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On and off the field, Penn State's Saquon Barkley -- the nation's most complete running back -- has put distance between himself and his peers in the draft

By Kimberly Jones | Published Oct. 18, 2017

Saquon Barkley walks down a long, narrow hallway in Penn State's Louis and Mildred Lasch football building. He is wearing a white t-shirt, dark shorts, and a backpack.

He has linebacker shoulders, square and broad. Penn State coach James Franklin is right. Barkley is a "Frankenstein running back." Big and fast, with tree-trunk thighs. His calves? Massive.

Barkley smiles. This is the guy who gave away the first gold medal he won as a high school sprinter. Who deadlifts more than defensive linemen, who runs faster than ... almost anyone. This is the person Franklin says sets the tone for the entire program: "If someone has a bad attitude, I'll say, 'How can you have a bad attitude when Saquon Barkley is doing everything right?' "

This is a 20-year-old who laughs that he only recently got his driver's license. Who hates losing quarterback drills to quarterbacks. This is the author of the most ridiculous touchdown run you'll ever see, in the Rose Bowl against Southern Cal, and whose afterburner gear leaves defensive backs in his dust.

Barkley has walked the length of the hall. He shakes my hand and puts his backpack on the floor as we sit in a small office. I remember being told to hold my voice recorder close because his voice will not carry. Sage advice. He does speak quietly. Saquon Barkley saves his loudest statements for the football field.

With remarkable detail, Barkey is recounting the 79-yard touchdown run last Jan. 2 in Pasadena. Early third quarter, Penn State is trailing USC by six. The run is supposed to go between the tackles; the Trojans defense forces it outside.

"I bounced," Barkley says. "The safety came down -- I think it was the safety (it was, Marvell Tell III) -- and I stutter-stepped to beat him with speed, get him to stop his feet. I felt like I was able to get inside the next defender (cornerback Ajene Harris). I made a cut in. In the moment, you just start reacting."

Six USC defenders get at least a hand on Barkley. None makes the tackle. After the bounce, Barkley scampers right, toward the Penn State sideline, then left into initial traffic.

"I made cuts, but if you watch the film, I was kind of in a little box," he says. "I made one more cut and got inside and felt like one of the guys (linebacker Porter Gustin) was getting ready to leave his feet to dive. So I pick my feet up. And I was just running, running, and my wide receivers really did a good job."

About those receivers: DaeSean Hamilton got an early block on linebacker Cameron Smith as DeAndre Thompkins disrupted cornerback Adoree' Jackson. Chris Godwin served as an escort to the end zone, shielding the speedy Jackson closer to the goal line.

"We knew we could spring a big run with a running back like Saquon. His speed is second to none," Godwin, now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, said recently. "Trying to keep up with him was no easy task."

Just past the 50, Barkley begins a sprint to the left corner of the end zone, validating the schooling he has received from running backs coach Charles Huff.

"It's like geometry," Huff said. "Not much happens now that is good for the offense when you go east-west. At some point, you've got to make the decision to get vertical. He made the first guy miss, got vertical. Made the second guy miss, got to sideline, got vertical.

"To me it shows, in all the film sessions and meetings, he was paying attention to those things."

If the Penn State coaches have learned anything about Barkley since his freshman year in 2015, it's they can trust him. They thought the inside zone run would be a good play; Barkley made it exceptional. As the coaches watched the beginning of the game unfold, they thought Barkley was the fastest player on the field; he proved them correct. He scored standing up.

"It felt like a snap, an instant," Barkley says. "We were in the end zone. Everyone was excited. I looked at the scoreboard. The game wasn't close to being over."

Sam Darnold and USC prevailed in the end, 52-49, in a bowl game thriller for the ages.

From snap to score, The Run lasted 16 seconds. It will be remembered forever.

"On a national scale, I think that play kind of put Penn State back on the map. Everybody's watching the Rose Bowl," coach James Franklin said. "And that play put Saquon into the national conversation and into the thick of the Heisman race," ahead of the 2017 season.

