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Saquon Barkley's freak-show legs carry Heisman hype and Penn State's title hopes

Humble Heisman hopeful Saquon Barkley is known for speed, strength and squats (600-pounders), and Penn State's season rests on the running back's powerful lower half, but just three years ago his future lacked the same aura of inevitability.

The first scouting reports noting Saquon Barkley’s rare physical gifts came from Penn State’s Beaver Hall during the summer of 2015. Barkley’s freshman roommate, running back Andre Robinson, called home to detail what he’d seen on the twin bed six feet away: “He has veins in his thighs and popping out of his calves. I’ve never seen anything like it before in my life. He’s a freak.”

A similar sense of awe soon swept through the Nittany Lions’ program, as Barkley routinely hurdled safeties and bowled over linebackers. By the end of his sophomore year—during which he ran for 1,496 yards on 272 carries and 18 touchdowns—it had become clear that he would be the next college tailback to crash the top of the NFL draft. The 4.33 40-yard dash Barkley ran during spring testing would have made him the fastest running back at the 2017 NFL combine. His 32 bench-press reps of 225 pounds would have ranked fourth . . . among defensive linemen—and tied a combine record for rushers.

After scoring a touchdown in a 45–12 win over Michigan State last November, the 5' 11", 228-pound Barkley even reverse-engineered the typical lineman-tailback celebration by hoisting 305-pound Ryan Bates off the ground. “When I was growing up, Bo Jackson was a Greek myth with the things he was able to do,” says Penn State running backs coach Charles Huff. “I’m not saying he’s Bo Jackson, but Saquon is head and shoulders above what a normal athlete should do in this day and age.”

Coach James Franklin believes Barkley is what would result “if you had Frankenstein build a running back.” His elite genetics (great-nephew of former middleweight boxing champion Iran Barkley), big-game performances (249 total yards and three TDs in the Rose Bowl) and Heisman potential have drawn outsized comparisons. “He’s as close to Ezekiel Elliott as I’ve seen with the ball in his hands,” says former Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell. “He’s as dynamic as we’ve played against.”

Fickell’s opinion is largely informed by Barkley’s breakout game: a 26-carry, 194-yard day against the Buckeyes as a freshman. The Nittany Lions finished that season with seven wins for the third consecutive time but had a full complement of scholarships for the first time in four years after the NCAA sanctions in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Barkley has since emerged as the face of the new Penn State. He led the 2016 team to its first double-digit win total (11–3) since ’09 and first Big Ten title since ’08. With 16 starters returning and an offensive line that’s finally not a liability, Penn State has national-title aspirations this season. Like their star tailback, the Lions are on the rise.

Yet just three years ago Barkley’s future lacked the same aura of inevitability. He struggled so much with confidence that his coaches at Whitehall (Pa.) High considered themselves more psychologists than strategists. As a sophomore Barkley confided to friends that he hoped to earn a scholarship to Division II Kutztown (Pa.) University. “It’s hard to believe,” says Whitehall athletic director Bob Hartman, “how far he’s come in two years.”

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Barkley set the table for his 2017 Heisman campaign with 249 total yards and three touchdowns in the Rose Bowl.

Barkley set the table for his 2017 Heisman campaign with 249 total yards and three touchdowns in the Rose Bowl.

Some 160 milesaway from State College, Saquon’s father, Alibay, climbs the creaky wooden stairs of the family’s two-bedroom row house in Coplay. He reaches the attic and steps into the bedroom where Saquon slept on a twin mattress on the floor. Ali, Saquon’s 15-year-old brother, uses another mattress across the room. A Barry Sanders action figure, still in its original packaging, is one of the relics of Saquon’s childhood. “It’s small,” Alibay says of the house, “but we get by.”

Saquon’s path to stardom starts with his family’s escape from New York. Alibay and his wife, Tonya Johnson, grew up in housing projects in the Bronx. Alibay says he struggled with a crack cocaine addiction for seven years and that as a teenager he served nearly a year on Rikers Island for gun possession. Tonya recalls that drug dealers operated on her block. “We wanted something different for our kids,” Tonya says.

In 2001 the couple decided to take their five children—Saquon is the third—and get out. The family eventually settled in Coplay (pop. 3,222), north of Allentown. A photo of Martin Luther King Jr. shaking hands with Malcolm X hangs over the entrance to the dining room. The house is tidy, other than the clutter of Saquon’s awards and trophies, which overflow the shelves.

