Several Whitehall students — wearing Penn State football T-shirts — scuttle through the high school’s main lobby and past a security guard with a sign-in sheet and a pack of Extra gum on his plastic pop-up table.
“Nope, not today,” the bearded guard tells students asking for a stick of gum. “I’m all out.”
As disappointed faces walked by earlier this week, Saquon Barkley — Whitehall’s favorite son — was waiting around corner. Just like always.
Beneath a maroon “Zephyr Pride” banner, behind the security desk, a full-page newspaper illustration of Barkley is one of the first things people see when they walk into Whitehall High School — and it’s certainly not the only reminder of the local legend. Three years after his high school graduation, and Barkley’s presence is still felt both figuratively and literally.
To the college football world, Saquon Barkley is a human highlight reel, Heisman Trophy candidate and once-in-a-generation talent.
To the teachers, coaches and counselors at Whitehall, he’s all those things and more.
He was a 10th-grader who could use puppy dog eyes and a smile to get out of anything. He was a 16-year-old, far from invincible and susceptible to stressing over major life decisions.
He’s now a representative of Whitehall who, despite fame, hasn’t forgotten where he came from or who helped him get to where he’s at.
In the spring of 2014, Barkley and Penn State assistant coach Sean Spencer joined Whitehall guidance counselor Linda Macgill in her cozy, carpeted office to catch up. At the tail-end of Barkley’s junior year, the trio discussed the running back’s grades and anticipated what he’d do class-wise his senior year.
In that conversation, Spencer brought up his favorite poem: “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley.
So when Spencer left, Macgill pulled the poem up online and printed a copy. “We went through it line by line,” she said, sitting in the same chair from three years ago. “We just talked about this poem and what it meant.”
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In those 15 minutes, poring over every word, Macgill realized that Barkley had high aspirations for himself. He had goals — all he needed was a little push.
“Early on I asked him, ‘Do you think you’re good? You can tell me anything. You’re not going to be a hot dog around me. Do you think you have some skill?’” Macgill said, before chuckling to herself. “He said, ‘Miss, I think I do.’ I’m laughing when I think back on that. Now he’s leaping over people.”
Whitehall’s guidance counselor first met the future All-American when he started ninth grade. It’s standard for Macgill to conduct a brief interview with every incoming student, and Barkley was no different.
Macgill always stresses the maybe-not-so-obvious to 14-year-olds: Everything counts, and it’s all going to be on a transcript. With athletes specifically, the East Stroudsburg graduate — who maintains she was there well before James Franklin made his mark — emphasizes the importance of NCAA’s GPA requirements.
“I think that was a far-away thought for him,” Macgill of Barkley. That became clear in the following years. Barkley was “inconsistent academically” as a freshman and sophomore at Whitehall — “he would admit to it,” Macgill added.
That approach changed, though, entering his junior year. Around the time he started talking to Rutgers, Barkley buckled down.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Adjacent to randomly stacked cardboard boxes, underneath a bevy of athletic department plaques and programs, rested a black leather couch that had been broken-in some time ago.
“Right there,” Whitehall athletic director Bob Hartman said, leaning back in his office chair and nodding his head. “That’s where he’d sit.”
Barkley spent hours on that couch talking to Hartman about the toughest decision he ever had to make.
It’s no secret that Barkley was previously committed to Rutgers. He had “maybe 20 carries,” per Hartman, as a sophomore, went to a 7-on-7 camp in New Jersey and Scarlet Knights coach Kyle Flood loved what he saw. He was really the only the D-I coach who knew about Barkley.
“Rutgers wanted to keep that to themselves the most they could,” Whitehall head coach Brian Gilbert said. But that didn’t last very long.
A month after Barkley committed to Rutgers, he visited Penn State for its four-overtime White Out win against Michigan — a night that changed Barkley’s life.
“I remember when he came back from the Michigan game and sat there,” Hartman said, pointing to the cushy two-seater. “He’s like, ‘I don’t know what to do. Like, I don’t know what to do.’” Hartman put his hands on his temple and shook his head incessantly, emulating Barkley’s distress on the Monday morning after.
“He sat there panicked,” the athletic director added.
Three days after Barkley’s meeting in Hartman’s office, he was called back down to speak with a college coach. This time, the junior and Hartman switched spots — Barkley sat at the AD’s cluttered, calendar-covered desk, while Hartman planted himself in what ought to be called the “decision couch.”
Barkley picked up Hartman’s phone and heard Bill O’Brien’s voice. Penn State offered him a scholarship.
Now, Barkley didn’t commit on the spot; he said all the right things, telling O’Brien he was still loyal to Rutgers. But four months later, Barkley decommitted from Rutgers and picked Penn State.
“That was difficult for him,” the guidance counselor said, wearing the same concerned look she had years ago. “He was worried about letting down Rutgers. Those were the first people to show belief in him. That bothered him. ... That’s part of his persona. He doesn’t like letting people down or disappointing them.”
Added Hartman: “High school kids are high schools kids. I don’t care what he’s become now, it’s not what he was from a maturity standpoint. But he had the, ‘Wow,’ glimmer in his eye. ... The flip side of this is, if Michigan goes there and wins by 42 points, who knows what happens?”
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
After tallying 226 all-purpose yards against Akron two weeks ago, trying to sneak out of Gate B of Beaver Stadium unsuccessfully and making his way up North Atherton, Barkley walked up to his table of 14 at Champs Sports Grill out of breath.
