Rachel Panek, a high school junior, collapsed on her couch last Saturday after a shift at the local bagel shop. It was then she flipped on her television to watch Penn State -- or, more specifically, running back Saquon Barkley.
Four months ago, Panek didn’t know much about Barkley or the Nittany Lions. She didn’t know the true college freshman would rush for 311 yards in his first three games, or average 9.1 yards a carry. She didn’t know he’d draw comparisons to Penn State great Curt Warner. She didn’t even know he was a football recruit.
She just knew him as the kind stranger who made her cry in May, when he gave up his gold track medal after she lost hers on a technicality. She still keeps Barkley’s medal hung on her wall, between track stickers and other trophies. And she said she can’t help but smile whenever it catches her glance.
"It just makes me happy when I see it," said the Saucon Valley (Pa.) High School student. "It’s just the fact that even though he got first place, he sees it as someone else having a bad day, and he has the courage to go up to someone he doesn’t know and make it from a bad day into a good day."
Penn State coaches and players often point to Barkley’s mentality -- and humility -- as a source for his immediate success. Running backs coach Charles Huff knew he was special after he jogged back after a long run in practice, as teammates clapped from the sideline, and told Huff: "Coach, my shoulders weren’t squared the whole time. Were they?" Wideout Chris Godwin said it took him about a week and a half, maybe two weeks, to realize Barkley was "pretty special."
Even quarterback Christian Hackenberg didn’t need much time. Barkley seemed to pester him daily about sitting down together and watching film.
"I’ve said it over and over again," Hackenberg said. "I thought that kid was very special -- and I think moreso off the field than on the field. He’s been a huge asset to our team."
But, at some point, everyone comes back to Barkley’s selfless act at that championship track meet. That action, they say, is Barkley in a nutshell. It shows his ability -- finishing first in the 100-meter race -- and his empathy, giving away his first-ever Eastern Pennsylvania Conference medal.
Panek certainly can’t forget. On a cool afternoon, in early May, Panek volunteered to hold Barkley’s blocks during the 100-meter race since she was in the area. ("He said his blocks really go back," she said. "He’s a powerful runner.") They never met before, and she didn’t think much of it. Barkley won.
Later, Panek took first place in the 100-meter hurdles -- or, at least she would have, if the electric timer didn’t fail. The runners were forced to re-do the event about 40 minutes later, after Panek took part in several other events. She then finished last.
She trekked back to her tent, sobbing and choking back tears. She was inconsolable, even as she tried to finish homework at the meet. That was the end of her season. But, unbeknownst to her, Barkley was zig-zagging through track tents, asking if anybody had seen Panek. Eventually, he found her.
"He was like, 'You held my blocks for me, you deserve this medal. This shouldn’t happen to you,'" Panek remembered. "It made me cry again. I just never expected that because I didn’t even know him."
Added Penn State coach James Franklin: "I think that story about him giving the medal kind of shows the type of heart he has, type of family, type of person he is. I’m proud of him. I really am proud of him."
Those close to Barkley say he’s been the same kid since Day 1. His friend, current Whitehall quarterback Gianni Sinatore, said it would have surprised him if another athlete gave up his gold medal. But not Barkley. He was the kid who always persevered and never blamed anyone else. When his high school team trailed 28-0 in Week 2 last season, Barkley spoke up at halftime and said the game was in their hands. They won, 42-41, as Barkley racked up 98 rushing yards in the second half.
Everyone, it seems, has a Barkley story. Penn State safety Marcus Allen said he’s been wowed by Barkley’s attitude and his penchant to make defenders miss. (He had 10 broken tackles against Rutgers.) Barkley’s high school coach, assistant Justin Kondikoff, remembers his Barry Sanders-esque jump-cuts and the time the 5-foot-11 running back out-jumped everyone on a 45-yard Hail Mary. He also remembers how Barkley would thank every kid who approached him for an autograph. (And how he still thanks everyone, on Twitter, for their kind words.)
But no one will forget about the time Barkley gave up his gold medal, least of all Panek. She sheepishly admitted she’s more of an SEC fan -- but she’ll always be a fan of Barkley.
"It’s kind of crazy," she said, about watching Barkley on national TV. "He’s a good person, and you know he’s going to go far in life. It’s just amazing to see him run and succeed. I’m proud."