The white-knight quarterback is as much a part of Trojans mythology as Student Body Right; the latest one is a little more valiant than all the others
This is an article from the Aug. 20, 2012 issue
In a back room at the original El Cholo Spanish Cafe, a Mexican restaurant in mid-city Los Angeles so old it claims to have invented the nacho, pictures of USC immortals hang from the peach adobe walls. Matt Barkley sits beneath them, picking apart a sizzling skillet of chicken fajitas, carefully scooping each one into a flour tortilla and dressing it with green peppers. "Did you really invent nachos?" he asks a waiter, who nods wearily, as if he's heard the question from a thousand tourists.
"I love history," Barkley says over the mariachi music. He scans the full-color prints next to the fireplace—Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, the shiny Song Girls—but his eyes settle on a black-and-white taken more than 75 years ago, of a track star wearing a determined expression and a cardinal singlet as he glides along the perimeter of Bovard Field.
Barkley knows the man in the photo. As a freshman, he heard him speak to 160 students at USC's Annenberg School for Communication in a class called Sports, Business, Media, and afterward the professor arranged a meeting. What followed was an improbable friendship, between a flaxen-haired 18-year-old from Orange County who could fire a football through a cubby hole from 40 paces, and a white-haired 92-year-old from South L.A. who scampered a mile in four minutes and eight seconds 16 years before Roger Bannister crossed the threshold, roomed with Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics, flew a B-24 bomber that was shot down over the Pacific in World War II, spent 47 days avoiding sharks in a bullet-riddled raft and the next two years wasting to within an inch of his life in Japanese prison camps. His story would become the subject of a best-selling book, Unbroken.
The leaders of L.A.'s de facto NFL team are afforded stunning connections. Leinart met Paris Hilton. Bush met Kim Kardashian. Barkley met Louie Zamperini. They grab lunch a couple of times a year, along with Jeff Fellenzer, the adjunct who introduced them. Barkley has been to Zamperini's house in the Hollywood Hills. He has invited him to practices at Howard Jones Field. In 2009, when Barkley became the first true freshman to be named USC's opening game quarterback, Zamperini sent him a note with a verse from Timothy 4:12: "Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example." Barkley asks the USC football office to separate Zamperini's letters from the rest of his fan mail.
The two seem to have little in common, other than that they both played a sport at USC, seven decades apart. They've talked about the raft, where Zamperini atrophied to 60 pounds but recited poetry to sharpen his mind, and the camps, where he was singled out for regular beatings by a sergeant his fellow prisoners nicknamed the Bird. Barkley thought about Zamperini in June 2010 when the NCAA leveled the Trojans with a two-year bowl ban and stripped the program of 30 scholarships, penalties imposed because of Bush's relationship with a wannabe sports marketer. "It's not so bad," Barkley told himself. And he thinks of Zamperini again now, with the masses predicting he will win the Heisman and bring another national title trophy to Heritage Hall. "Whatever I do," Barkley says, "I can't ever measure up to Louie."
For all the recent problems with college football, the sport has been rescued more than once by its white-knight quarterbacks, and now here is Barkley, blending the passion of Tim Tebow with the fastidiousness of Andrew Luck and the joy of Robert Griffin III. He, more than any coach or athletic director or university president, oversaw the reconstruction of USC football. And he, unlike the previous coach and athletic director and university president, could not bear to leave the job incomplete. Without the sanctions, Barkley would be in the NFL today, pulling down about $15 million. But he is still riding through campus on his single-speed bicycle, gray with red pedals, tires and rims, because he wants to play in a postseason game other than the 2009 Emerald Bowl. He picks up the $15 tab at El Cholo, for fear the NCAA will submarine any more of his plans. "We got knocked down," Barkley says, "and we're still on one knee. But we're ready to stand up and start jumping, and I don't want to miss that."
