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Penn State Football: Saquon Barkley, The Best Of What College Football Can Offer

by on July 21, 2016 2:15 PM

Saquon Barkley is sitting just a few feet away from Penn State's only Heisman Trophy as the sun shines down through an almost entirely empty Lasch Building. Most of his coaches are on vacation and most of the hallways are dimly lit as the light dances off various trophies and awards scattered around the lobby.

So it's a reporter, history, and one of the best running backs in college football.

"When you look back on it, my life did change a lot." Barkley said as he dug through one of his pockets, taking out his phone and putting it on a table next to a Sugar Bowl trophy.

"Just the recognition and some people will recognize me and their face's reaction, it's cool just the recognition that I got. But to be honest with you I wasn't satisfied with the year last year. It makes me think what it will be like if I even do more, or when i do more, what's going to happen then? It's cool for my family and stuff like that, I feel like I'm making them proud."

To say Barkley's life has changed is a bit of an understatement. He went from largely unknown and under recruited to one of the best players in the entire nation. All in the span of just over a year. Even his own coaches didn't realize what they had, Barkley received a single carry against Temple in the season opener and he didn't carry the ball in Week 2 until the game was in hand.

Furthermore he has only begun to show himself to the rest of the world, Penn State's policy of making freshman off limits to the media means that he has only recently become eligible for interviews. The result has been a tsunami of requests, so many that Barkley is frequently talking to two or more reporters during any given session.

All the while he smiles, in fact when you meet him he's already waiting to shake your hand, arm outstretched anticipating your hand to reach out towards his.

"Hi, I'm Saquon."

Trust me, I know.

As he puts his phone on the table he remembers something, flicking on the screen to show his background, a quote from Kobe Bryant, one of his favorite athletes. It's aggressive white lettering slanting across the dark.

Everything negative - pressure, challenges - is all an opportunity for me to rise.

"I try my hardest not to pay attention to it," Barkley says of the attention he gets, putting the phone back down. "But it's 2016, everyone has Twitter and social media and stuff like that so you see everything, but I don't let it feel like it's pressure, and if I do I take it a good way."

Probably the most curious thing about Barkley is his demeanor. He's soft spoken despite his physical appearance and overly humble despite over 1000 reasons and more than a few jaw dropping plays why he doesn't need to be. That's not to say success automatically breeds a large ego, but Barkley almost seems unaware of how good he is, or maybe even unaware of how good everyone thinks he is.

So the best way to find out is to ask.

Do you think you're as good as everyone says you are?

And Barkley pauses, leaning back in his chair mulling over a response. Not even trying to find the right words or a politically correct answer, he's trying to decide, contemplating the question.

"That's hard to answer," He says with a smile.

"Do I believe that I'm good? The standard that I hold myself to and the standard that the coaches hold me to, what people say doesn't really impact me or how I play or how good I am. There could be 20 people who say I'm good at this or that, and 20 people who could say I'm bad at this, I don't need other people to tell me what I'm good at, what I'm bad at. I think that's where you see the gap between some athletes, some people feed into that, I don't. I'm able to recognize what I need to work and I'm able to be good at, and what I'm good at I want to make it 10 times better and what I'm bad at I want to make that my best thing."

For as much as Barkley seems to default to humility over bragging, it's clear that it shouldn't be confused with a lack of desire to be better than everyone else. He's not unaware of position rankings, and he's not immune to the personal motivations that come with them, but he isn't going to spend his time on social media reminding everyone how good he is, he's simply going to go out and show us. He may possess the drive that made Kobe Bryant who he was, but Barkley appears to have left the borderline sociopathic tendencies at the door.

"It's really weird," Barkley says of the past year and his rise. "But as quick as that happened I also know it can be taken from me too. So whenever I see (position rankings) let's say I'm ranked 6th, not being greedy, but who are those five guys in front of me? Alright, personally you don't want to say anybody is better than you, that's just how you are, so I want to be better than those five guys, so when that list comes out again next year I'll be the top guy. That's my goal and it's crazy because I wasn't really highly recruited, I remember being at The Opening and I tried my best not to let my ranking feed into that but it motivated me. But it is weird to go from that to being considered I guess, one of the top backs in the country."

Why the journey ever happened this way is something Barkley still doesn't full get. For a full three minutes he talks about his high school career, how he didn't play all four years and how his high school wasn't simply big enough to get the attention of other, larger programs. He knows that he's good, his teammates even remind him that he was doing the same thing in high school. This wasn't a late blooming flower that showed up at the last moment, it's a gardener looking in the wrong direction.

So if you're wondering how he was so far under the radar, you aren't the only one.

"That's a question I was asking myself when I was in high school to be honest," Barkley says as he scratches his head. "How did I go unnoticed? I really don't know. I had a really good senior year, my junior year and my sophomore year I didn't even start. Maybe a lot of those kids had been playing for four years or went to a powerhouse school. I went to Whitehall, if you go around the country and say Whitehall people say "what's that?" I don't know. If you look at my high school film a lot of the stuff I was doing my senior year I was doing as a freshman (in college)."

Whatever the reason might be, Barkley seems plenty happy at Penn State and plenty happy to be playing so well. He mentions that he wants to improve his leadership skills even though he assumes he won't be a captain "since I'm just a sophomore" a hilarious notion because so many people will look to Barkley this year on the field and in the stands.

Somehow he has managed to fully embrace the opportunity to be one of the best running backs in the country without entirely grasping the brightness of his own star. He understands, but he doesn't care. it's a rare combination of elite talent followed closely by being seemingly indifferent to anything other than playing football. In a world of hot takes and social media it almost doesn't compute. Barkley is nearly breaking laws of physics as he goes about his business quietly despite every reason why he should be taking full advantage of his status in a million different ways. He is what college football sorely misses, he's the best of what the sport can be, the hope now is simply that it stays that way.

All of this is perhaps best summarized by what he feels was his lowest moment. A game in which Barkley ran for 120 yards and two scores, and in a lot of ways was the only player who showed up to the game on time. But Penn State lost, a last second field goal giving Northwestern a two point victory.

Forget about a stagnant offense or a dropped interception late in the game, it was a failed third down that haunts Penn State's best player and Penn State's only reason for nearly having won.

"The low point of my freshman year that still bothers me today was Northwestern," Barkley said clearly tensing up as he remembers. "3rd and 1, if I get that I think our season ends up a lot differently. So that's probably where I hit my wall. That's a point where I was really disappointed in myself and I'm still disappointed about it to be honest. That's one thing that just hurts, I don't know, I really feel like I let my team down. All the guys say that it was a team loss, but the standard I hold myself to and the type of player I want to be, no matter what I have to find that yard."

"I think it's important, I know I'll have more moments like that too, that I'll never truly achieve and be the type of player I want to be, but I mean it sucks. You don't want to go through that, you just want the perfect everything. Just talking about it gives me a sour taste in my mouth. That's another one of those games I guess you could say I had a good game, I had 100 yards or something like that, 2 touchdowns but we lost, and we kind of lost the game because of me."

By the time the interview is over Barkley hasn't looked at the Heisman once, which is fitting considering he likely would never admit to the slowly brewing optimism by some fans that he could give Penn State a second one. Barkley will hold himself to a Heisman standard, but he may never tell you that he deserves it.

As he's leaving he recalls his now famous leap over a Buffalo defender in the second game of the season and what went through his mind at the time.

"Wow this is really happening," Barkley remembered thinking. "This is college football, I can do this."

It's safe to say he can.



Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for StateCollege.com. He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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