WHITEHALL, Pa. — There are so many great stories to tell about Saquon Barkley, it’s hard to choose where to begin.
Before he was a freshman All-America running back at Penn State and before he was one of the top recruits at his position, Barkley was a kid at Whitehall High School who needed more time than most phenoms to unlock his incredible football talent.
He has a chance to be the best running back in the Big Ten in 2016. He could be the best in the nation before he decides it is time to give the NFL a try after 2017 or 2018. He also could have been a star in several other sports because he routinely displays exemplary work ethic and self-discipline, and others are quick with great tales of his prowess and altruistic behavior.
“He was a dream,” said Steve Pistol, who coached Barkley at football in middle school and remains a mentor. “It’s not often someone like that comes along.”
Pistol is also an assistant coach for Whitehall’s track and field team. He and head coach Jim Sebesta, who also assists with junior high football, tried for years to coax Barkley onto the team.
Finally, with a nudge from coach James Franklin after he had signed with Penn State, Barkley competed in track and field during his senior year. He participated in the 100 meters, long jump and shot put, an odd mix of events, but, as Pistol put it: Barkley did “anything we could get him in.”
Pistol vividly remembers the first time Barkley came down a slight hill to the shot put circle, which is on the other side of the school, opposite the football field/track.
“Saquon takes the shot and just starts tossing it up it up in the air and catching it with his hand,” Pistol said. “I look at him and I’m like, ‘Say-Say (Barkley’s nickname), what are you doing?’ He was like, ‘I’m warming up.’
“He’s warming up by throwing a 12-pound shot up in the air 10 feet and catching it with one hand. Every kid that was around the shot circle was watching him and was just wide-eyed and intimidated. He was throwing it up and catching it like you or I would a tennis ball.”
Barkley qualified for the state finals in the 100 meters and the long jump. He competed in the district finals in all three events.
“At the (district) finals, he did all three events in 15 minutes,” Sebesta said. “They were waiting for him, and someone was carting him around. I just thought it was nuts.”
Barkley’s compassion at a meet just before the district finals has been well chronicled. Rachel Panek, a runner for Saucon Valley High School, thought she had won the 100-meter hurdles, but a timing malfunction forced a second race. Tired from having also competed in the high jump during the break between races, Panek did not win again.
Earlier in the day, she had held a starting block during the boys 100 meters for Barkley, who won the race. He decided to give his gold medal to Panek.
This past spring, after Barkley’s breakout freshman season at Penn State, he returned to the meet and presented Panek with her gold medal after she won the 100-meter hurdles.
“He was so excited to do that, but he was mad at me for telling the reporter that he did,” Sebesta said.
The Interscholastic Unified Track and Field invitational, an event that features teams of athletes with and without mental disabilities to promote inclusion, took place during the 2015 state track meet at Shippensburg University.
“It was the first time they had the Special Olympics kids there at the same time,” Sebesta said. “They were running the 400 (meters) and the kids were still running when Saquon was supposed to do the long jump. He refused to jump until the last kid finished. He stood on the side of the track clapping and cheering on the last kids. There was an official pushing him to jump, but he waited.
“After he jumped, the other officials came over and shook his hand. He didn’t even think about it. That’s just what he is.”
Long before he was a football star, Barkley dominated as a wrestler. According to his high school football coach, Brian Gilbert, Barkley went “something like 45-0. He just never lost” while wrestling in fifth, sixth and eighth grade.
As Gilbert talked about Barkley’s previous sport just outside the Whitehall weight room, wrestling coach Tim Cunningham walked by. Cunningham confirmed Gilbert’s notion that Barkley would have been a state champion had he stuck with wrestling after eighth grade.
“Even if he just came out his senior year, he probably would have been a district champion, maybe a regional champion,” Cunningham said.
While Barkley excelled as a junior high wrestler, he did not look like a future Heisman Trophy candidate on the football field. His lower body had star running back potential, but he lacked height and focus. He also enjoyed running to his left or right too much and not straight ahead enough to gain the coaches’ approval.
