The golden-haired Orange County kid proved a prophet. Groomed for the job as a four-year starter at high school powerhouse Mater Dei, Barkley did in fact become the quarterback at USC. Through three seasons he completed some really good passes (64.3 percent of them) and a whole bunch of touchdowns (80). But the 8-year-old Barkley could never have envisioned the other stuff: the savior coach who made him the school's first opening day true freshman starter bolting for the NFL after Barkley's freshman season; the Trojans slipping from their perch of seven consecutive BCS trips to the Emerald Bowl; the NCAA nailing the program with some of the harshest sanctions of the past two decades, thereby denying Barkley postseason opportunities his sophomore and junior years.
In the blink of one October night at Notre Dame, however, that two-and-a-half year narrative swiftly changed. USC's 2011 season had begun with ugly wins over Minnesota and Utah and a 43-22 loss at Arizona State, and at the midway point USC was an uninspiring 5-1 team. Barkley, pegged as a surefire first-rounder before he ever donned the cardinal and gold, wasn't on any Heisman lists. But in South Bend, the nine-point underdog Trojans ruined their rivals' first primetime home game in 21 years with a 31-17 upset. A team hampered by youth and attrition for most of Barkley's career finally clicked. "That mojo -- we had it," said Barkley. "We were having fun out there."
After notching at least 40 points in four of its last fives games, ruining Oregon's national title hopes with an upset at Autzen Stadium and crushing crosstown rival UCLA 50-0 in its season finale, USC made its way back into the final top 10 last season. Barkley finished with a Pac-12 record 39 touchdowns to just seven interceptions, narrowly missing an invite to New York. Former coach Pete Carroll initially cranked up the quarterback's hype machine the week of Barkley's first start in September 2009 by declaring: "He's so far ahead of the curve, that it's hard to predict what he's going to be able to do." Three years later, current coach Lane Kiffin says Barkley "has the potential to be the greatest Trojan ever." The storybook that began 13 years earlier was finally heading toward a happy ending, as talk around the nation turned to a possible national championship run in 2012. But first, Barkley had to turn down a potential top five NFL draft selection.
For much of that 2011 campaign, Kiffin assumed his 6-foot-2, 230-pound quarterback would bolt. "Right after we played UCLA I was on an emotional high and ... I thought for sure I was going to the NFL," Barkley said. But as the Trojans got a taste over those final six games of what a season with a talented team and no postseason restrictions might feel like, Kiffin began to sense his cherubic quarterback might deliver a Christmas surprise. "In the locker room after the game he'd have that smile on his face," said Kiffin. "I just felt like, you know what? He's not going to give this up."
At a nationally televised Dec. 22 press conference Barkley, flanked by the Song Girls and the marching band, stood in the lobby of Heritage Hall and announced his decision to return to USC. It's hard to imagine he ever could have left.
On a sunny afternoon this April, a smiling Barkley walked down the steps of Heritage Hall to join the cascade of students and backpacks bustling across USC's campus. Barkley had two hours to kill before his next class and intended to return to his off-campus apartment before realizing he didn't have his keys. A quick call revealed his roommate wasn't home, either. "The little things in life," Barkley said. "You've just got to smile." He turned and headed in the opposite direction and ran into his sister, Lainy, a USC freshman, walking with one of her friends. They stopped to chat. Less than a minute after Barkley resumed walking: "Hey, there's my brother. What do you know?" Sam, a freshman hurdler, walked by.
Barkley eventually arrived at the Ronald Tutor Campus Center, where students cram around picnic tables in the courtyard outside the building. "Matt! Matt!" two female students yelled to catch his attention. "Fight On!" one of them shouted. "Matt! Matt!" came a male voice from nearby. It was one of the Trojans' backup receivers mimicking the girls before him. "He's the golden boy," said USC's All-America receiver Robert Woods. "That's what he is."
Finally, Barkley climbed a set of stairs and found privacy in a quiet two-seat booth tucked into a shaded alcove, where he pulled a wrapped turkey ciabatta sandwich from his backpack. Though presently wearing a comfortable white T-shirt, Barkley, who carries a 3.21 GPA, spent the morning in a white tuxedo tail, complete with the cane, as part of his initiation into Skull and Dagger, a 25-person honor society comprised of select USC seniors. The night before he participated in the society's annual prank, in which inductees covered every public toilet on campus with a garbage bag and "Out of Order" sign. A night earlier Barkley spoke at an academic panel entitled Communicating with the Media. The following night he would attend a dinner at the house of former Skull and Dagger member Pat Haden, now USC's athletic director. "He's just a normal student here," said Haden, quarterback for the Trojans' 1974 national title team and a former Rhodes Scholar. "Which is as it should be, in my mind."