In Franklin's fourth season as head coach, Penn State is 6-0 and ranked No. 2 in the country heading into Saturday's nationally televised showdown with Michigan. Barkley, thick in the Heisman Trophy race, has become a human highlight reel. His Roadrunner-foils-Coyote stylings belong in video games.

Did you see the 30-yard touchdown against Akron where he somehow accelerated as he turned the corner? The 8-yard touchdown against Pittsburgh where he powered between the tackles and through defenders?

The 85-yard touchdown reception against Georgia State, where he caught a short pass at the 22 and zoomed past defensive backs that were in position downfield -- and had an angle? The gravity-defying hurdle over the Iowa defender? The 98-yard touchdown on the opening kickoff against Indiana?

Did you see the jump cut on the 53-yard touchdown as he finally solved a Northwestern defense so hell-bent on stopping him that quarterback Trace McSorley played catch, setting a school record with 15 consecutive completions?

For all the Houdini that Barkley has on his football resume, there's no escaping those 79 yards.

"When I watch film, I watch more of the stuff I've done bad," Barkley says. "But it's kind of hard not to watch The Run. It was getting tweeted at me every single day."

Franklin believes there is one moment when "the Saquon Barkley that we all know" came to light. It's not on the football field.

It was May 2015, and Barkley won the 100 meters in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference track and field championships. He'd never run track before, so this was his first gold medal. Within a couple of hours, he gave it away.

Rachel Panek from Saucon Valley High School had won the girls' 100-meter hurdles, but because of a timing issue, the race was re-run. On the do-over, Panek clipped a hurdle and finished last.

"I felt like she deserved a gold medal," Barkley says. "(But) I was kind of shy and I was a little nervous. I didn't want her to think it was about sympathy."

Panek was touched. She has said since that Barkley's gesture made her a better person. Whitehall High School athletic director Bob Hartman still shakes his head when he remembers that day.

"As great as a kid as he is," Hartman said, "who thinks of that?"

Barkley maintains strong ties to his high school. When he goes back now, it is an event. At a Whitehall football game last year during Penn State's bye week, he felt bad about taking attention away from the players on the field.

At a basketball game after the Rose Bowl, Hartman had to cut off the line of well-wishers, and he and Barkley retreated to the athletic director's office. Once there, Barkley told Hartman, "I don't want to say no to any of them."

"I understand that," Hartman said. "You're going to have to learn to say no in certain situations to protect yourself."

Barkley used to babysit Hartman's kids -- Zack, now 15, and Maisey, 12. They played Scrabble, and Zack beat him in Madden. On a recent September day, Hartman's secretary was surprised by a happy birthday text from Barkley. She was delighted; he had remembered.

At the Rose Bowl, Barkley spent free time with Whitehall assistant principal Alicia Knauff and her three daughters, including 20-year-old Shadimon, his high school classmate. Barkley is close to the family but, in Pasadena, Knauff had cautioned Amaya, now 13, and Jade, 10, that he might not have time for them.

"Mom," the girls said, "he never lets us down."

He had time.

"He's like our brother," Amaya said.

Said bubbly Jade: "I'm his favorite."

The group, including a few of Barkley's teammates, went to Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles for dinner and hung out at the team hotel.

When Barkley was mobbed by Penn State fans in the lobby, Knauff watched as he signed every autograph. As they were preparing to retreat from the crowd, a special-needs youngster asked Barkley to meet his family and take pictures.

When Barkley returned, he told Knauff, "You never know when you can make someone's day."

Knauff said her girls still talk about their time at the Rose Bowl with "Sasa" (pronounced Say-Say).

I asked Knauff to put on her assistant principal's hat. Did Barkley ever get into trouble? She laughed. Only when he and other football players had to be told "not to run in the hallway on their way to lunch."


"Seriously," Knauff said.

All of this sounds too good to be true.

"I get that it sounds too good to be true," Hartman said. "How can a kid that's 20 have it all figured out when he has all this going on? But it's true. It's who he is."