Besides the shooting guard for the Lakers and the CEO of Disney, there is no loftier position in Southern California than USC quarterback, and Barkley is the position's beau ideal: 6'3", 230, with a smile you'd see in a Colgate commercial, an honor student who can play a guitar, build a computer and deliver a sermon. "Matty Trojan," head coach Lane Kiffin calls him. Barkley gives NFL scouts what they crave, five-step drops and play-action passes and deep out patterns, leaving the triple and quadruple options to everybody else. His style and pedigree are really no different from those of the men who came before him, from Carson Palmer to Matt Leinart to Mark Sanchez, other pro-style QBs reared by powerful Orange County high schools and influential private coaches. But at USC, Barkley stands alone, an accidental archetype.
Matt Barkley grew up on a cul de sac in a gated community in Newport Beach, and MTV might have tabbed him for one of its sun-kissed reality shows if he weren't so precociously functional. He walked when he was eight months old, rode a boogie board when he was one and conquered a bike without training wheels when he was three. He taught himself to read at five, the same year he met a cute kindergartner named Brittany Langdon, now a soccer player at Seattle Pacific and still his girlfriend. The only people to keep them apart were their parents, who did not let them date until they were 16. "We've got some pictures that will be good for the wedding montage," Barkley says, making a rare telegraphed pass. He went to The Pegasus School for the gifted in Huntington Beach, broke apart old televisions and remote controls to see how they worked, and built model planes and cars. He did not play football until sixth grade, but it came as naturally as everything else, and he has been his team's starting quarterback in every game he's dressed for over the past 10 years.
Orange County is a USC stronghold and a QB haven, dating back to the days of Todd Marinovich and Rob Johnson. The Barkleys were an SC family—Matt's father, Les, a partner at an investment firm, was an All-America water polo player there—but not the kind that went to football games on Saturdays. They were puzzled when Matt, at eight, promised his grandmother on a videotaped birthday message that he would throw touchdown passes for the Trojans. He was still five years away from taking his first snap, and when he finally joined the Newport-Mesa Seahawks of the Junior All-American League, his mother didn't understand why he had to leave the field every time possession changed.
But Beverly Barkley wanted to support her son, so she called the head coach at Mater Dei High School in nearby Santa Ana, which she heard had a strong football program. Mater Dei produces a college quarterback every other year, including Marinovich and Leinart, but in the early 2000s would-be signal-callers were scared off by three vaunted brothers already in the pipeline: the Forciers, Jason, Chris and Tate. The Barkleys, who might have been the only family in Orange County unfamiliar with the Forciers, were not fazed. And before Matt's freshman year, the Forciers unexpectedly moved back to San Diego because the commute to Mater Dei had become too exhausting, leaving a 14-year-old atop the depth chart. "Matt Barkley is the kind of person the stars line up for," says Monarchs coach Bruce Rollinson. "He lies in a bed of roses." His first pass was a 48-yard touchdown, and Kiffin, then USC's offensive coordinator, drove down Interstate 5 in the spring to see him practice. A week later Kiffin was back with head coach Pete Carroll, to offer a scholarship. Barkley would not take an official visit to another college.
The connection between USC and Mater Dei, both private schools in urban areas, is long-standing. Rollinson played receiver and defensive back for the Trojans, and when he took over the Monarchs 22 years ago, he implemented a system similar to the one he had learned from John McKay. High school and college programs switched to the spread, but Mater Dei and USC stuck with their pro-style offense, which requires a pocket passer who can look off two receivers and knock the wind out of the third. A Mater Dei QB spends his lunch break watching film, learns how to analyze cut-ups on his laptop and recognizes defensive fronts by his junior season. Free time comes on Saturdays at noon, when players are let out early to watch USC—or UCLA if so inclined. "Mater Dei is a mini-SC," says Trojans center Khaled Holmes, who has protected Barkley since ninth grade.
