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Monday, August 25, 2008
Barkley following in famous footsteps

By Ryan Canner-O'Mealy
ESPNRISE.com

Matt Barkley can't play basketball.

Matt Barkely
Matt Barkley is following in the footsteps of Heisman winners Matt Leinart and John Huarte.

Since the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Mater Dei senior quarterback is rated the nation's No. 1 football recruit in the ESPNU 150, that doesn't really matter. Barkley's lack of hoop skills is noteworthy mainly because it seems to be the only thing he can't do well.

He could be a great pitcher, soccer player or golfer if not devoted to football 24/7. He has a near-perfect GPA while taking advanced honors classes. He's involved in countless community service projects, can play the guitar, drives his brother and sister to school in the morning and even cleans his room on a regular basis. His one shortcoming, however, is on the hardwood.

"Matt's the kind of kid who's good at pretty much everything, but I can still take him one-on-one," says Robbie Boyer, a USC walk-on who is Barkley's cousin and a former favorite target at Mater Dei.

"Basketball is really not my thing," Barkley admits.

OK, so maybe he's not Terrelle Pryor, last year's prized football recruit who also happened to be a top-50 basketball player. But Barkley's range of skills is so impressive that he's a one-of-a-kind talent, even at a school like Mater Dei.

A trip to Mater Dei is like strolling through football history. Pictures and jerseys of past Monarchs legends like John Huarte (Heisman Trophy winner, 1964), Matt Leinart (Heisman Trophy winner, 2004) and Colt Brennan (Heisman finalist, 2007) line the walls and training room. The school even has an area between its classrooms and athletic center with a street sign that reads "Heisman Lane" and lists the names and graduation years of Huarte and Leinart.

"Walking down the halls, you see pictures of NFL players and college All-Americans and think, 'This is a place where great players are made,'" Barkley says.

This is the atmosphere Barkley found himself in the middle of as an incoming freshman. Transfers and graduation opened up the starting varsity job and longtime coach Bruce Rollinson put Barkley in the mix. Still, Rollinson had never started a freshman at quarterback before -- not even Leinart or Brennan -- and he didn't expect to start with Barkley. But it was impossible to ignore the prodigy.

"In his first passing tournament, the first time the pressure is on, his first pass is a straight shot down the middle for a score," says Rollinson, now in his 20th year at the helm of the Monarchs. "A lot of kids couldn't have made that throw. My head popped up as soon as he let it fly and I was like, 'Oh boy, you shouldn't throw one down the chute on the first one.' But he places the ball perfectly and I went, 'Well, that's a pretty good start.'"

It only got better.

Barkley's first pass in a real game also went for a score against rival Orange Lutheran. He got pulled from a game against Mission Viejo the next week but bounced back to have an incredible debut season.

"Some seniors were skeptical that a freshman was going to lead them in their final year, but he earned their respect," Boyer says. "I saw him turn into a leader that season."

In addition to natural talent and work ethic, Barkley's success came from the confidence he had as a 14-year-old playing in the shadow of legends.

Matt Barkely
Matt Barkley is the nation's top football player.

"Even when he was still in the eighth grade, he was ready to jump into it," says Barkley's father, Les. "There has never been a doubt in Matt's mind that he was ready."

Barkley has the accuracy and arm strength to make him an elite quarterback, but the thing that sets him apart is his off-the-charts football IQ, the result of countless hours of film study with Mater Dei offensive coordinator Dave Money.

"Matt has the ability to take a picture of the defense and know what he's seeing and know where the ball has to go," Rollinson says.

Barkley passed for 1,685 yards and 10 touchdowns as a freshman and then 1,349 yards and 11 scores as a sophomore, but it was during his junior year that it all came together.

Putting himself in the same class as all of Mater Dei's greats, Barkley threw for an Orange County-record 3,560 yards with 35 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. He also made the play of the year with a 97-yard touchdown pass as he was being dragged down in the end zone against archrival Servite. Barkley capped off the season by becoming the first non-senior to win Gatorade National Football Player of the Year honors, then was named 2007-08 Gatorade Male High School Athlete of the Year in July. And in between those two awards, he committed to USC in January, fulfilling what was almost literally a lifetime dream - the Barkleys have a home video of a 3-year-old Matt saying he wants to play quarterback for the Trojans.

For all of Barkley's gaudy junior-year numbers, the most impressive is $100,000. That's the amount of money the Mater Dei football team helped raise for families of wounded soldiers through Monarchs for Marines, a program that was the brainchild of the Barkley family. The project started with a 14-hour day at Camp Pendleton with players, coaches and parents refurbishing youth centers, building an outdoor volleyball court, and holding football and dance camps for the children of Marines.

Throughout the season, the Monarchs would have Marines at every game, culminating with the annual rivalry game against Servite. Mater Dei invited close to 1,000 Marines and families of military personnel to that one. At halftime, families came out on the field -- in front of 26,000 fans, no less -- and watched as messages from their loved ones, live from Iraq, appeared on the JumboTron.

Community service has always played a large role in Barkley's life, something he says stems from his strong Christian faith. And he's not the type of player who talks about God when the cameras are on but doesn't live the life. Barkley started his school's chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and spent last January's break at a Christian conference at the Staples Center while many of his classmates were skiing in Tahoe or sunbathing in Cabo.

With his résumé on and off the field, the only thing left for Barkley to attain is a CIF title. If he can help deliver that for the Monarchs this year, he'll have the one thing -- besides a jump shot -- he doesn't already own: a championship ring.

Ryan Canner-O'Mealy covers high school sports for ESPNRISE.com.