“I’m like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’” Whitehall assistant principal Alicia Knauff said. “He’s like, ‘You’re not going to believe what happened. Some guy literally followed me into the bathroom and waited behind me until I was done to ask for my autograph.’”
Normally, Barkley will have Knauff and her two youngest daughters by his side when fans want pictures or signatures. “You’re on your own there,” Knauff said with a laugh.
Barkley’s “mom at school” was at a loss for words describing the former Zephyr’s skyrocketing stardom. She knew him when he was “a goofy, immature ninth-grader doing ninth-grade boy things.” Now he’s the best running back in college football, pushing to bring the Heisman Trophy back to State College after a 44-year absence.
Still, even with the hype and Heisman in-play, Barkley’s familial bond with Knauff and her daughters remains strong as ever. “It’s been a whirlwind,” the assistant principal said, sitting at her desk with a photo of Barkley alongside Jade, 8, and Amaya, 12, hanging overhead. “To see him keep his composure, he’s grown in so many ways.”
Knauff knew Barkley dating back to middle school. Her eldest daughter graduated at Whitehall with the star tailback, and the Knauffs have been his biggest supporter ever since.
Alicia, Amaya and Jade even went out to the Rose Bowl last year. “I told them, ‘Girls, he’s preparing for the Rose Bowl. Don’t be disappointed if we don’t hang out with him. We’ll see him I’m sure, but don’t be disappointed.’ They’re like, ‘He’ll hang out with us,’” Knauff said.
Sure enough, before Barkley dominated with 194 rushing yards and three touchdowns in Pasadena, he spent New Year’s Eve with the family.
Barkley and teammates Jason Cabinda and Jarvis Miller went and watched Amaya and Jade ice skate at L.A. Live. The kids wanted their “brother,” Cabinda and Miller to join them on the ice, but Alicia nixed that real quick.
Afterward, the group went back to the team hotel where a DJ energized those hanging out in the lobby. Barkley carried Jade on his back the whole time, while Amaya was offering to sign autographs when the tailback was approached. “They think they’re royalty,” Knauff said, smiling. “He just rolls with it.”
That’s the way he’s always been — and not just with Knauff’s kids, either.
Justin Kondikoff, an assistant football coach for the Zephyrs, said whenever he sees Barkley, the first thing out of the star’s mouth is asking how his 7-year-old daughter, Brynlee, is doing. Kondikoff assures Barkley that she “goes nuts” whenever he scores and loves the post-touchdown jump celebration with tight end Mike Gesicki.
Meanwhile, Whitehall wrestling coach Tim Cunningham — who’s known the Nittany Lion since he was a fourth-grader — looks forward to having him over the house whenever he’s in town. Barkley graduated Whitehall with his daughter, Kayla, and is even friends with Cunningham’s son, who’s in eighth grade.
“He’ll make sure he Snapchats my son in the morning just to keep that streak alive,” Cunningham said, leaning forward in his chair. “Imagine how many people he has to do that to because he doesn’t want to upset anybody. But he’ll make sure he does it. It’s a long streak and my son will brag about it.
“He’s someone you want your own son to be like.”
It matters not how strait the game,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul
From pennants to an unopened box of baseballs, of everything that fills the tiered shelf in Hartman’s office, one item stands out: an official NFL-sized Wilson football old enough to have Paul Tagliabue represented as the league’s commissioner.
The ball, surrounded by a glass case, has the signatures of three Whitehall graduates on it: Matt Millen, Dan Koppen and Les Steckel. The first two played in the league for a combined 22 seasons and have six Super Bowl titles between them. Steckel spent two decades coaching in the NFL.
Barkley visited his alma mater after the Rose Bowl, hung out in Hartman’s office like he had just a few years ago and eyed up the football. “You can’t sign that yet,” Hartman remembers saying. “You’ve got to wait.” Soon enough, though, Barkley will be back in Hartman’s office with a black Sharpie ready to add a fourth name.
The reality that was possible set in for Hartman on Oct. 17, 2014, against Nazareth. In the first quarter. The senior was doing “some Saquon-y things” while Spencer and James Franklin — who helicoptered in — watched from the sidelines. Gilbert compared it to him running against the Zephyrs’ midget program.
After Barkley embarrassed a Nazareth cornerback, Hartman approached Franklin: “All right, he’s going to Penn State. You don’t have to blow any smoke. You’re not recruiting me. How good is this kid?’ He said to me that night on the sidelines of Nazareth, ‘Bob, based on his first five weeks of highlights, he’s as good as anybody in the country.’ I was like, ‘All right, that’s not BS.’”
“That night it was like, OK,” Hartman said with a deep breath, “he has a chance to play on Sundays.”
The idea of Barkley making millions in the NFL is no longer a foreign concept to those at Whitehall. Macgill had no clue he’d be this good, but she’s confident — along with Knauff, Cunningham, Kondikoff and Gilbert — that he’ll be just fine whenever he does make the leap to the league.
If anything, the only problem Barkley might have is being too nice. “He doesn’t like to tell people no,” Knauff said. “He doesn’t like to let people down. Will he be able to find that balance of taking care of himself while not feeling like he’s letting other people down? That’s the part he’s still trying to figure out.”
The Heisman candidate has some time before the NFL comes calling. While scouts and coaches can do nothing but salivate over the once-in-a-generation talent, Barkley’s focus hasn’t changed: He’s committed to the people that helped him get to where he’s at.
To the students wearing Penn State football shirts, walking back from lunch past that newspaper clipping, Barkley is a hero.
But to those he leaned on at Whitehall, Barkley is and always will be a part of their family.