Barkley's 59,000 Twitter followers often know exactly what he's up to. "Here at LA Live 'bout to get my socks rocked by @NEEDTOBREATHE," he wrote of his favorite band prior to a March 20 concert. The Southern rock group's guitarist recognized Barkley at an earlier show and they swapped contact info afterward. "Any Android users new to Instagram? Lets swap cool, artsy, filter-filled photos!" That one was tongue-and-cheek ("I'm not artsy," Barkley said), though he frequently uses the app on photos he tweets, like the one of Barkley and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak flashing the USC Victory sign. A Valentine's Day picture with Barkley's girlfriend, Seattle Pacific University soccer player Brittany Langdon, made the blogosphere rounds.
A self-described tech geek, Barkley began playing with his father's discarded laptop as a child and, in the fifth grade, requested the first-ever iPod for Christmas. Now Barkley watches online video courses to teach himself Flash, and he helped USC's sports information department develop a forthcoming Heisman promo app for iPhones and Androids. Barkley recently found a new way to combine his affinity for both music and computers: "He's got a little flare for DJ'ing now," said Trojans center Khaled Holmes, Barkley's friend since the sixth grade. Attendees at Sigma Chi's spring Derby Day party were surprised to see the star quarterback behind the DJ table. "It's the coolest thing," said Barkley. "You're feeling the beat, you're looking out at the crowd and people are bouncing up and down, hands in the air."
Yet this daily dish of campus frivolity is not the overriding reason Barkley put off the so-called No Fun League for a year. "I've had enough social time in college to be fine with moving on," Barkley said. It's more a matter of the fun he missed out on the past two years. "If USC hadn't had the adversity and sanctions," said Barkley's father, Les, "he absolutely would have left for the NFL."
On June 10, 2010, Barkley, then 19, stood in the lobby of Heritage Hall, surrounded by reporters and television cameras there to capture his reaction to that day's stunning news. Following a four-year investigation into extra benefits received by former star Reggie Bush and his family, the NCAA's Committee on Infractions had levied several severe penalties against USC, including scholarship reductions and, most painfully, a two-year postseason ban. Barkley had completed his freshman season, in which the Trojans slid from 12-1 to 9-4, and Carroll's former assistant, Kiffin, had returned from Tennessee just five months earlier to take over as coach. Embattled Athletic Director Mike Garrett was down to his final days, and longtime university president Steven Sample was about to retire. USC trotted out two figures in front of the cameras that day: Kiffin and the rising-sophomore quarterback. "I was kind of pushed into being the spokesman for the university," Barkley said. "I wasn't comfortable with that. I didn't really like speaking in front of people. That moment brought me out of my comfort zone and allowed me to be that voice the team and the university needed."
Normally a football team takes cues from its senior leaders, but from the time of the sanctions, USC football revolved around its perpetually sunny quarterback. "He's so positive," said Kiffin. "For example, he knows I don't like rain. I don't like being cold. ... It started raining one day [at practice], and he sees the look on my face, and he's like, 'Hey, this is great. It could be raining when we go up to Eugene.' That's just how he thinks." Prior to a 2010 home game against heavily favored Oregon, Barkley took to Twitter to fire up his teammates. He'd just watched a UFC fight in which star Brock Lesnar lost to a lesser-known foe. "Wow, Brock just got rocked! Lesnar is to Oregon as Velasquez is to SC. Lezgo." The Trojans lost 53-32, however, en route to an 8-5 season. It wouldn't be the last time Barkley caused a mini-controversy with his candor. Last year he caught flak for calling Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Bufict a "dirty player" the week before USC's game in Tempe. "If you know Matt, it's hard to get mad at him for doing that because he's not trying to be negative," said Kiffin. "You just ask him a question and his honest answer comes out. And you can't ask him something that's going to question his faith and get a politically correct answer, because he's not going to put the politically correct answer over what he believes."
Such was the case in February 2011 when Barkley re-tweeted a Yahoo! headline about the government upholding same-sex marriage laws and added "Smh" -- as in "shaking my head." Barkley is a devout Christian but does not usually espouse his beliefs without prompting. "I don't think it should be shoved down people's throats," Barkley said. "I do stand strong in what I believe and firmly in it, but I don't think it's my job to convince or convert you. If I live a life that makes a difference or makes you notice something about me, then I think that's enough." That same-sex marriage tweet garnered numerous responses from fans calling Barkley a homophobe, to which he initially responded before realizing doing so was futile. He's been more cautious since. "I don't mind the criticism for saying what I believe, but at the same time you don't want to come across as 'I'm right and you're wrong.'"