One day he missed football practice to get a haircut … in New York.
“We could have thrown his ass off the team,” Sebesta said. “He wasn’t perfect. He messed up like every other kid. But he was the one who always said, ‘I’ve got to be better than that,’ and that was what always impressed me.”
Barkley stopped wrestling to focus on football. That might have been the first inclination of his drive to succeed. He didn’t begin to truly access his elite athleticism and talent as a freshman, or even early in his sophomore season.
“He was a shy kid, very unsure of himself as a ninth-grader,” Gilbert said. “He has a brother (Ali) on the ninth-grade team right now, and he’s the same way. Good-looking kid, he just doesn’t have that confidence yet. Neither did Saquon.”
Ali Barkley wears No. 26 like his older brother does at Penn State.
Saquon didn’t start at tailback as a sophomore. Senior James Wah, Jr., now at Kutztown University, did. Barkley did start at outside linebacker, and as the season progressed, he rapidly improved.
Gilbert said the summer before Saquon’s junior season, Barkley began to stay late after most of his teammates had departed for extra work in the weight room in order to do drills that improved his speed and quickness.
He excelled at a 7-on-7 camp held at Rutgers, where he earned a scholarship offer from the Scarlet Knights. That quickly led to a commitment.
“Saquon was so blown away by the offer because he was just unsure of himself,” Gilbert said. “Once he got that offer, some people would say, ‘Hey, look at me. I’m Division I. I’ve got an offer.’ Not him. I’ve never seen someone work harder because of a college offer. I live right around the corner (from the football field). He’d be like, ‘Coach, can you open the weight room?’ It’d be 11 at night or 6 a.m. on a Saturday and I’d be like, ‘No! Let me get a couple hours of sleep.’ He was really, really motivated.”
Barkley exploded as a junior. He ran for more than 1,500 yards and 23 touchdowns. He caught three touchdown passes. He was a wizard on special teams.
He was an unknown prospect when Rutgers offered him. That changed during his junior season.
“He jumped a kid,” Gilbert said, referring to a hurdle move that has become a specialty during Barkley’s brief tenure at Penn State. “In high school, that’s a penalty. … He was a punt returner, again a little unsure of himself, and didn’t realize how good he could be. He’d look at the ball, most of the time he’d let it bounce, he’d almost never fair catch it, and then he’d pick it up and make everyone miss. We’d yell, ‘catch the ball!’ and then we’d watch the film of him making six guys miss and just go, ‘Wow.’ ”
Other schools tried to pry Barkley from Rutgers. Penn State and Notre Dame were among the biggest brands.
Gilbert said Franklin and running backs coach Charles Huff came to Whitehall and spoke with custodians to discern Barkley’s character. Franklin reported back to Gilbert with an outstanding review.
Eventually, Barkley decided to decommit from Rutgers and flip to Penn State.
“It’s still probably the hardest thing he’s ever had to do. It didn’t sit well with him. He’s a pleaser,” said Gilbert, who took Barkley into his office and placed the call before handing the phone to him. “He was almost in tears. He said, ‘Coach, I know it’d be easier if I sent an email or a text, but I have to call them.’ ”
By the end of his senior year, Barkley was rated one of the top 15 running backs in the nation by the 247Sports composite rankings and the No. 2 player in Pennsylvania.
There are two numbers retired at Whitehall. One, No. 83, is for Matt Millen, who played at Penn State before winning the Super Bowl four times in his 12-year NFL career. The other is No. 77, for Dan Koppen, who played at Boston College and then won the Super Bowl twice in his 11-year NFL career.
Should Barkley’s No. 21 become the third, his performance as a senior against Allentown Central Catholic will probably be mentioned during the ceremony. Central Catholic scored the first 28 points of the game, but Whitehall rallied for a 42-41 win. Barkley scored four touchdowns.
