As spring drills begin on USC's campus this week, Matt Barkley knows he isn't the same quarterback or person that he was two years ago when he arrived at the school.
Back then he was quieter, cautious, just wanting desperately to fit in with the players on the team, who made sure he knew his place in the grand scheme of things.
"Taylor Mays, Will Harris were smack-talking me all the time," Barkley said, laughing at the memory. "Now it's my turn."
It is difficult to believe Barkley is an upperclassman now, with two seasons under his belt and a huge decision to make at the end of the next one (jump to the NFL or stay and play another season at USC). It's a question he isn't looking forward to having to field from reporters all season, and one for which he hopes an answer will become clear before it becomes torturous. But for now, he's talking smack to the new kids on the team and looking forward to putting into place what he's learned the past two years.
Becoming a leader, and becoming comfortable in that role, is something that took time, Barkley said. It's what college is all about, for any student, but the learning curve can be much more difficult if you're the golden-haired quarterback of Los Angeles' most prominent football program. Beyond being a student, Barkley has had to learn what it means to be a high-profile personality in a city filled with them.
Some of the lessons have been painful. Several weeks ago, Barkley responded to a Twitter feed from Yahoo news, which read: "Gov't says it won't defend constitutionality of law that bans recognition of same-sex marriage" by adding the letters "SMH" (Twitter-speak for "shaking my head"). A devout Christian, Barkley said he had no problem saying he does not support same-sex marriage, but he was naively surprised when critical responses from Twitter followers came fast and furious: "S-M-H? really? Ur a homophobe?"; "Lane_Kiffin r u awae that ur QB is tweeting homophobia today?" Barkley responded by tweeting: "look bro. I'm not discriminating and I'm not a homophobe. I'm standing up for what I believe. Cool down." A USC spokesman said the school thought he handled the situation appropriately, while acknowledging that it was a sensitive subject and saying Barkley was reminded of the school's guidelines with regards to social media in this instance. "It's something that I don't regret posting," Barkley said. "But in the future I probably just won't do it again, just because I don't need that controversy."
It was one of the many unexpected lessons Barkley said he's learned since he arrived on campus from Mater Dei High School in 2009. He was surprised to be given the starting nod that fall (even though he thought he should be the starter, he wasn't sure former coach Pete Carroll would think that way ) and then had to endure Carroll's departure, the arrival of Lane Kiffin, and NCAA sanctions against USC's football program. He said he struggled to keep his teammates calm and focused through a five-loss season in 2010. "Last year was one I'll never forget," Barkley said. "One that definitely made me stronger in a lot of ways, things that I never imagined I'd have to go through."
Barkley learned a great deal more, he says, from spending the Christmas holidays with his family, helping build soccer fields and teaching children at an orphanage in Nigeria. The Barkleys had spent the 2008 Christmas season doing charity work in South Africa, but never thought they'd have the chance for all of them to go again until years from now, figuring Matt would be preparing for a bowl game. But the sanctions meant there would be no bowl game, so the Barkleys mobilized -- gathering Matt and his brother, Sam (who just recently committed to run track for USC), his sister, Lainy, and Matt's girlfriend, Brittany Langdon, who plays soccer at Seattle Pacific -- and headed to Nigeria. For two weeks, they worked, building facilities and playing soccer and football and bringing joy to a group of children they say they'll never forget.
"Especially the boys," Barkley said. "They were driving my mom and the girls crazy, so we took them outside with us. We taught them how to dig, cement posts, put huge pipes in the ground. It gave them a sense of ownership, to be part of something they'd have forever. That they were thankful for every little thing really stood out to me."
It was just the respite, and perspective, that Barkley said he needed.
"The first couple of weeks I got back, I didn't want to talk to anyone, do anything with technology," he said. "It was so pure being there with no one trying to get into contact and no cell phone."
This time, heading into spring practice, he said he feels the difference in his body (after two years of training college-style) and in his mind. "I feel a lot more comfortable commanding the guys and just the offense without having to look at a script or read off [a wrist sheet]," he said. "I have gotten really comfortable with the offense."
Barkley still must deal with two major issues on the horizon, though: A decision on USC's appeal of the NCAA sanctions, and whether he'll stick around for another year after this one, or declare for the NFL draft.
As to the first question, he sounds philosophical, wise, like a man whose experience has made him ready, come what may. "If we lose the appeal, it's not going to make a difference how we prepare," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "Just like last year, we're going to try to win as many games as possible, and if that's 13 or 14, that's what we're going to go for. But given the past NCAA decision, hopefully they'll be a little giving."
As to the second question, he sounds like a young man hoping to be guided by his faith. "It's out of my hands, really," he said. "I didn't expect the Nigeria trip to come up at this time last year, and it was clear that it was a gift. I'm just hoping something presents itself as clearly at the end of this season. Until then, I'm going to work as hard as I can and know that God is in control."
Whatever happens, Barkley says he will always hold close to his heart something he heard from a wise old man recently. When Louis Zamperini, the 94-year-old former USC athlete and World War II prisoner of war, visited a class on USC's campus several weeks ago, Barkley dropped in to hear his lecture and took away words to live by. Switching into Zamperini's raspy voice the other day, Barkley recited them like a mantra for the coming season and its challenges: "Stress and anxiety. When they knock on my door, I don't let them in."