Saquon Barkley's unlikely rise to Penn State star running back

Saquon Barkley runs with the ball during the first half against Iowa on Sept. 23.

WHITEHALL, Pa. — As Whitehall High School football coach Brian Gilbert was recalling Saquon Barkley’s boyhood for one of the reporters who recently have journeyed there for the story, a light drizzle ended and a fresh rainbow appeared overhead.

The brightly colored band arced across a still-dark sky from the Lehigh County school’s practice field to its weight room, mirroring the path Barkley traveled in his transformation from an unsure, undersize youngster into a football superhero.

This sports-crazed, working-class area surrounding Allentown is Barkley’s Smallville.

It was here, after all, where the future Penn State star and his family alit following a desperate journey from an alien landscape, where he found stability first and then himself, where he discovered and honed powers far beyond those of mortal men.

Bullet-fast now, locomotive-strong, able to leap tall defenders, Barkley has become a superman in the football metropolis of State College, Pa. The Big Ten’s offensive player of the year in 2016, he has powered the Nittany Lions, who will host Michigan on Saturday, to a No. 2 ranking and in the process made himself this season’s leading Heisman Trophy candidate.

But how he climbed to college football’s summit isn’t a familiar story about a can’t-miss prodigy. Instead, it’s about how astonishing talent was forged by hard work and a determination as unyielding as the concrete made from the cement that was once this area’s leading export.

“I’ve talked to coaches who have these five-star kids, kids who you know from freshman year are going to be in the NFL,” said Gilbert. “It wasn’t like that with Saquon.  No one expected him to be the elite back he is today when he was growing up.

“At first, there were better athletes on the team, guys with better, more-developed skills. He had to do things the hard way. You could see the physical tools and the desire were there. He just didn’t have confidence in his ability yet.”

That in the course of a few years Barkley made himself into a human highlight reel with few discernible weaknesses surprises many who have known him since the 4-year-old and his family left their dangerous Bronx neighborhood and settled in the Lehigh Valley.

“Nobody had any thoughts he’d be this special. If you’d asked me three years ago, I’d have said by his third Penn State year he’ll really be a contributor. Well, he’s contributed a lot sooner than that,” said Whitehall athletic director Bob Hartman.

“You knew he was going to be successful at Penn State,” said teammate Jake Buskirk, now playing at Lehigh. “But not this successful. This is crazy.”

Camera icon RICH SCHULTZ / For the Inquirer
Brian Gilbert, head football coach at Whitehall High School, directs his team during a practice.

Pointed toward sports

In 2001, concerned about the violence and drugs she witnessed daily in the Bronx, Barkley’s mother, Tonya Johnson, moved her family to Bethlehem, Pa.,where she had a sister.

She told her husband, Alibay Barkley, a former boxer who had used drugs and served a prison stretch on a weapons charge, that he was welcome to accompany them, but that either way she was leaving.

“He  wasn’t doing real great, but he decided to come,” Johnson said of Alibay. “I think the move was good for us all. My husband got away from some things and the kids could go outside and play and not worry about shootings and things like that.”

Barkley’s parents worked numerous jobs, and as they moved to Allentown and finally to nearby Copley, they pointed their six children toward sports.

“They’re not a big football family, but they’re great parents as far as discipline goes,” said Gilbert, Whitehall’s head coach since 2012. “They’re hard-working, always making sure their kids do things the right way.”

Lehigh County has a history of successful wrestlers and football players — Penn State all-American Matt Millen is also a Whitehall alumnus. And young Saquon was drawn to both sports.

His first formal taste of football came in the Hokendauqua Youth League, Whitehall High’s feeder program.

“One of my sons was playing so I’d see Saquon a lot,” Gilbert recalled.  “He was a nice kid, always came up and said hello. But there were players who were better than him. You never said, ‘Hey, here’s a kid who’s going to be a Heisman Trophy candidate.’ ”

Barkley had more success on the wrestling mat, where in elementary school and junior high he competed and prospered in the middle weights. Tim Cunningham, now Whitehall’s wrestling coach, said the youngster could have been a district or state champion.

“His second year in our youth league, he won the VEWL [Valley Elementary Youth League] title, which is like all of District 11, the top wrestling district in the country,” said Cunningham. “That hardly ever happens. He’s probably one of maybe 10 kids to have done that in the history of the VEWL.

“He never relied just on his natural talent. He worked hard. If he lost a match, and he lost several, he learned from it and wound up beating those kids in the end-of-the-year tournaments. He could have been a Division I wrestler.”

Friends remember Barkley as a “fun-loving,” “optimistic” youngster —  “a class clown” was how Gilbert described him. He’d compete in anything but hated losing.