Barkley and his family have taken numerous missionary trips abroad, and the silver lining in USC's bowl ban was the ability to take a December 2010 trip to Nigeria. Joining the Barkley family was punter Kyle Negrete, a close friend who bonded with Barkley over their shared faith (they conduct a Tuesday night bible study). "As Matt would say, that was a tremendous blessing in disguise," said Negrete. "Instead of this 20-year-old kid who wants to be in the spotlight, [playing] in these big bowl games on national television, we're out in Nigeria at an orphanage being able to minister to a lot of people that are less fortunate than we are. That is what represents Matt Barkley."
When word got out that the Les Barkley was planning another trip last spring, this time to earthquake-ravaged Haiti, other teammates began asking if they could come. Matt had a hard time telling anyone no. All told, 16 Trojans -- including stars Woods, Holmes, safety T.J. McDonald and defensive end Devon Kennard -- spent their lone week off in May building houses and playing with kids. Had his decision been different last December, Barkley might have been at mini-camp in Cleveland instead.
"He was always ready [for the NFL]," Kiffin, the former Oakland Raiders head coach, said of his quarterback. Thanks in part to the emergence of ultra-talented freshman receiver Marqise Lee to complement Woods, Barkley's production last year -- 69.1 percent completions for 3,528 yards, 39 touchdowns and seven interceptions -- exceeded that of former USC top 10 draft picks Carson Palmer (2001), Matt Leinart (2004) and Mark Sanchez (2008) during their respective junior seasons. During ESPN's 2009 NFL Draft coverage, Mel Kiper proclaimed: "[In] three years Matt Barkley -- who will be a true freshman this year -- will be the No. 1 pick in the draft." That was before the debuts of Barkley and Stanford's Andrew Luck, who rose to become not only the 2011 draft's No. 1 pick but to earn the label as the next Peyton Manning. Barkley "is not going to be considered in that same breath, but he won't be far behind," said SI.com draft analyst Tony Pauline.
Next year, "he'll be one of the top three players," said Pauline. "He could be the [No. 1 pick] if he has a good season and the team that has the top pick needs a quarterback." While conceding Barkley lacks a rocket arm or the NFL's preferred height, scouts love his decision-making, poise and accuracy. They appreciate the way he places passes with such precision that only his receivers can catch them. "The fact he's got very good receivers around him is an added bonus, but [scouts] are going to look at his pass placement," said Pauline.
Of course, coming back for another year doesn't guarantee a quarterback will maintain his high stock. Leinart, for one, fell from the projected No. 1 pick in 2004 to No. 10 in 2005. Some aren't even waiting until 2013 to drum up the backlash. "USC fans are going to kill me for this," ESPN's Todd McShay said in mid-April. "... [Ryan] Tannehill has better tools than Matt Barkley." "... #USC QB Matt Barkley is grossly overrated," tweeted ProFootballTalk.com writer Evan Silva. "Great decision maker. Not No. 1-pick arm or athlete. Not even close." Arkansas' Tyler Wilson, Georgia's Aaron Murray and Tennessee's Tyler Bray are mentioned as quarterbacks who could supplant Barkley. Regardless of physical skills, Kiffin believes Barkley will dazzle teams in interviews when they find out he is, literally, a choirboy. (He plays guitar.) "There's a Tebow-ish to it," said Kiffin. "When you meet him and you're around him, you will want to draft him because he has everything together."
And in the event that football doesn't work out, Barkley is already exploring other options. "It's part of my life that I love and cherish and hopefully make me financially stable for the rest of my life, but it's not going to last forever," Barkley said. With help from Haden's connections, Barkley has met with several prominent USC alums in the business world, including Silicon Valley venture capitalist Mark Stevens. "He is very articulate and very impressive," said Stevens, whose firm, Sequoia Capital, helped fund Google and Yahoo! as start-ups. "I could see Matt as the CEO of a company some day." First, Barkley must complete his degree this fall -- and play his senior season.
Sitting in his Heritage Hall office, one floor up from a lobby full of trophies won by USC greats like Frank Gifford, Ronnie Lott, Marcus Allen and Troy Polamalu, Haden was asked whether Barkley -- 27-9 as a starter -- could really finish his career as the "greatest Trojan ever." Haden, who's been associated with USC football for 40 years, replied: "Absolutely no doubt about it." Barkley's legacy, he said, will be about more than touchdowns or victories. "I think the love that those of us who care so much about USC have for him," said Haden, "is that he came back in this time of need."
How could he not? It's what the 8-year-old Barkley always wanted.