Saquon Barkley Is the Superstar College Football—and Penn State—Needs

Greg CouchNational ColumnistAugust 15, 2017

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 02:  Running back Saquon Barkley #26 of the Penn State Nittany Lions celebrates after making a 7-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter against the USC Trojans during the 2017 Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual at the Rose Bowl on January 2, 2017 in Pasadena, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

The picture Saquon Barkley's family paints of his early childhood is not pretty. Is not fun. Is not joyful.

"Lyman Place in the Bronx..." his mom, Tonya Johnson, says. "That block started deteriorating more and more. And more."        

"Shootouts," says his dad, Alibay Barkley, joining in from the family living room in Coplay, Pennsylvania, to help tell the story.

"It was so bad," Tonya says, "to the point you were only able to go on—allowed in—the block if you lived there. And they had to know who you were. It was just so much."

So is that the story of Saquon Barkley? He grew up in fear of the mean streets and gained an innate toughness from that fear? And that toughness led him to football stardom—the star running back at a national championship contender, Penn State, and a future high-first-round NFL draft pick?

It's a narrative you've heard before, so many times by now. And yes, it's true here.

But also, no, it's not.

At least it's not the story as Barkley tells it. The way he tells it, Lyman Place was pretty. Was fun. Was joyful.

"I didn't think it was a rough neighborhood," he says. "You're a kid. You're just having fun.

"I don't think any place is truly that bad. It's the stories you hear about it [that make it seem that way]. I just grew up being a little kid having fun."

If it sounds like obliviousness, it's not. There's no obliviousness to Saquon Barkley. He knows where he's from. Knows all about it. Knows his dad almost ruined his own life with a drug habit. Knows his uncle had problems with drugs, too. He knows what the neighborhood he was born into was like, and he knows the neighborhood in Pennsylvania they moved to after it was rough, too.

But still, he remembers how green that grass was—even in the dreariest of neighborhoods. He doesn't hide from the bad, and so he doesn't end up forgetting the good.

"One thing I would tell you about Saquon that is really interesting is that a lot of families and a lot of people are uncomfortable by the challenges they had to overcome," Penn State head coach James Franklin says. "There might be circumstances in their history, their past, that they might not be proud of. One thing that's so interesting about Saquon and his family...

"They own everything."

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 02:  Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin reacts with running back Saquon Barkley #26 on the sideline during the second half against the USC Trojans during the 2017 Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual at th
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

They had no choice but to own their problems. Barkley never was allowed an illusion that the world was perfect or easy. He worked for what he's become, and he is on the verge of achieving the American dream.

And maybe that, and not just the otherworldly talent, is what makes him such a perfect star for college football right now. Especially given where he's playing.

Penn State was a story of all things good for so long. They called the place Happy Valley—a location on the map but also a state of mind that the people there believed in. The feeling in town and on campus was that they were driven by the wholesomeness of the place, exemplified by former head coach Joe Paterno.

There is no need to dive too deeply into what happened to that image. You already know: Assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was sexually abusing young boys. There were people who could have done something to stop it and didn't, desperate to maintain the illusion of perfection. And in the end, Happy Valley had its impossible ideal brought down by impossible monstrosity.

It's a story in stark contrast to what was happening at the same time just across the state, in a world of lesser extremes, though one still squarely in the realm of harsh reality.

A family moved from the Bronx to public housing in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, because a strong mother, Tonya Johnson, decided she was going to improve the future of her family.

"Are you coming?" she asked Alibay, "because either way I'm going."

He had to clean himself up first. After Bethlehem, they moved to another rough neighborhood in Allentown before finding peaceful, quiet Coplay. Alibay says he has been clean ever since.

In other words: While all that mess was being made of impossible ideals in Happy Valley, a story of real American ideals was in the works right across the state. And that's the story Happy Valley is cheering for now.

Barkley says that the cheering is for the team, not for him, and that it's about Penn State's sudden re-emergence under Franklin. But privately, Alibay admits this about his son:

"He feels he's helping the school get its name back."

He is cleaning up and redefining that name with a reality like this:

"My mom got pregnant at a young age, 15," Barkley says. "She gave birth at the age of 16. My father was a normal kid in the streets of New York, doing dumb stuff. He could have really jeopardized his life. ...

"Then my dad got caught up in a drug habit. Life could have went the other way, but my mom was in his life. My mom told him: 'I don't want my kids to go through this. I don't see a great future for them here.' My mom basically told my dad that he's got to stop doing what he's doing and get right. And then they moved to Pennsylvania."

Barkley was three or four at the time. Maybe five. When family members tell the story, it varies a little. The thing is, they have no problem telling it, no inclination to hide it.

"My dad's drug habit?" Barkley says. "To be honest, I think he was a great example to learn from. He told me about it when I was a little kid. He wasn't embarrassed about it. He had his demons. Everyone has demons. I'm not embarrassed about him. He has been clean ever since. He raised me to be the person I am today."

