Understand this much, because it’s important to accept and vital to realize: There isn’t anybody who has been around Penn State’s football program the last three years, even in passing, who doesn’t respect — to the utmost meaning of that word — what Saquon Barkley is all about.
On the field and off of it.
Because when you hear about him being as good a person — nay, a better one — than he is a football player, those people know first-hand it’s true. His guts, his intensity, his leadership, his skill, his productivity, his selflessness. They’re all unquestioned.
When he ultimately declares himself eligible for the 2018 NFL Draft at some point in the upcoming weeks, only the most selfish of Penn State fans will be lamenting the one year of eligibility he left on the table. He’s as ready as any junior player the Nittany Lions have ever had to make the next step.
But I hoped that when I walked into Beaver Stadium on Friday afternoon that there would be big news surrounding Barkley; hoped someone would talk about his Penn State career being over, even with the Fiesta Bowl matchup against Washington looming.
Hoped head coach James Franklin would sit at his podium, pound the dais and insist he’d protect Barkley — and his future — from himself.
Hoped a few of the teammates Barkley said weeks ago he wanted to play with in that bowl game raised their hands, pulled No. 26 aside and said, “Thank you for everything you’ve done. But don’t worry. Let us play for you.”
Hoped, maybe, that Barkley would come to the realization that approaching the NFL strong and 100 percent healthy ranks so much higher for his own future, for his family and, yes, for this program that he helped put back on the map, than a game against Washington that is hardly going to make or break his legacy.
All signs point to Barkley playing: All signs point to this, though: Barkley is going to play against Washington’s top-ranked run defense Dec. 29 in Glendale, Ariz. He said as much last month, in a stirring response to a question about whether he’d protect his own health and professional interests the same way contemporaries such as Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey did last year, by sitting out any bowl game that isn’t played on a national championship stage.
As big a draw and as important an honor as getting to play in the Fiesta Bowl is for college players, it doesn’t quite reach that lofty standard this year.
“It’s important to me because I love football,” Barkley said after the Nittany Lions’ win over Nebraska on Nov. 18. “To be really honest, it’s for my teammates. If my teammates came out and said, ‘Don’t play. We don’t need you. You don’t need to,’ I probably wouldn’t. At the end of the day, I play for my teammates. I play for my brothers. I play for my family, too, and I know that’s something they would love for me to do.”
Barkley said that his situation is different from the one McCaffrey and Fournette were in late last year, and he’s right. They were battling some nagging injuries, and he insists he isn’t. They really believed that sitting out was the right choice for them at the time, and he just doesn’t feel as strongly that he’d be OK with watching his teammates take on Washington without him. But, it’s fair to wonder how much of this is Barkley, whose word has meant quite a bit during his Penn State career, not wanting to go back on something he vowed in the heat of the moment, with the reporters surrounding him back in November.
Barkley didn't speak Friday: Barkley wasn’t made available to speak to the press during Penn State’s Fiesta Bowl media day at Beaver Stadium on Friday, which could be considered somewhat unusual, but not completely unprecedented. When Barkley’s name was mentioned to teammates in a question — even if that question had nothing to do with Barkley playing in the bowl game or his decision on whether to declare a year early for the NFL — teammates seemed to get somewhat uncomfortable.
Asked directly whether he had discussed Barkley’s availability for the bowl with him, Franklin himself bristled.
“It’s not my decision,” he said tersely. “Saquon’s made a decision, and we didn’t really have a whole lot of conversation about it. ... I don’t really love the whole topic to be honest with you. I get it. I understand there’s a business aspect to this as well, and we have to be aware of those types of things.”
This marks the second time Franklin has admitted he is irked by the question, and both times, the coach has included something interesting in his response. The first, made just a few days after Barkley’s announcement that he’d play in the bowl game, no matter what: “I know you guys don’t have to ask questions that I like or agree with, but I think to ask a player about whether they’re going to play in a bowl game when we still have a game yet — when we don’t even know what bowl we’re going to — is inappropriate.”
Franklin has gone from insinuating that the stature of the game might matter, to “it’s not my decision.”
Safest bet is to sit out: Saquon Barkley has earned the right to make this decision. But, if ever there was a decision that should be weighed heavily, for selfish reasons, it’s this one. We’re not talking about losing a few dollars here. We’re talking about putting millions on the line, in a sport where there are no guarantees beyond the next play.
This is a guy who seemed like he could do anything over the last three years, except make a selfish decision.
Barkley’s safest bet is to sit out, to cheer on his team, to head to the combine — if that’s what he chooses to do — 100 percent healthy and ready to show the world what he showed Penn State fans. Franklin has a responsibility to make sure he’s aware of the risks that come with doing the opposite.
If he insists on playing, that’s all the more reason to admire him. And all the more reason to be nervous Dec. 30. Because the last thing anyone at Penn State wants is for the worst bit of luck to strike a man who has meant so much to the program, who could mean so much to football, and who deserves the most vigorous defense of his own self interests that those around him can muster.
DONNIE COLLINS is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.