“He never wanted to get beat,” said teammate Conor Sullivan. “He’d go all night in the dark just to get even.”

Barkley and his friends gathered on weekends at teammate Dalton Burrows’ house. They’d often migrate to the nearby Giant supermarket parking lot for improvised games under the lights, or for basketball at Stiles Playground. When they got hungry, which was almost always, they’d head for Palace Pizza.

Camera icon Rich Schultz / For the Inquirer
The football stadium at Whitehall.

‘Freak’ in the weight room

Sophomore year at Whitehall, Barkley saw time with the varsity, but the 160-pound linebacker-running back lacked confidence and bulk.

“He always had that drive,” said Gilbert. “He listened and wanted to do things the right way. He just needed confidence and that was frustrating for us because we were like, ‘You could be so good.’

“Between sophomore and junior years was where things really clicked. Working in the weight room, he began to realize, `Wow, I’m pretty strong compared to these other kids.’ And he was able to transfer that confidence unto the field.”

Gilbert said it was in his junior season that Barkley displayed glimpses of the player he would become.

“I’ll never forget this one play where everyone had him boxed in,” said Gilbert. “All of a sudden you saw the whole pile start moving forward. That’s how strong he was.”

He built that strength, friends said, through an almost obsessive devotion to the weight room.

“He was a freak in there,” said Buskirk.

Camera icon CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Saquon Barkley catching a pass one-handed during warm-ups before the Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin last season in Indianapolis.

Barkley added 30 pounds before his junior season and sometimes had to be dragged away from the equipment.

“When we were done in the weight room,” Gilbert recalled, “he’d do all these Saquon-type things. He’d stay to work extra. On days we were off, he’d call and say, `Coach, can you open up the weight room?’ He’d talk the other kids into going in on Saturdays, Sundays.”

Barkley has grown so strong that during workouts at Penn State this summer, his lifts topped every other running back’s in all eight categories. A video of him power-clean lifting 400 pounds got thousands of hits on the Internet. He once bench-pressed 225 pounds 30 times in succession.

“Saquon’s been doing freakish acts of strength … since he arrived on campus,” Penn State coach James Franklin said earlier this year.  Gilbert said PSU officials have told him that Barkley is one of the strongest players ever to go through that program.

‘Man among boys’

According to Gilbert, whenever he’d point out a deficiency, Barkley wanted to not only correct it but master it.

“That says a lot about him,” he said. “Most kids will just gravitate to what they’re good at and push aside what their deficiencies are. He’s the other way.”

Running on calves that, Buskirk said, “were thicker around than my thighs,” Barkley led Whitehall to a 10-2 record and a league title that junior year. By his senior season, Gilbert said, he was 6-foot-2, 215 pounds and “just a man among boys.”

Barkley ran track and played basketball at Whitehall. A so-so shooter but a dogged rebounder, defender, and shot-blocker, as a senior he contributed mightily to a team that lost in District 11’s championship game.

“He was more a glue guy than a star,” said Hartman. “He couldn’t shoot free throws to save his life.”

Oddly, it was on the track, where Barkley ran sprints and relays, that another aspect of his legend emerged.

During a combined league meet in 2015, Saucon Valley’s Rachel Panek won the 100-meter hurdles. But a timing malfunction necessitated a re-race and in that event, Panek stumbled over a hurdle and finished eighth.

Barkley saw what happened and after winning the 100 meters, he searched out Panek and gave her his gold medal.

“I love winning races and receiving medals,” he said at the time. “But I felt she deserved it too. Everyone saw that she won her race.”

Perseverance

It  wasn’t a straight line to the top. Barkley once got disciplined for missing a practice so he could go to New York for a haircut. And there were times in his freshman and sophomore seasons when, discouraged, he thought about quitting football.

“He was frustrated, maybe looking to pack it in,” said Gilbert. “But his perseverance won through.”

His father, a nephew of Iran Barkley, the Bronx fighter who won world titles in three weight classes in the 1980s, helped to dissuade him, remembering ruefully that he’d abandoned his own boxing career prematurely.

“I gave up when I was 21,” Alibay Barkley told the Allentown Morning Call. “That’s why I tell my kids, don’t quit. If you quit this it will be easy to quit jobs, quit relationships, quit your kids.”

In the end, Gilbert said, the truest measure of Barkley might have come on the first recruiting visit PSU’s Franklin made to Whitehall.

“He  stopped custodians, cafeteria workers, guidance counselors,” Gilbert remembered of Franklin. “He’d say, ` Do you know who Saquon Barkley is?’ And they’d all say, `Oh my gosh, yes, he’s such a nice boy.’

“Coach told me that you can learn a lot about the type of person you’re recruiting by asking those kinds of people.”