting picked up in this, going here or there. Obviously there isn’t as much to do in Pullman. The part that impressed me the most was just the camaraderie of the guys. We went from house to house and everyone was there with open arms, and offered me food and make sure we were having fun. At high profile programs there was more of a me atmosphere.

“I mean obviously at the time when I was recruited they had had a lot of success, so that helped. But just the atmosphere of the town and the team really set it apart. Just knowing we’re out in the middle of nowhere and we’re all we got, there’s a real team vibe out there.”

Burtnett: “If there’s somebody from the area who’s having success on your team you try to pair them together. That was more Robin’s thing. He took care of that and did a great job for us. His visit did go extremely well, and he told us it did. But there was a little battling of the heart. He grew up in Cal’s backyard and that makes a difference.”

The Cougars ended the trip with a feast at Doba’s house.

Fred Shavies: “We had the big dinner with a 16 or 32-ounce steak that we’d barbecue up on a grill.”

Bumpus: “We all hung out at Doba’s house the night before we left, had dinner and stuff. We talked then and he told me he was considering it, but they weren’t top two or three. I think by then everyone pretty much expected him to stay home. But the trip was such a great time, I definitely think he had to think twice about it.”

Shavies: “I think he had a good time. It was just was too far for him at that time. A 19-year-old Marshawn is different than 23 or 24-year-old Marshawn who gets drafted or traded by a certain team or city.

“The reason I elected to go there was the comfort with people from the same people that were there: Lamont (Thompson) and a couple other guys from the Bay Area. But at that time, I might have been the last one. I think the fact we didn’t have as many players from Oakland specifically and the Bay Area in general kept him away, despite the success we were having.”

The Cougars obviously did not land Marshawn, but instead signed Jerome Harrison, a running back out of Pasadena City College who would go on to rush for a school record 1,900 yards in 2005 and became a consensus All-American.


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