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Alibay, 48, has spent nearly all his time in Pennsylvania as a short-order cook, and he works at a Chili’s these days. He says he earned his GED nearly a decade ago, a higher level of education than his father achieved. Tonya, 46, works in retail, moonlighting at a second job for part of the year. They demand that their kids attend college for at least two years. They are also candid with the children about their extended family. “They know our past,” Tonya says. “If someone was a murderer, they know someone was a murderer. We don’t hide nothing from them.”

Saquon’s success has presented a new set of problems. Tonya says she gets at least one call or Facebook message a day from agents and financial planners. She also had to figure out how to buy an insurance policy for Saquon and decide on the coverage. She ended up getting multimillion-dollar policies for permanent and total disability or loss of value, but the process was time-consuming and confusing.

Tonya doesn’t worry about what will happen to Saquon if he makes big money in the NFL. She laughs at the thought of him driving a $100,000 car or wearing $3,000 shoes. And in conversation Saquon doesn’t show much interest in the shiny temptations of the future. Instead, he’s grateful for the creaky stairs and cramped quarters that shaped him. “My family is not perfect and has been through a lot,” he says. “But the stuff they went through is the reason I am who I am today.”

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Brian Gilbert’s windowless office in the basement of Whitehall High’s field house sits near the weight room, a concrete block notable for its lack of air-conditioning, rusted barbells and the stench of sweat, which hits like a haymaker. Two jumbo loaves of white bread, oversized jars of Jif peanut butter and squeeze bottles of Smucker’s grape jelly greet Gilbert’s visitors. A sign on the door advertises chocolate milk for 50 cents, and debtors’ names appear on a whiteboard. (The biggest delinquent owes $1.70; interest is charged.)

Two retired numbers are painted on the building’s brick exterior: the 83 of Matt Millen, a former Penn State linebacker who won four Super Bowls with three teams, and the 77 of Dan Koppen, who won two Super Bowls as an offensive tackle with the Patriots. Before Barkley’s number 21 appeared a near certainty to earn a spot alongside them, he took advantage of the no-frills offerings inside it, starting his workouts by gorging on PB&Js. But he needed more than just physical nourishment.

Barkley had been frustrated about splitting carries as an eighth-grader, and when he didn’t find immediate success as a freshman, he pondered quitting football. He simply didn’t think he was good enough. “I’d tell him, ‘You are the fastest and the strongest, but you are mentally weak,’ ” says Dennis McWhite, then the running backs coach at Whitehall. “There are things you’re going to need to overcome mentally.”

The summer before his sophomore year, Barkley had the first in a series of breakthroughs: He squatted 300 pounds for the first time. “I vividly remember him being unsure he could do it,” Gilbert says. “It was a matter of confidence.”

As his self-assurance grew, his maturity needed to follow. He missed one practice when he went for a haircut . . . in New York City. He missed another because of a gash on his head suffered on a roller coaster. Whitehall administrators still tease Barkley about how he used to hop along the school’s multicolored floors to avoid the white tiles, which he imagined were lava. They also admit that such playfulness and a halogen smile occasionally helped the kid everyone knew as Sa-Sa wriggle out of trouble.

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Still, as a sophomore Barkley played only part-time on varsity, which gnawed at him. Academically he lacked motivation at times and struggled in particular with Spanish.

But much of that changed the summer before his junior year, after Rutgers assistant coach Norries Wilson noted Barkley’s “completely effortless running” on film—no matter that most of the rushes came against junior varsity competition. During a Rutgers camp, Wilson brought Barkley to coach Kyle Flood’s office. The kid who couldn’t make varsity full-time the previous season was floored to receive a scholarship offer. “I remember trying to look so serious and professional, but biting down and smiling,” Barkley says. “I was like No way this is happening.”

Barkley accepted soon after, and the commitment offered an adrenaline jolt on and off the field. Barkley’s weight room numbers rocketed, he locked in on Spanish class and teachers chipped in with extra tutoring. “Rutgers was the turning point for him,” says Linda MacGill, his school counselor. “His grades started to match what I thought his ability was.”

Barkley’s appreciation for what teachers and administrators did for him is clear in how he used his free time before the 2017 Rose Bowl. While his teammates visited Hollywood, Barkley spent an evening with his old assistant principal from Whitehall, Alicia Knauff, and her family. When it comes to the people “who never gave up on me,” Barkley says, “I can go down a big list.”

