COPLAY, Pa. — Former Penn State star running back Saquon Barkley rolled through the streets of his hometown in style, signing autographs, holding his nephew and smiling as he sat up high in a Plymouth Prowler.
“I was practicing holding a baby,” said Barkley, the father-to-be.
On a day with a parade and a public celebration dedicated to the former Nittany Lions great, thousands of fans flocked to the parade route to celebrate the running back ahead of the 2018 NFL Draft in late April. It was a day designed for Barkley, but in typical Barkley fashion, he made sure the day belonged to everyone else in his community.
“It’s not goodbye. I don’t view it that way,” Barkley said of what many viewed as his farewell to his hometown and the start of his upcoming NFL stardom. “I plan to buy my mom a house in Whitehall because I want my little brother and sister to finish school out here so it’s never going to be goodbye. I could get drafted to a team nearby. If I get drafted to a team in New York that’s not that far, pretty much home for me. Cleveland isn’t that far. Indianapolis realistically isn’t that far. … I’m not one of those guys that when I leave I’m never going to come back to this place.”
Whether it was catching and signing the footballs tossed his way throughout the parade or posing for photo after photo, Barkley’s legacy in the community outside of Allentown was cemented shortly after the parade. Fans bought T-shirts commemorating Saquon Barkley day while others sported sweatshirts and held signs that read, “Coplay, the little town that could.”
Coaches, athletic administrators and community members shared their Barkley stories on stage at the local park while he looked on with his mom and dad. The community gave Barkley a surprise too.
Whitehall High School’s athletic director announced that Barkley’s No. 21 high school jersey would be retired, making him the third former Zephyrs player honored accordingly. Former Nittany Lions star Matt Millen and former New England Patriots Pro Bowl offensive lineman Dan Koppen are two others. Barkley’s younger brother, Ali, will be the last player to wear 21. The community also will add a Barkley plaque in the town that features his photo and highlights all his Penn State achievements.
“That’s up there,” he said of his jersey getting retired. “That might mean even more than the All-America thing at Penn State. At college you walk through that hallway every single day and you see that (All-America) wall and that’s your goal and it was the same way at Whitehall. When you walk in the field house you see those two footballs and you want to make it on that football. To be able to have my jersey retired and to have my little brother be the last one to wear that jersey, hopefully he does enough to argue that he’ll get that jersey retired also so there will be two Barkleys. That’s special to me. That’s something I’ve been dreaming about.”
In the next month, more of Barkley’s dreams will come true as he will welcome a baby in April and then hear his named called a couple weeks later during the draft.
During the parade route, onlookers shouted from lawn chairs and front porches that they wanted him to stay close by and play for the New York Giants. A handful of fans in Browns jerseys yelled that they wanted the human highlight reel to head to Cleveland. A lady wearing a Steelers jacket shouted back that he should only be in Cleveland if he’s with the Steelers and playing the Browns. Others tailgated and basked in the sun, filling the hill in the park to hear Barkley address the crowd.
Barkley isn’t immune to talk of the mock drafts and the speculation, and he won’t be in the coming weeks either as he fulfills media obligations in Los Angeles, trains around the clock and travels to visit with teams. That’s what gave this parade a sense of finality to his college stardom and resulted in a community celebration that wasn’t going to end when Barkley left town with his agent to get ready for the next part of his career.
“A lot of people are coming up to me and saying, ‘How does it feel your dreams are coming true?'” Barkley said. “My dream is not coming true. When I was a little kid I dreamt of being in the NFL. I didn’t just dream about the draft. That happens to be part of the course you have to take, but my dream is to be elite in the NFL.”