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For Giants, the expectations of Saquon Barkley rise to role model

Giants running back Saquon Barkley poses for photos

Giants running back Saquon Barkley poses for photos during a news conference, Saturday, April 28, 2018, in East Rutherford, N.J. Credit: AP / Julie Jacobson

Pat Shurmur welcomed Saquon Barkley to the team the same way he intends to do so for all of the rookies selected in the draft and signed as free agents in the coming days and weeks.

“I gave him that ‘here’s your locker, here’s your helmet, here’s the field’ speech,” Shurmur said of laying out the basics. “He’s going to get indoctrinated like any rookie and we’re going to treat him like any rookie coming to our organization.”

That may be the case on the field and in the locker room, and the Giants certainly will try their hardest to treat Barkley like everyone else. But in the broader scope of the Saquon Selection, they acquired more than just a running back they hope can help them win games.

They acquired a brand. A potential face of the team. A possible future face of the NFL. Someone they hope will not only restore the best winning traditions of the organization but carry a much larger, perhaps much more important burden.

“He’s a role model,” Giants co-owner Steve Tisch said. “I think he’s going to be a role model for his generation.”

Whoa. Let that resonate a moment.

“It’s a lot of responsibility to ask a 21-year-old to be a role model, and I’m not suggesting he needs to take that responsibility,” Tisch continued. “But I think because of who he is and the team he’s playing for, he’s going to probably accept that responsibility and I think he’s going to be extremely impressive.”

That’s why Saturday’s introductory news conference felt more like a coronation. The only thing it lacked was the chiming of bells and co-owner John Mara placing the helmet on Barkley’s head. (Mara, by the way, chose to hover in the background and declined to come forward for photos, perhaps wary of things getting too big too quickly.)

Tisch had no such qualms, sitting front and center for Barkley’s event.

“If you listened to him this morning he seems so balanced and focused, mature,” Tisch gushed. “His priorities seem very, very in place, very appropriate. Very respectful. Makes references to his parents and his family . . . That’s a young guy who has grown up in a very functional environment and I think it’s going to translate to the Giants, especially in the locker room. Even as a 21-year-old rookie, his influence in the locker room is going to be very impressive.”

Everyone expects it to be. Including Barkley.

“That’s something that I feel like in college my freshman year I didn’t do,” Barkley said. “I didn’t step up to the challenge. I didn’t speak enough. I kind of sat back and let the [Christian Hackenbergs] and the [Anthony Zettels] of the world speak. I didn’t take that approach when at that time, looking back on it, I definitely could have helped.”

It’s not a mistake he intends to make again.

As for being the face of the fill-in-the-blank, Barkley said he’s not focusing on that.

“I know that’s been said about me and that’s been said about me in college at Penn State,” he said. “I really never view myself as that . . . The way that I kind of handle that is just continue to stay focused on the sport and continue to stay focused on football and focus on my family and the things that get you there. The face of the franchise? When you have success, that tag comes along [with it]. That’s kind of how I view it . . . That’s not something that I’m really looking forward to being. But if that happens, God willing, I have a lot of success and that comes with the territory, then so be it.”

That said, Barkley couldn’t help but notice during his brief time in the Giants’ facility how they treat their heroes. How you can’t walk down a hallway without seeing a picture of an all-time great. How the locker room is literally ringed with the names of some Hall of Famers. How the trophies and rings and game balls sit in cases throughout the building.

And he couldn’t help imagining his place among them one day.

“You want to be great and, obviously, it’s not going to happen in one day,” Barkley said. “You’ve got to work for it and it’s going to take a long road and you’ve got to take it step by step.”

Saturday was one of the earliest of those steps, and one Barkley strided with ease.

The Giants already have two players of such stardom that they are on a first-name basis with the public: Eli and Odell. Now they have a Saquon. The two others were first-round picks like Barkley, but neither came into the NFL with this kind of trumpeting. Manning was more Peyton’s little brother and Beckham’s celebrity didn’t take off until his one-handed catch.

Barkley is different.

“He’s coming here a known, not an unknown,” Tisch said.

Nor has a running back often been one of the league’s most prominent figures. Certainly its’ been a while since a Giants running back has been. Maybe not since Frank Gifford was playing in the 1950s has one captured the type of cultural status that goes beyond football fans which Barkley may be on the verge of.

Tisch, who is also an Oscar-winning movie producer, knows stars. And he thinks Barkley “absolutely” has the makings of one.

“He’s charismatic, unbelievably gifted as an athlete,” Tisch said. “I think he really knows himself. His poise is very impressive. I think the value he’s going to bring to the Giants on the field and in the locker room is fantastic.”

He compared Barkley to actor Donald Glover.

“Glover has the world in front of him and Saquon has the sports world in front of him,” Tisch said.

Standing behind the podium on Saturday, looking out at the cameras from his new platform, Barkley could see all of it. The fame, the influence, the impact. And he knows, too, that none of it will be attainable if he doesn’t produce. That’s why, he said, his first priority is football. As Shurmur would say: His locker, his helmet, the field.

“The goal and the dream is to win championships and be a dominant player,” Barkley said. “I feel like I want to get to the point where I’m a dominant player in the league and I have that presence . . . Having that impact in the game is what I look forward to and that’s why I think I was brought here, in my opinion.”

Well, that’s certainly part of it.

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