Flood & Co. asked Barkley to keep his commitment quiet; they didn’t want to draw attention to their hidden gem. But Barkley proved a secret impossible to keep. In September of his junior year he rushed for 211 yards and four touchdowns on 13 carries against Liberty High in Bethlehem. The game brought national recruiting attention, and Barkley began having second thoughts about Rutgers. Those intensified after he attended Penn State’s 43–40 quadruple-overtime victory over Michigan in October 2013. Flood grew worried enough that he showed up at a Whitehall practice, telling Gilbert he skipped Rutgers practice that day to check in on Barkley.

A few months later coach Bill O’Brien left Penn State to take over the Houston Texans and Franklin moved from Vanderbilt to State College. Barkley laughs as he recalls Franklin’s pitch: “I don’t care if I have to come to your house and slap you in the head, but you have to play for Penn State. You have no say.”

It pained Barkley to decommit from Rutgers. A New York City kid by birth, Barkley grew up rooting for the Scarlet Knights and the Jets. (Alibay has a red Jets tattoo on his left forearm, which will certainly become a talking point at the next NFL draft.) Saquon called Franklin for advice on what to say to the program he had jilted. “I’m forever thankful for Rutgers, Coach Flood and that coaching staff,” Barkley says now, “for taking a chance on me.”

When Barkley finally flipped to the Nittany Lions in February 2014, he ranked as the state’s No. 7 player and the country’s No. 21 running back. A nice prospect, but not one who seemed as if he could carry Penn State out of the trough of mediocrity that followed the NCAA sanctions.

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Barkley has doubled his personal best since squatting 300 pounds for the first time as a sophomore in high school.

Barkley has doubled his personal best since squatting 300 pounds for the first time as a sophomore in high school.

At a Whitehall basketball game this winter, school officials planned to introduce Barkley at halftime and recognize him for being named Big Ten offensive player of the year. Barkley got so nervous that he sweated through his shirt, and he never made it to midcourt. Instead he shuffled out near the free throw line, concealed his shirt’s blossoming wet patches with alligator-arm waves, then scurried off. Kids surrounded him for autographs. Adults clamored for pictures. Eventually Gilbert had to escort him out of the gym. “No one was watching the basketball game,” the coach says. “Everyone lined up to see him. [His fame] changes everything.”

That’s the latest hurdle for both Barkley and Penn State, one that seemed difficult to imagine even a year ago. How do they handle grandiose expectations? Three years after pounding peanut butter and jelly and stammering through Spanish, Barkley is a Heisman candidate with a higher GPA at Penn State than he held at Whitehall. (His squat has doubled to 600, too.)

Both Barkley and the program’s leap forward can be tied to the December 2015 arrival of offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead from Fordham. Moorhead installed an RPO-spread that highlighted the mobility of quarterback Trace McSorley and used tempo to compensate for an undermanned line. The offense distributes the ball to soft areas of the defense by giving the QB multiple options to run or pass based on a presnap read. That means Barkley is often steaming into holes where the defense is outnumbered, or he’s isolated against slower players in open space. “Every time Saquon touches the ball,” says Huff, the running backs coach, “he has a chance to do something explosive because of the system we run.”

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No one will argue with the results. The Nittany Lions scored 14.4 more points per game in 2016 than they did in ’15, and their rank in total offense jumped to 49th (432.6 yards per game) from 105th (348.6). The signature win came against No. 2 Ohio State in October. Barkley ran for 99 yards on 12 carries in a 24–21 upset, thanks to a 60-yard touchdown return on a blocked field goal.

The victory also highlighted the inherent awkwardness of Penn State’s on-field success in the wake of the Sandusky scandal. Franklin drew criticism nationally for calling the result “a big step in the right direction in terms of healing.” The stigma surrounding the university’s misdeeds still lingers; three administrators were sentenced to jail time for child endangerment in June because of their roles in the case. Any mention of a revival or overcoming obstacles on the field links back to the horrors that led to the school’s punishments in 2012.

Franklin acknowledges a “fine line” when mentioning healing and said his comments were understood better locally. “I have avoided that ever since,” Franklin says. “But here where there were so many people that took so much pride in this place and in this university and in this community and this team that, there was an aspect that having something to be excited about and feel good about that this community and team and university needed.”

Barkley wasn’t thinking about scandals or jail sentences or horrors past when he decided to come to Penn State, but the community Franklin talks about played a role. “I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself. That’s why I came to this school,” he says. “And you really don’t notice it now, but maybe 20, 30 years from now they might write something or do a 30 for 30 on a team like us.”

If so, the central figure will be a freak-show, Frankenstein-creation running back seeking the vein-popping height of his powers.