Alibay now works as a chef at a Chili's restaurant. Tonya works on retail much of the year and then in a tax office during tax season.

"I'm blessed to say I have both my parents together," Barkley says. "Not many people can say that."

An American success story.

You drive into Coplay on narrow, hilly streets. Pass a park on the right, mom-and-pop stores and restaurants all around. The Bacon Strip. Barry Lovelace Athlete Training Academy. Log Cabin. Karaoke on Friday night!

The walls in the Barkleys' nice, modest house are filled with family pictures, sayings, trophies: "Family. One of the Greatest Blessings." There's a picture of Malcolm X shaking hands with Martin Luther King Jr.

Barkley is not there, but is instead on the Penn State campus. Alibay sits on the couch watching a replay of the Rose Bowl, the incredible 52-49 USC win over Penn State. Barkley rushed for 194 yards and two touchdowns, including a 79-yarder. He also caught five passes for 55 yards and another touchdown.

"You win some, you lose some," Dad says simply.

No overreaction. No pretending it's something it's not.

Alibay credits the quiet of Coplay for helping him to stay in control, to stay away from trouble.

"It's a good place to raise kids," he says. "Saquon was always a tough kid. Your energy attracts people to you. He has good energy, a good aura, so good people come around. No negativity came to him."

"Sometimes," Tonya says, "you've got to change your environment to change your circumstances."

Tonya's aunt lived in Bethlehem and used to take the Barkley kids away from the Bronx for a few weeks at a time and watch them. Tonya would eventually take the 90-minute bus ride there and stay for a few days before taking the kids home.

"I used to look at them and see how much they were enjoying themselves," she says. "They could just run around in the grass—my oldest son, Rashard, and Saquon."

Alibay and Tonya tend to be in a sort of positive bickering state. They debate how long they've been married, how long they were together before that. Oral history has a tendency to be long on feeling and short on factual detail.

They describe Alibay's drug use differently, too. She says he was a "functioning drug addict," which she says means he could work all week away from drugs and then use again on weekends. He says, "Sometimes it got bad. I'm not going to lie. I'd go to the program, clean up."

In Coplay, they found themselves removed from all troubles, he says. And the kids—Barkley and his siblings—were safe.

When Barkley reached Whitehall High, there were still no signs of what was coming. He flew on an airplane for the first time when his team went to Florida for a game.

"Going into his sophomore year, the kid we knew was talented but unsure of himself," Barkley's high school coach, Brian Gilbert, says. "He lacked confidence in the weight room, with body and strength. But what made him who he is was that when you put a challenge in front of certain kids, they won't stop until they can achieve it.

"I'll never forget the first time I put 300 pounds on the squat rack and said, 'You can squat this.' He said, 'No way.'"

Soon, he blew right past that.

"Quick story," Gilbert says. "We used to go to a weightlifting competition, and it was bench [press] and squat only. Going into his junior year, he was squatting 425 [pounds] in our weight room, but if he wanted to beat the kid in front of him, he needed to squat 500. He said, 'I can't do this; I can't do this.' His goal was 435. And then he got 500 so easy."

That was a turning point for Barkley, a moment when he started to believe.

"He is very sensitive," Gilbert says. "And I think that's part of what drives him—here I sound like a shrink—but I think part of it is he just doesn't want to displease anyone. He doesn't want to let down the coach. Part of what motivates him is his sensitivity."

His brother Rashard says the change was bigger than that. It's also that Barkley was in a place where that sensitivity could thrive. And it was a realization of who he is.

"It was just a different atmosphere in Coplay," Rashard says. "It wasn't the ghetto of Bethlehem, wasn't the ghetto of Allentown, wasn't the ghetto of New York. It was quiet. Cars weren't driving around all night. Nothing dangerous."

By the end of Barkley's sophomore year, he got an offer to play for Rutgers. He had gone to a college camp, but the offer shocked him. It was his only one. He says they must have seen something off his JV tape or something.

But everything just kept growing and growing.

As a junior, he started getting everyone's attention. And he started to really, truly believe.

Coming from where he did, though, he didn't let it change him.

He joined the track team, and at one meet he saw a girl win the 100-meter hurdles. But there had been a problem with the timer, so they made the girls run the race again. Before that happened, Barkley ran—and won—his regularly scheduled race.

"She was in the lead again and got clipped on a hurdle," Barkley recalls. "And it was a league tournament. She got messed up in her stride and lost. I felt she deserved the gold medal."

So he gave her his.

"She was just, Thank you. Thank you so much," he says. "It put a smile on her face."

Barkley continued to thrive. His dad helped him get a job at Golden Corral, mostly sweeping up. And Rashard, who now proudly works making molds at a plastic plant—and also delivering Domino's late at night to support his family—helped Barkley get a job at his place, "sweeping around," Barkley says, "picking up stuff."