Hartman raised his voice and his arms: "It's who he is. He's a freak on the field and off the field, he's the best guy ever made."

Knauff and Hartman share a similar concern that Barkley might be too nice, too trusting, especially considering what his future could hold.

"I do understand that," Barkley said. "You have to learn and you've got to grow and you have to mature in that area as time goes on. I think that's not a bad thing to be worried about."

He is steadfast in treating others with respect. Consider: At a restaurant with Knauff and her family after a recent Penn State game, Barkley returned to the table with a stunned look on his face and said, "You're not going to believe this." A man had followed him into the men's room to ask for an autograph.

"Did you tell the guy to leave you alone?" Knauff asked.

"No," Barkley said. "I would never say that."

Seeing that Barkley is a broadcast journalism major, I wonder how he would interview an athlete.

"I would ask questions to get to know the person more," he says. "I like stories where you get to know the person, who they really are. Not about their past but who they are. You see the football, you see them with a helmet, scoring touchdowns and making tackles. But I think I'd ask questions about who they are."

That answer seems illuminating, particularly in light of Barkley's family story. His parents, Tonya Johnson and Alibay Barkley, have come through difficult times.

"(I was) born in the Bronx, (N.Y.)," Saquon says. "My dad had (drug) issues in the past that he overcame and learned from."

When Saquon was still just a youngster, the family moved out of the neighborhood, trying to get away from the drugs and the crime. "My mom wanted a better life for her kids," he says.

They relocated to Pennsylvania, first to Allentown, then Bethlehem, before settling in a two-bedroom row house in Coplay, a borough six miles northwest of Allentown. Barkley has an older brother and sister, and a younger brother and sister, the latter who are twins and sophomores in high school. His family remains close-knit.

"I feel like people (could misunderstand)," he says. "It's not like me and my family want people to feel sorry for us."

It might be with his running backs coach, Huff, that Barkley is most direct.

"Coach, there's a million people with family issues that have overcome and they don't get a pat on the back for overcoming," Barkley has told Huff. "Everybody has issues in their family."

Huff added, "He doesn't want that to be a crutch."

The Johnson-Barkley household included early lessons that were reinforced often.

"Never try to be someone else," Barkley remembers his parents saying. "You can learn from them, learn from their mistakes, learn from the good things they do. But be yourself."

A good listener, Saquon remains an appreciative son.

"I live with both parents, I'm grateful to have both parents because not many people are fortunate like that," he says. "They told me you can do whatever you put your mind to. Nothing's going to be handed to you, obviously. But if you put your mind to being a college football player, a basketball player, a boxer, a cook, a chef, a journalist, or a coach, whatever you would like to be -- if you put your mind to it and you work and you push yourself, good things will most likely happen."

Just as Barkley did not want Panek to presume he was offering sympathy with the gold medal, he does not want outsiders to view his home life as any way deficient.

An example: When he was a senior at Whitehall, Barkley couldn't pay his $65 student dues. Class adviser Michelle Le was willing to overlook the debt. But she made a deal with him: If he sold six Lehigh Valley coupon books, his dues would be covered. The books sold for $20 of which the school received $10.

"He sold 15," Le said. "Even after he fulfilled his requirement, he wasn't willing to stop there."

On this sun-splashed afternoon, the Penn State football team is practicing under a blue and white sky. When he wasn't involved in a special teams period, Barkley joined the quarterbacks for their bucket throwing drill. He lost and wasn't happy.

"It's like, 'Yeah, you're a running back. This is a quarterback drill,' " McSorley said after practice. "But he's extremely competitive in everything he's doing."

His workouts are the stuff of legend. Barkley set a new Penn State football power clean record of 405 pounds in June.

"I've said since he was a freshman, he's a one-in-20-years guy," said the former record holder, Detroit Lions defensive end Anthony Zettel. "He's so explosive, a special human being, an extraordinary person."

