On June 18, 2010, running back Marshawn Lynch left early from Buffalo Bills Optional Team Activites, an action that raised more than a couple eyebrows.
This coming about a year after the Oakland native received a misdemeanor weapons charge that resulted in a three-game suspension during the 2009 NFL season, critics were quick to assume that this was just another return to Lynch’s apparent obstinate and selfish ways.
For this reason, those same critics were surprised to find that Lynch actually had left to attend a wedding to be a groomsman for one of his closest friends — Seattle Seahawks running back Justin Forsett.
“They had instant love for each other,” says Ron Gould, the Cal football team’s running backs coach. “Those guys were very supportive of each, like it was a family. They were brothers.”
The bond between Lynch and Forsett was first kindled in 2004, when the two running backs came to Berkeley and discovered that they were freshman roommates.
Lynch had been a highly touted recruit, considered by most recruiting services as the No. 2 running back in the nation. Boasting a lethal combination of speed and strength, Lynch earned himself the nickname of “He-Man.”
“He was one of the most naturally strong guys I’ve ever been around,” Gould says. “He is a such a pure force that when he runs with the ball, he will hurt you.”
For Forsett, it was a different story. Despite a stellar career at Grace Preparatory Academy in Arlington, Texas — during which he amassed over 5,000 yards rushing and 63 touchdowns over his last two years — he was overlooked by most major programs, mostly due to his diminutive 5-foot-8 frame. Notre Dame pulled his scholarship offer at the last minute, explaining that it was looking for a taller back, as former running backs coach Buzz Preston would later put it.
Both backs immediately found a home at Cal, and used the other’s running style as an example of how to improve upon their own weaknesses.
“Because Justin was a smaller back, I would tell him to run like he’s 215 pounds,” Gould says. “But the bigger backs like Marshawn, you want them to be able to move and change directions like a little guy. They were both able to do that.”
In addition to their contrasting running styles, the pair also sported two contrasting, if not complementing, personalities.
“Marshawn is a little more shy and reserved, but you get to know Justin,” Gould says. “He’s more of a jokester, and a little more outspoken. He’s a great leader, and people respond to him in such a way.”
But for Forsett and Lynch, their relationship was more than just two people competing and learning from one another.
“We created a bond on and off the field,” Forsett says. “We fed off each other.”
As a sophomore, Lynch began to establish himself as one of the premiere backs in the country, taking over the starting job for the Bears and amassing 1,246 yards on the ground and 10 touchdowns.
But Lynch was more concerned about making sure the back that spelled him got plenty of reps.
“Marshawn was never one of those guys who felt like he was the man,” Gould says. “He would always want to get Justin in there, even early on in his career.”
Despite only starting three games, Forsett also started to make a name for himself. Behind Lynch, he tallied 999 yards and six touchdowns, and his 7.6 yards per rush was good enough for second in the country.
Together, the two comprised one of the most dominating one-two punches in college football.
“He (Lynch) has a little bit of everything — he’s strong, he’s fast, he’s powerful,” Forsett says. “I bring a little quickness to the game — I like to make people miss and play with high energy. It definitely creates a nice combo.”
Following the 2006 season, Lynch, the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year and a First Team All-American, declared for the NFL draft, and was selected with the 12th overall pick by Buffalo. Forsett would do the same a year later, going in the seventh round to Seattle.
“Those guys want to be great at what they do,” Gould says. “I knew that they would both have a chance to play in the NFL. In big games, they rise up. They’re both extremely coachable, which is what makes them so special.”
The two backs left their names all over the Cal record books, finishing second (Lynch, 3,230 yards) and third (Forsett, 3,220 yards) on the all-time rushing list. Lynch’s 17 career 100-yard rushing games is a school record, and Forsett’s 15 ranks second.
Despite departing to play on opposite sides of the country, the two remained as close as two actual brothers would be.
And by way of a trade in the middle of the 2010 NFL season, the brothers were reunited, but this time in Seattle.
“We never even thought that we would have a chance to play together in the NFL,” Forsett says. “I knew the type of player he was and the asset that he could be to our team. I was excited to bring what we had at Cal here.”
The trade came at a time when Forsett was just starting to come into his own as an NFL starter. And even though Lynch surpassed Forsett on the depth chart and halted his chance to cement himself as a legitimate starter, Forsett could not have been happier to be playing with his old roommate.
“He was so excited to have Marshawn coming to Seattle,” Gould says. “Those guys don’t care about stats. All they care about is winning.”
The 2011 season marks the first time since 2006 that the two backs will play together for a full season. And the pair will undoubtedly be looking to rekindle the same magic they shared back in Berkeley.
“We set off each other in the backfield, and we want each other to succeed,” Forsett says. “We created a nice combo, both at Cal and here today.”