As Saquon Barkley jukes and darts ever closer to getting his hands on the Heisman Trophy, bits and pieces of what makes up the Penn State tailback have emerged.
Mother Tonya Johnson might have given her six children a fighting chance 16 years ago by moving them out of the Bronx in New York City to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and eventually to nearby Copley.
Uncle Iran Barkley held world boxing championships in three weight classes in the 1980s and ’90s. Father Alibay Barkley also boxed, but drugs and alcohol ruined any chance of success.
Saquon Barkley was a 160-pound weakling as a sophomore at Whitehall High School but put on 30 pounds during a calendar year. A YouTube video that went viral this summer showed Barkley lifting 400 pounds in the power clean.
We even know that this 5-foot-11, 215-pound mass of muscle and speed refused to give up a pacifier when he was 5 years old.
What has been known since Barkley put on a Penn State uniform is the size of that heart underneath the No. 26 jersey. He was disconsolate after running for 194 yards, including touchdowns of 24 and 79 yards, and totaling 316 all-purpose yards in a 52-49 loss to Southern California in the Rose Bowl.
“Don’t forget that feeling,” Barkley said of the loss. “When we saw confetti come out and USC storm the field … don’t forget that feeling you had in your stomach, that disgusting taste you had in your mouth.”
That’s what Ohio State (6-1) will be up against when Penn State (7-0) and Barkley play Saturday at Ohio Stadium.
Barkley, a junior, is a front-runner for the Heisman for having run for 757 yards, caught 32 passes for 448 yards and returned nine kickoffs for an average of 30.3 yards. He has scored 12 touchdowns.
“Saquon, he has just got so many tools,” Penn State coach James Franklin has said. “You are talking about a 230-pound guy who can make you miss, can run you over and can burst up the sideline. He’s a special guy in a lot of different ways.”
Barkley has put his signature on most of Penn State’s victories this season:
• The Lions defeated Iowa 21-19 on a 7-yard touchdown pass from Trace McSorley to Juwan Johnson as time expired, but Barkley ran for 211 yards and one touchdown on 28 carries and caught 12 passes for 94 yards.
• The following week, Barkley knocked Indiana on its chin in a 45-14 victory by returning the opening kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown. That led Hoosiers coach Tom Allen to say that “it takes more than one guy to get him on the ground, so you had better get a lot of hats to the ball because he’s just so powerful and quick.”
• The game that might wind up being his Heisman stamp of approval came Saturday: a 42-14 victory over Michigan. Barkley had a 69-yard touchdown run 43 seconds into the game and caught a 42-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, bobbling the ball before securing it on the dead run.
“Once he gets the ball, I don’t think he’s thinking about anything other than, ‘How far can I get with it?’” longtime Penn State radio play-by-play broadcaster Steve Jones said.
Before Penn State defeated Ohio State 24-21 last season, Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer called Barkley “their first-rounder tailback.” Barkley ran for 99 yards that night. In 2015, he ran for 194 yards, including a 56-yard gain, on 26 carries in a 38-10 loss in Columbus.
This week, Meyer said that Barkley might be the best running back he has game-planned for in his career.