Monarchs quarterbacks looking for extra tutelage are steered to nationally known passing gurus. Leinart worked with Steve Clarkson. Marinovich worked with Bill Cunerty. Barkley worked with both. On Tuesdays he met Clarkson at Area H outside the Rose Bowl, with a stack of five-by-seven index cards detailing his reads. "You don't want to be outside this stadium," Clarkson told him. "You want to be in it." On Sundays he met Cunerty at Saddleback College in nearby Mission Viejo, where they shortened his delivery and loosened his grip. "If the safety is reading what I'm doing, could I show a high spine angle and then throw low?" Barkley asked one day. "College players don't even ask me questions like that," a beaming Cunerty replied.
Barkley is a visual learner, so much so that when his mom wants him to take out the trash, she has to write the task on a piece of paper. Football allowed him to meld his physical gifts with his mental ones, because all the relevant information is in a playbook and on a projector. "I process things like a computer," Barkley says. "I love math because you can use a function to produce a correct answer. That's how I treat football. You study the situation—somebody is blitzing, the corner is creeping—and then you look at the angles, go through the matrix of possibilities and figure out the right pass to throw." His top receiver at Mater Dei was his cousin Robbie Boyer, who lived down the block. They'd run plays in their gated community, on a field that always seemed to be mowed, under a sky that always seemed to be blue. "It was pretty perfect," Barkley says.
About a year ago he was approached by the Christian organization I Am Second to film a video about his life. Other athletes and celebrities, ranging from Josh Hamilton to Kathy Ireland, had recorded segments, and when Barkley watched them, he heard riveting accounts of drug addiction and violence. "Sorry, I don't have much for you," he told the producers. "I've never even had a relative die. It's been very PG." Barkley thought hard about what, if anything, he could muster. "I ended up doing it," he says, "because we've all got a story."
As a member of Rock Harbor church in Costa Mesa, Barkley played guitar in the worship band and took humanitarian missions with his family during holidays. They helped build houses in Haiti and Mexico, volunteered at orphanages in Nigeria and South Africa, and saw images Barkley never forgot: slums, mass graves, boys playing on soccer fields covered with rocks and glass. At Mater Dei he and his parents founded Monarchs for Marines, an organization that raised $300,000 in educational bonds for the children of fallen soldiers from nearby Camp Pendleton. Barkley visited the base with teammates every year to landscape the youth center and meet the kids. "I'm grateful that I saw more than Newport," Barkley says. "Otherwise, when everything started going on at USC, I could have been like: Why is this happening to me?"
It is hard to identify a player who has suffered more from the fallout of college football's mercenary behavior than Barkley. "He got here when USC football was bigger than it's ever been, maybe bigger than anybody has ever been," says Kiffin. "And all of a sudden...." In an eight-month span in 2010, when everybody but Barkley saw the NCAA sledgehammer rising and falling in slow motion, USC became the site of a high-powered exodus: Carroll bolted for the Seahawks and took along offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates; athletic director Mike Garrett was fired; president Steven Sample resigned. In early January 2010, when Barkley was still a freshman and USC seemed to have no coaching staff, he watched the U.S. Army All-American Bowl on television and counted the players who had made verbal commitments to Carroll. "They're all left hanging," Barkley thought.
He started calling recruits from his apartment, and when he needed more numbers, he went to the football office and set up a makeshift phone bank. "I'm still here," he told them. "I'm going to stick it out. We're going to make it happen. USC is bigger than one person, one coach." Among those he reached was Robert Woods, now his primary receiver. "He was the spokesman for the university," says Trojans punter Kyle Negrete, "and he was 19."
Barkley felt uncomfortable talking in public, so his parents role-played interviews in their living room, pelting him with the toughest questions they could conjure. When the sanctions were announced in June, Les told him: "This is going to end. You're going to come out the other side. Do you want to mope or do you want to lead?" Barkley drove to Heritage Hall and faced the cameras. Two days later he held a barbecue for the team at his parents' home in Newport. "They were so resolute," Beverly says. "You feel like, 'It will be great, we'll stick together, and we'll show everybody.' You don't realize how dark the cloud is going to get."
