My favorite Super Bowl Media Day story involves Marshawn Lynch and a lemon cake.
Media Day is more like annual chaos at the Super Bowl. Not only are there writers and photographers everywhere, battling for position as they await players on podiums set up across arenas, the event is filled with celebrities, hangers-on, friends of players and wannabes wearing strange costumes. And, as always, you can count on a sampling of attractive women in tight dresses, which remains a highly effective way to attract attention from NFL players.
It’s a circus-like atmosphere that won’t happen this year due to the pandemic. Of the many things that simply can’t be replicated on a Zoom call, the frenzy of Super Bowl Media Day ranks right up there. Let’s hope it returns in 2022.
Every news outlet is looking for an edge at Media Day – now called Opening Night – and it was no different when I was managing editor of USA TODAY Sports. We were well-known for our Super Bowl reporting and did 95 percent of it well ahead of game week, which brings me to the 2015 title game and my Marshawn Lynch story. Lynch, as NFL fans know, is notoriously cold to the media. He didn’t like to do interviews, but he also didn’t like being fined by the NFL.
The league dictates a minimum level of player cooperation with the media, mainly because the league sees the value of getting more press coverage than other professional sport leagues. Well, Lynch did just that, the minimum. So naturally, all were wondering what would happen at Super Bowl 49 (Seattle vs. New England), when Lynch would be required to sit for a session with the press.
Marshawn Lynch’s Hometown
In advance of the game, we assigned one of our most dogged reporters, Josh Peter, to visit Lynch’s hometown in Oakland, Calif., to write the story of where the star running back came from. Josh is one of those rare, perceptive reporters who can read people, can get them talking without them really noticing. He went to Oakland, met several people who knew Lynch, and turned in a great piece.
He also connected with Marshawn Lynch’s grandfather, Leron “Papa” Lynch. It came as no surprise to me that Josh soon got himself invited to Papa’s house in Sacramento and on Monday of game week is sitting in the kitchen watching him prepare his famous grandson’s favorite desert – lemon cake.
Papa decides Marshawn would love to have a freshly baked lemon cake, but how to get it to him in time? Josh volunteers the services of USA TODAY Sports and within hours is aboard a flight to Phoenix with a securely wrapped lemon cake. Yep, made it through security.
Our initial plan was to deliver the cake to Lynch at his hotel, hopefully scoring an interview in exchange. Through an intermediary Lynch agreed to do it, but when we arrived at the hotel and called him, there was no answer. Couldn’t blame him. If you were Lynch, would you go to the lobby to meet a strange man who says he has a lemon cake that he brought for you from your grandfather in Sacramento?
I get a call from Josh. What do we do now? We decide to try again at Media Day at US Airways Center, which is where I was set up with a bevy of reporters. Within 30 minutes I spot Josh working his way across the arena, lemon cake in hand.
The Magic Lemon Cake
Our hopes are high as Lynch does indeed show up and take his place behind the microphone. A massive throng of reporters is ready. And then we get vintage Lynch. To every question posed, his response is the same: “I’m here so I won’t get fined.”
As the clock ticked down on his mandatory five minutes, Lynch stood up, said nothing, and bolted. We were about to get shut out again!
Josh gave chase, following Lynch backstage, down a tunnel and somehow ending up in an area just outside a private room for players. One of the keys to succeeding as a journalist is to go places you need to go and look like you belong, even if you don’t.
Fifty feet away, partly blocked by a curtain, stood Lynch. At this point, we don’t know if he’s going to ignore us, talk to us, yell at us or get someone else to chase us off. Say what you will about Marshawn Lynch, but don’t call him predictable.
Lynch sees us – he also spots the cake. A smile spreads across his face as he walks out, comes up to Josh, and was very gracious. “Oh yeah,” he said, “That’s the magic cake.”
That’s all we got, one more sentence than everyone else. But in our business, it’s the unforgettable story that makes it worth it.