The Improbable Rise of Saquon Barkley
Penn State's star running back came from a no-name high school program and became a Heisman frontrunner and likely top pick. How'd he do it? By never changing.
Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports
During Penn State’s bye week in mid-October, the team’s star running back, Saquon Barkley, returned to his hometown of Coplay, Pa. It was a good chance for Barkley to relax, unwind, catch up with family members and friends, and visit some familiar places. He soon realized how the perception of him had changed.
He was no longer just the quiet kid who everyone called “Say-Say” growing up. Now he was a bonafide celebrity, a Penn State legend and future NFL first round draft pick who couldn’t go anywhere without being inundated with stares, requests, and admiration.
That was evident on Friday, Oct. 13, when he went to Whitehall High School, his alma mater, around 65 miles north of Philadelphia and 165 miles east of Penn State’s campus in State College, Pa.
After reuniting with Justin Kondikoff, his former environmental sciences teacher and assistant football coach, he walked down the hall to the guidance counselor’s office. When Barkeley was a student at Whitehall, the stroll took three minutes. This time, it took around a half hour, as dozens of people came up to Barkley to chat and take photos with him.
“There were teachers coming out of classrooms,” Kondikoff said. “There were students coming out of classrooms.”
Each of them were in awe of Barkley and had been following his sensational junior season, in which he dazzled fans, opponents, and NFL scouts with a mixture of highlight moves that displayed his physical nature and blinding speed. A Sports Illustrated article in the summer noted that Barkley ran the 40-yard dash in 4.33 seconds, broke a Penn State-record with 405 pounds in the power clean lift, and squatted 525 pounds five times. He has proven he’s more than just a marvel in the weight room. He isn’t afraid of contact and can run through would-be tacklers. He also can run to the outside, catch passes in the open field, and sprint around and past slower defenders.
Entering Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl against Washington, Barkley needs 227 yards to surpass Evan Royster’s school-record in career rushing yards. Barkley was considered a Heisman Trophy frontrunner early this season before tailing off a bit as defenses designed schemes to stop him. Still, he finished fourth in the Heisman voting after scoring 22 touchdowns and gaining 2,154 all-purpose yards, the nation’s second-highest total.
People in Coplay and the surrounding Lehigh Valley are intimately familiar with Barkley’s exploits. At Whitehall’s football game in nearby Bethlehem, Pa., the scene was even more surreal than it was when Barkley returned to his former high school earlier in the day. Barkley wanted to watch his brother, Ali, a sophomore at Whitehall. Instead, he spent most of the time signing autographs, taking selfies and getting chatted up by strangers.
“It's hard when he’s home now because everybody is awestruck and starstruck by his notoriety,” Whitehall athletics director Bob Hartman said. “It stinks that he’s in that situation of not being able to enjoy things in his hometown, but he’s earned all those awesome things that come with (fame).”
Barkley, who has one year of college eligibility remaining, hasn’t announced whether he will return to Penn State for next season. But it would be shocking if he didn’t declare for the 2018 NFL draft by the Jan. 15 deadline.
Barkley is ranked first on ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr.’s “Big Board” of top players for the 2018 draft. ESPN’s Todd McShay considers Barkley the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson entered the NFL in 2007. And he has a chance to become the first running back selected with the first overall pick since the Cincinnati Bengals chose former Penn State star Ki-Jana Carter in 1995.
All of those accolades and projections are still hard to fathom to people in his hometown who have known him since grade school. But back then, Barkley was already impressing people with his athleticism. Near the end of third grade, while participating in a competition among peers, he caught the eye of Tammi Cunningham, whose husband, Tim, was the high school wrestling coach.
“She said, ‘Hey, Tim, you need to see this kid. He looks like he would be a good wrestler,’” Cunningham said.
She turned out to be right. When Barkley joined the Little Zephyrs, the town’s youth wrestling program, he became one of the region’s best in the 95 to 105 pound weight category. Cunningham remembers him beating a few kids who became Division I college wrestlers.
By the time high school came around, though, Barkley was focused on football. Initially, he had some trouble adjusting to the freshman team’s zone-read offense. As the running back in that complicated scheme, Barkley was instructed to hesitate for a split second when given the ball, watch the linemen block certain areas and then run fast through any openings.
“You could see he was thinking too much,” Whitehall freshman coach Doug Bonshak said. “I could tell he was frustrated because he wanted to make something happen. Sometimes he would dance around too much and the hole would close up quickly.”