Teammates say Barkley will ask to practice a play again, and again, if the offense isn't getting it right. Fellow running back Andre Robinson said Barkley will come off the field during a game and lament not having his most productive series. "It's almost annoying because he's so good," Robinson said with a laugh. "He just wants to be perfect and be the best."

Hamilton said Barkley asked for help in learning the ins and outs of being a slot receiver.

"I broke it down for him because he's not used to that world out there in the slot," said Hamilton, now Penn State's all-time receptions leader. "As a running back, he's obviously able to make people miss when he's out there in space. As a receiver, as soon as you get the ball, you're automatically in space. So I just helped him take his game to another level."

Barkley put up 30 reps in the bench press. He squatted 525 pounds five times. He ran a hand-timed 4.33 40 earlier this year; Franklin said the time was an average of six clocks.

At 5-foot-11 and 230 pounds, Barkley had 4.6 percent body fat this summer. His low center of gravity and rock-solid lower body go a long way in explaining his power and explosiveness. His jump cuts are as effective as they appear instinctive; he says he works on them every day. His stutter step freezes defenders. His hurdles amaze. His top-end speed, the ability to finish a long run, is where Barkley has most improved since his freshman year.

"Say you were making a Frankenstein running back and you listed out height, weight, speed, vertical jump, pro agility, vision, whatever it is," Franklin said. "Some really good running backs are going to have (some of those attributes). What makes Saquon special is that he really has them all."

It was the Iowa game, a 21-19 escape on Sept. 30, that probably best embodies who Barkley is. He devastated the Hawkeyes with 358 all-purpose yards, a new school record. On a third down in the fourth quarter, he hurdled one defender and absorbed a hit from another to his left side. He somehow landed on his feet -- "I can't explain that," Barkley says with a laugh -- and scooted for a critical first down.

On the last play of the game, Barkley's job was pass protection. At the line, he stoned blitzing linebacker Josey Jewell, a Butkus Award finalist in 2016, giving McSorley time to find Juwan Johnson in the back of the end zone for the game-winner.

"That's awesome," Barkley says of his final assignment that night. "That's what makes football so special, that it's a team sport."

Barkley grew up watching New York Jets games with his father, who has a Jets tattoo. "My dad loves the Jets," Saquon says. "He's never been able to get to a game. I would love to take him there one day ..."

Barkley's voice trails off. He chuckles. "Yeah, I mean, obviously I would just love to play in the NFL."

Barkley's future will be a topic in the months to come. That includes the Heisman race.

"I'm not gonna sit here and lie and say I wouldn't want to win that award," he says. "But as I grow older, I understand the priority of team success. Team success takes care of individual success."

A true junior, he will have the option of leaving early for the NFL. He and Franklin have discussed his future; surely there will be more of those conversations, with his head coach and his family.

Barkley's game draws raves from NFL talent evaluators, including comparisons to David Johnson and Ezekiel Elliott on the field. Barkley is faster than both.

And his game has drawn the attention of NFL players on Twitter.

After Barkley delivered four touchdowns against Indiana -- one rushing, one receiving, one passing and one on the 98-yard kickoff return -- L.A. Rams running back Todd Gurley asked Barkley for his "cheat code," as if he's a player in a video game.

On the day of the Iowa game, Arizona Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu tweeted: "26 from Penn State is NFL ready."

It's hard to argue with that.

"If I don't focus on the season, and focus on being the best player and teammate I can be, none of the rest of the stuff will matter," he says. "How can I focus on the NFL and my future when I got (our games) coming up?"

Franklin marvels at how Barkley handles everything, on and off the field: "He's an unselfish guy who gets the big picture. There's a lot of attention on Saquon Barkley right now, and his focus is on the team."

Among my last questions for Barkley is about a story I've heard him tell before, that his dad wanted to name him after Tupac Shakur.

"My dad's a big Tupac fan," he says.

What about Mom? He laughs.

"My mom said no, she wasn't having that. So they compromised."

A fine choice, as it turns out. Because Saquon Barkley is making quite a name for himself.

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