Three years ago, he was sweeping around, picking up stuff. Now he's a Heisman contender.

He was developing as a person and as a player.

"We didn't hide anything from him," Rashard says. "We're a very truthful, very straight-up family. Especially my dad. Straightforward.

"I say it helped Saquon in some way. It helped me, too. I didn't do drugs."

When Barkley arrived at Penn State, his roommate was another running back, Andre Robinson, who also was from Pennsylvania. Ask Barkley who his best friends on the team are, and Robinson will be on his shortlist.

"He's my brother," Barkley says.

Saquon Barkley and Andre Robinson
Saquon Barkley and Andre RobinsonMichael Conroy/Associated Press

But at first...

"I didn't like him," Robinson says. "We didn't get along."

That's true. Barkley agrees. By the time he got to college, he carried a grudge against anyone listed ahead of him on recruiting charts. One too many people told him that Robinson was better than him. So even during his senior year of high school, he thought about Robinson. He wondered how hard Robinson was working.

"I just wanted to work harder than he was that day," Barkley says.

He watched films of Robinson.

And now they're roommates?

"It's funny, because he's one of my closest guys now," Barkley says. "We came in the same year, the same class, the same position. We were always going to compete against each other to see who was going to play."

What happened was this: Barkley won out. He got the playing time. And somewhere during the year, for some reason, Barkley wanted Robinson to play, too. He started offering advice. They started working out together and hanging out.

"When he got his first touchdown," Barkley says, "I think I was more excited than I was for any of mine in college football."

Of course, by now Barkley has plenty of his own. Last year, he rushed for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns as Penn State just barely—and arguably unfairly—was left out of the four-team College Football Playoff.

If it's possible to have a coming-out moment in a loss, Barkley did at the Rose Bowl. His 79-yard touchdown run might have been the most exciting play in the most exciting game other than the national title game.

The loss has not been eating away at him. He says it was something great for the team to build on.

The expectations are understandably high. Sports Illustrated ranked him the nation's top college running back going into this season and the fifth-best player overall.

Bleacher Report's NFL prospects expert, Matt Miller, calls him "the best running back prospect of the last decade. Over Todd Gurley (injury), Ezekiel Elliott (off-field), Leonard Fournette (injury) and anyone else you've seen as of late. He's a freak athlete and has the vision and game-changing speed to be a very early draft pick."

He's also the face of Penn State's re-emergence, a player who has won over the school's fans and in turn has helped Franklin do the same.

Meanwhile, back at Lyman Place in the Bronx, things keep getting uglier and uglier. According to Eddie Small of, in April police arrested 10 members of the "Lyman Place Bosses" gang in a raid and said they were connected to more than a dozen shootings over the past two years. Among the nicknames: Sal Capone and Mal Pacino.

What if Barkley had continued to grow up there? Would he still the man he's become? Would he still be a top 10 NFL prospect?

"Everything happens for a reason," Alibay says. "Once you start feeling that pain, that messes with your emotions and makes you harder. He wouldn't have been the same person."


"He could have gone to Juilliard," Tonya says. "You never know."

"No, you never do know," Alibay says. "But we weren't going to take a chance."

You can't always draw a straight line from a person's background to his present, but there is something about all the truth in Barkley's life that seems to have allowed him to develop into the right player, and person, to get people excited about Penn State football once again.

He does not hide from his past, and as a result it is not uncomfortable for him. He has been brought up in truth, taught it.

In Happy Valley, that's an important sentiment. Live in reality, not in the illusion of perfection.

Franklin fully understands that the connection between Penn State fans and Barkley is more than about touchdowns, bowl games and potential Heismans.

"Blue collar, hard-nosed, hard-working, appreciative," Franklin said. "I do think the fact he stayed home, people have gotten to know who he is (with the talk) about the things he's overcome, how he handled it all with such humility and grace. He aligns with Pennsylvania and Penn State and he aligns with the football team."

Barkley's past has freed him to be sensitive and tough at the same time. It is refreshing somehow that he can admit to having lacked confidence in the weight room just a few years ago—and how that has helped him to become a weight-room standout today.

He just knows where he's from. Accepts it. Owns it. Isn't trapped by it.

In his family living room in tiny Coplay, there is an open Bible. Also an open Quran. And a Book of Mormon. He has those books in his bedroom, too, even though he hasn't committed to one particular faith yet.

He is the face of Penn State's rebuilding not only its football team but also its image. He is a tough and rugged kid, but "don't let him tell you he doesn't cry at movies," his mom says.

"My mom said that?" Barkley asks.

Yes. Isn't it true?

"Well, yeah, it is," Barkley says. "I just can't believe she told you that. I'm going to have to have a talk with her.

"Don't put that in the story."

Sorry, but everything goes in. People need to know that it is every bit of truth that has led Saquon Barkley to who he is.

"OK," he says.


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