Back then, it was pretty much unfathomable that Barkley would end up at Penn State. For the most part, even the most talented Whitehall players usually ended up at small local colleges like nearby Kutztown University, a Division II program.
“That was all we really knew,” said Conor Sullivan, Barkley’s high school teammate who now plays wide receiver at Kutztown.
As a sophomore, Barkley improved and started at outside linebacker, but he was a backup on offense to senior running back James Wah, Jr., who went to Kutztown. The summer before his junior year, Barkley finally caught college coaches’ attention during 7-on-7 camps. Rutgers offered him his first Division I offer, so he quickly committed to the Scarlet Knights.
When Barkley got off to an impressive start to his junior season, more colleges began calling and showing up at his games. Dave Steckel, a Whitehall alum who was Missouri's defensive coordinator, remembers watching Barkley play that fall. Steckel thought Barkley could become a major contributor at Missouri. But a top NFL prospect?
“The truth is, no one can see that,” said Steckel, who is now the head coach at Missouri State. “If they say they can, that’s a bunch of malarkey. What I did see, though, was a phenomenal, explosive talent. If he came in and worked and put in a lot of hard work and focus into what he was doing, you could tell he could be pretty damn good.”
Around the same time, Penn State started inquiring about Barkley. During a visit with other recruits in October 2013, Barkley saw the Nittany Lions defeat previously unbeaten Michigan 43-40 in four overtimes in a thrilling night game that left a lasting impact.
At the time, Penn State was still reeling from the child sexual abuse scandal involving former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. Still, Barkley was intrigued enough with the school that he visited again in February 2014, about a month after Penn State hired James Franklin as coach. That weekend, Barkley took along Kondikoff and two other Whitehall assistants. Everyone came away with a positive impression of Franklin, the program, and the campus.
“We thought, ‘Wow, this is the place for you,’” Kondikoff said. “It just fit well, just seemed right.”
Within a week, Barkley de-committed from Rutgers and told Penn State’s coaches he would play for the Nittany Lions. Other colleges such as Ohio State and Notre Dame pursued Barkley as he continued to improve and finished his Whitehall career with school records in rushing yards (3,642) and touchdowns (61). This time, he couldn’t be swayed.
When Barkley arrived at Penn State in 2015, he was considered one of its top recruits, although the Nittany Lions had another running back from Pennsylvania, Andre Robinson, in the same class with similarly impressive credentials. Few Penn State freshmen have major roles. Barkley was the rare exception. Despite missing two games with injuries, he finished with 1,076 yards rushing and seven touchdowns.
The past two seasons, Barkley has been even better, winning back-to-back Big Ten offensive player of the year awards. Even ahead of Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl, Barkley is already Penn State’s all-time leader with 5,279 all-purpose yards, 41 rushing touchdowns, and 51 total touchdowns. He is also second with 3,706 career rushing yards.
For all of Barkley’s on-field exploits, his former high school mentors are just as impressed that he’s remained the same caring kid as they remember. Kondikoff often checks in with Barkley via text messages.
“He always responds with, ‘How are your kids doing?,” Kondikoff said. “Not many people ask how your kids are doing. That just shows his maturity.”
When Barkley returns home, he typically visits with Cunningham, his ex-wrestling coach. He’s close with the family and is friends with Cunningham’s daughters.
“He didn’t let this success get to his head, not at all,” Cunningham said. “When I talk to him, I would never even know he’s this star running back at Penn State. I’m amazed. He doesn’t bring up all his accolades. It’s like he’s an everyday person.”
If it were up to Barkley, he would be an everyday person who’s able to blend into the background. But that’s not the case anymore. Earlier this year, when Barkley attended a Whitehall basketball game, school officials asked if they could introduce him during a break.
“He’s so shy—it’s unbelievable,” Whitehall basketball coach Jeff Jones said. “He was embarrassed. He said to my wife, ‘Do I need to say anything?’ She’s like, ‘No, just go out and put your hand up and wave to everybody.’”
These next few months before the NFL draft, the spotlight will shine even brighter on Barkley. He will be working out for teams, answering questions from executives and coaches, and making sure he’s impressing a group of people who will determine his professional future. Regardless of where he’s selected or how he performs in the NFL, he’s already had an impact in his hometown and high school.
“Nowadays you see everyone say, ‘Look at me. Look at me,’” Bonshak said. “That’s not him at all.”