“He got up at halftime when we were down 28-7 and made a speech that was like it was out of a Hollywood picture,” Pistol said. “We were one score from the mercy rule kicking in (a running clock when one team leads by 35 or more points), and he just willed us to win that game. He just refused to lose.”
Barkley moved to Coplay, Pa., from Brooklyn when he was 5 years old. Coplay is a town of about 3,200 people, according to city-data.com, that borders Whitehall. It’s a short drive to Allentown and a little more than an hour north of Philadelphia.
It takes fewer than 300 steps to depart from Barkley’s house, go past Samuel Owens restaurant and Chris Aguayo Guitar & Bass Lessons, and arrive at the start of Aisle 2 inside the Giant grocery store in Coplay. That’s where the magazines are, including Lindy’s college football preview with Barkley on the cover.
Barkley said Samuel Owens was one of his favorite places to eat while growing up. He also mentioned the pizza place across Chestnut Street. It’s currently Gigi’s Pizza, but the name has changed a few times.
Samuel Owens is filled with Pittsburgh memorabilia, an interesting choice on this side of the state. There is a small “We Are Penn State” sign above the entrance to the bar area, but no large displays for the boy who grew up down the street.
That could change soon.
Ten Penn State running backs have become first-round picks in the NFL draft. One, John Cappelletti, won the Heisman Trophy. Two, Franco Harris and Lenny Moore, are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
None ran for more yards as a freshman than Barkley. His 1,076 rushing yards set a school record for freshmen, topping D.J. Dozier, another of the future first-round picks, who had 1,002.
Now he’s a sophomore, but that same worth ethic and self-discipline developed at Whitehall remains.
“I know what I’m capable of doing in the open field and with the ball in my hands, but now I’m focused on improving those moves and every single day getting better at something,” Barkley said. “When I write my notes, at the top of my notes, I always write some type of note on something to improve.”
When Barkley was about to be a senior in high school, he found ways to improve. Gilbert said Barkley spent time with Whitehall’s offensive line coach and learned the blocking schemes for every running play.
Barkley figured if he knew why and what his blockers were doing, it would improve his ability to read plays and set up moves. When he was still a freshman at Penn State, after the season had concluded, he showed up at Whitehall one day in the snow wanting to use the weight room.
“We close the school down for early dismissals sometimes when it snows, but if it’s not snowing too bad yet, I’ll come up here to lift,” Pistol said. “One time he texted me and was like, ‘Coach Pistol, can I come up and lift?’ When he got here, I was like, ‘Why do you need to lift now while you’re home?’ He said, ‘You don’t think Michigan is lifting right now? Wisconsin? I gotta get better.’ ”
Barkley can be better in 2016. If all of that work in the weight room hasn’t sculpted an NFL-ready physique, he’s close. The offensive line, a source of consternation for Penn State fans the past few seasons, is deeper and more experienced than it has been since before the NCAA sanctions.
There is also a new uptempo, spread offense, which could lead to Barkley busting big runs against tiring defenses that can’t get set in time.
“Physically, I feel a lot better, but the real big difference is mentally,” Barkley said. “Last year, I was a freshman going crazy at this point trying to show coach Franklin and the offensive staff what I’m capable of doing and still trying to pick up blitzes and go through things I never had to in high school. This year, I feel more comfortable.”
So Barkley will continue to work on little things and deflect credit to his offensive linemen. “My guys,” he calls them. There are also other Penn State records for him to chase.
Could he best Larry Johnson’s 2,087 yards in 2002? Evan Royster’s career total of 3,932 yards? Become the second Heisman winner in program history?
Barkley has already come a long way from being a squatty middle-school kid with big calves and no clue what potential awaited him.
“He did things the old-fashioned way, and that’s kind of what this town was built on,” Gilbert said. “Very blue-collar. Everything Saquon has now is from hard work.
“He was home for two weeks this summer. One of them was during our youth camp. He was like, ‘Coach, do you mind if I come by the youth camp?’ I said, ‘Do I mind? That will be the highlight of these guys’ summer.’ That’s the type of person he is.”