Saquon Barkley is home.
Officially, everything about him screams Pennsylvania. He lists his hometown as Coplay, Pennsylvania, and he graduated from Whitehall High School before attending Penn State. He was an all-state football player at Whitehall.
But before he was the Keystone State’s pride and joy, he was a New Yorker, born and, for a good part of his childhood, raised in the Bronx.
And now he is back. The top running back in the 2018 NFL Draft class was selected by the Giants with the second overall pick Thursday night, giving the Giants someone who many believe is one of the most dynamic running backs to enter the league in years.
“This is the place I was born. I was born in New York. I was born in the Bronx,” Barkley said Thursday night. “And I’m not far from home [in Pennsylvania] anyway, only about an hour and 45 minutes away from Lehigh Valley. I’m just happy I’m able to stay close and able to play for such a prestigious franchise.”
Barkley has told the stories of being a young child, sitting with his father Alibay watching Jets games, and hoping that one day he could be like running back Curtis Martin. Now, for the foreseeable future, he will be clad in blue instead of green.
“I think he’s the best running back to come up through the draft since Adrian Peterson,” Gil Brandt, a longtime NFL executive who is now an analyst for Sirius XM’s NFL Radio, said last week. “I believe that Barkley has the speed and quickness and catching ability. I think he’s a special player . . . I think Barkley is going to be a future star in this league.”
Had Barkley remained in the Bronx, he may have wound up drawn into the family business. Boxing, it turns out, was his birthright.
Iran Barkley, his uncle, won titles in three pro divisions. Barkley’s father was an amateur whose career ended early because of a shoulder injury. Sure, they watched football and rooted for the Jets, but when it came to participation, Barkley’s earliest introduction to sports was in a ring and not on a gridiron.
“I did box a little bit growing up,” Barkley said at the NFL Scouting Combine in March. “My dad did try to put me in boxing. I did Golden Gloves and go to gyms and train a little bit.”
After Saquon’s mother, Tonya Johnson, decided that the family should move from the Bronx to Pennsylvania, he gave up the sweet science in favor of other passions. In that part of Pennsylvania, there are few passions greater than football.
Barkley’s draft stock peaked as he rushed 217 times for 1,271 yards and 18 touchdowns at Penn State in 2017, declaring for the draft on New Year’s Eve. He also returned two kickoffs for scores and caught 54 passes for 632 yards with three touchdowns. In three seasons at Penn State, he ran for 3,843 yards and 43 touchdowns and had 1,195 receiving yards and eight scores.
He’s more than stats. There are the eye-popping plays, the stop-and-go cuts, the hurdling of opponents on the field, all of which make for a highlight film that could win an Academy Award. He’s also, according to those close to him, one of the most level-headed and good-natured players around, a natural leader who will help the Giants not only on the field but in the locker room. Ultimately, that may be his most striking similarity to Hall of Famer Curtis Martin.
Barkley said he didn’t have a preference when it came to the team that drafted him.
“When I went for the visit and went to meet all the coaches and the GM and everyone in the building, I felt like that was home. That was a place I wanted to be,” he said of the Giants. “Obviously in the draft you don’t decide where you get to go, but if I had to pick that’s the place I would pick. Walking into that facility and you see the four Super Bowl rings hanging in the trophy case, that shows you the mindset and the standard of that place. That’s a place you want to be a part of.”
He added: “You’re never going to forget that moment your name gets called and you walk up on that stage and pick up that jersey. That’s something everybody has dreamed about since they were a little kid.”
That he’s returning to New York in that jersey, however, makes it even more special.