Matt Barkley breaks the USC QB mold
LOS ANGELES -- So, Mr. Heisman Trophy Favorite, Mr. Team Leader Of The Preseason No. 1, Mr. Tweet The Photo Of You And Your Valentine Girlfriend how much walking-around money do you have in your pocket these days?
"Let me check," says USC quarterback Matt Barkley. "Not too much."
Barkley reaches into the back of his jeans, pulls out his wallet and begins unfolding rumpled dollar bills for the count.
"Forty bucks," he says. "No, 50 bucks 52. I just went to the ATM."
That's it? Fifty-two dollars for the guy who helped save Trojans football, who has stuck with USC through thin and thinner, who is so charitable that he makes Tim Tebow look like a slacker?
"I'm still waiting for him to do something wrong," says his coach, Lane Kiffin.
Refreshing, isn't it? Barkley doesn't have enough cash to buy his own No. 7 replica jersey in the campus bookstore, but he's the centerpiece of USC's renowned football program. He tools around campus on a beach cruiser bike, has dated his high school sweetheart since they were 16 (they've known each other since age 5) and he drinks a cold one about as often as Trojans fans send thank-you notes to the NCAA's committee on infractions. He's low maintenance.
"I'm perfectly content with my college life," says the guy who tore up his winning NFL lotto draft ticket to return to USC for his senior season. "I don't have to pay taxes."
Had Barkley left for the NFL -- and he was "100 percent" gone after throwing six touchdowns against UCLA in the regular-season finale -- he would have been a top-10 pick, maybe even as high as No. 2. Depending on the slotted rookie salary numbers, that means anywhere between a four-year, $12 million package ($7.2 million guaranteed) as the 10th pick and about $21 million ($13.7 million guaranteed) as the No. 2 selection.
But this isn't about money. If it were, Barkley would be an ex-Trojan right now. Instead, he's starting his first day of 2012 spring practice.
"Financially, it was an easy decision to go," says Barkley. "But sacrifices must be made."
Barkley will never get this NFL year back -- or the money that comes with it. It's gone. He chose USC and a senior year over the NFL and a rookie year.
This is a big deal. When Andrew Luck stiffed the pros to return to Stanford last season, he was celebrated and praised -- and deservedly so. Moms everywhere wanted to cook him a pot roast, trim his neck beard and have him marry their daughter.
But Barkley's decision is even more impressive. Luck didn't have his head coach leave after his freshman season. He didn't endure an NCAA-imposed two-year bowl ban and scholarship reductions. He didn't become the de facto program spokesperson when the university was without a president, an athletic director and a head coach.
"Everything around him, the structure was falling apart and changing to new people, and here he is right in the middle of these sanctions being handed down, in front of the cameras -- and he's been in college for one year," says Kiffin. "It's amazing what he's done and how he's handled himself."
If anybody has paid his USC dues, it's Barkley. He stayed when others would have transferred. He provided stability when there was none. Nobody would have blamed him had he left for the NFL after the Trojans finished out a 10-2 bowl-less season.
"I thought throughout the season he was gone," says Kiffin. "I think 95 percent of the kids would have left."
He was as good as gone. Agents were interviewed. Inquiries were made to NFL officials about his draft status. That mandatory weight-lifting session a week after the 50-0 win against UCLA? Pffft. No way was Barkley showing up for that.
But the gravitational pull of USC was stronger than he realized. He showed up for the lift session even though he told himself, "I don't want to do this another year."
Then he had his football epiphany. And it went something like this: He's a Barkley, SoCal born and raised, a third-generation Trojan -- and Barkleys finish what they start. Plus, he had gone through all the tough times at USC. So why not enjoy the possibilities of 2012: a national title run, a Heisman run, out-Lucking Luck.
"I've had tons of fun in college," says Barkley. "Coming back is not about just being a college kid and having fun and making sure I live the college experience," says Barkley. "It's much deeper than that. It has to do with football and this university and bringing us back. If it were just about fun, then I would have left because I've had a great time here already."
If it sounds like Barkley is the oldest 21-year-old in America, you might be right. He's just four finance course credits shy of a degree in communications with a minor in business. He's been on humanitarian missions to Nigeria, South Africa and Mexico.
And what kind of guy thinks to call USC president Max Nikias the night before the big announcement ceremony last December -- just because it's the right thing to do? Barkley does.
Barkley set a Pac-12 conference record with his 39 touchdown passes (and only seven interceptions), a school-record 69 percent completion mark and school single-game records for passing yardage, touchdowns, total offense and completions. He ranked ahead of Luck and 2011 Heisman winner Robert Griffin III in passing and ahead of Luck in yards per game, points responsible for, total passing yards and total offense.
"As you know, there was another quarterback who got a ton of attention last year because he changed plays at the line of scrimmage, calls them, all that stuff," says Kiffin, referring to Luck and perhaps to Stanford coach David Shaw's well-meaning Heisman campaign. "Matt does all of that. We just don't go talking about it every week. Matt changes plays all the time, he gets guys lined up, he does everything you need to do to be a great quarterback. He's already doing all those things."
And he'll do more. Kiffin says the scoring potential of USC's offense has grown exponentially from a year ago, when Barkley was surrounded at times by an inexperienced supporting cast.
A New England Patriots fan, Barkley says he was "heartbroken" by the most recent Super Bowl loss, a game he watched while on a plane and then while walking through the Washington Dulles International Airport terminal.
"A great game," he says of the New York Giants' victory against the Pats. "It made up for that terrible college football national championship. That was rough."
Barkley watched bits and pieces of Alabama's 21-0 woodshed victory against LSU with mixed feelings.
"[LSU] didn't have a plan," he says. "They were kind of I don't know. I kind of turned it off. I was kind of I was bored."
He wants what Bama has: a national title. And in his make-believe, non-bowl-ban world, it would have been USC, not LSU, in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome that night in January.
"At the rate we were playing at the end of the season -- this might not have anything behind it since we would have never known -- but I felt like the way we were playing, we could have beaten anyone, or at least given everyone a fair match," he says. "It would have been interesting to see how that played out, but "
Barkley didn't watch the Heisman ceremony, turned off the BCS Championship, didn't know when the NFL scouting combine was and won't be more than a casual observer of next month's NFL draft. USC is what matters to him this year.
He doesn't have any second doubts about his decision because he never had any first doubts. The millions? You can't miss what you've never had. The possibility of injury? Barkley doesn't dwell on things he can't control.
"I think you just have to play free, live free, not look back and make the most of your situation regardless of what people are saying what could have happened if you'd left," says Barkley. "Otherwise, you'll drive yourself nuts."
Later that afternoon, I circle back to Kiffin's office. Kiffin has stepped out, but Barkley is there, slouched in a worn leather chair, playing a college football video game on his coach's plasma TV. Barkley is USC, the computer is Cal and the game is at the Coliseum -- just like this coming Sept. 22, when the Bears visit Los Angeles.
He looks like a goofy college kid with $52 in his back pocket. Best of all, he looks happy. Can't put a salary figure on that.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.
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