Six players transferred, two recruits decommitted. Practices, which used to be like block parties, were closed to fans. Barkley couldn't even invite Zamperini anymore. Beverly keeps a journal in a spiral notebook, and during 2010 she was filling about a page a day. She titled it Year of Trials. In the last two months of the season, the Trojans lost five games. They used to go three years without losing five games. USC accepted its bowl ban immediately but was allowed to delay scholarship reductions for two years, a small victory that proved significant. The Trojans would land a top five recruiting class, which included Max Wittek, a decorated quarterback from Newport Beach who starred at Mater Dei and studied under Clarkson.
Barkley prayed for brighter days. He remains deeply religious, the player who used to lead the team mass at Mater Dei, and still returns to address the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. When he broke his collarbone in high school, during a quarterfinal playoff game, he calmly told Rollinson, "It's O.K. It's God's plan." The coach cracked, "Well, I wish He had planned a different protection." Barkley's faith prompts inevitable comparisons to Tebow, but Barkley is more understated. "They are polar opposites," says a friend. "Matt doesn't preach to anybody. He's not in the huddle saying, 'Praise the Lord, now let's score a touchdown.' It's all inside him." Barkley did praise God in a postgame interview as a freshman, after USC beat Ohio State, and the backlash was startling. "I love to share my faith, but you have to know the time and place," Barkley says. "I've learned that people don't always want to hear your thoughts on religion and politics. You don't need to shove it down their throats."
He is no Hollywood scenester, but he is no recluse, either. He line dances and strums his Taylor guitar and DJs at parties. "It's always a unique mix," says Trojans safety T.J. McDonald. "House music, hip-hop and Christian rock." When renowned DJs swing through L.A., Barkley catches them at mega clubs like Avalon and Greystone Manor. "I'll have a beer or two, but I don't drink hard alcohol," he says. "I'm there for the music, to jump around and go crazy to the music." The next morning, he might be at the Getty Center, staring at oil paintings and listening to recordings about each one on museum headphones. "I'm fine by myself in a room looking at art all day," he says. The brushstrokes on a canvas, and the scales on a sheet of music, are like X's and O's on a well-conceived game plan.
The USC playbook expanded midway through last year to include more single-back and three- or four-receiver sets, a break from the Trojans' traditional I-formation. While Luck was hailed for making his own calls at the line of scrimmage, Barkley did the same, completing more than 69% of his passes and throwing for 39 touchdowns, both school records. "He's impossible to prepare for," says Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, "because he's changing plays all the time." Barkley rediscovered his sunny equilibrium, and when USC throttled UCLA in the season finale, he stayed in the game to hit Robbie Boyer, his cousin and neighbor. As Barkley hugged his parents and younger siblings—twins Sam and Lainy are USC sophomores; Sam is a 400-meter hurdler on the track team and Lainy works in the football office—he thought, Great ending. I'm ready. It's time to go.
Three weeks later, however, he called Kiffin to Newport and offered him a Christmas ornament with a message on the back: ONE MORE YEAR. It was a dramatic shift but not all that surprising, when you consider who assisted in the decision.
Last Dec. 12, the Seahawks hosted the Rams, and Barkley met Carroll at a hotel in Belleview, Wash. They talked for two hours. "We picked up like nothing ever happened," Barkley says. Carroll did not admit what is evident to anyone who watches the Seahawks—that life is a lot more fun with the Trojans—but he was clear about the benefits of a fourth year at USC. "This is a way to max out my connection to the school and the relationships I've made," Barkley says. "If I need a job someday, I'll probably be able to get one through a Trojan, and that's a securing thought." Carroll had brought Barkley to USC and, in the most subtle way, eased him back. No one ever said the guy couldn't recruit.
Barkley lives with McDonald in an apartment nestled among fast-food joints near the Coliseum, with both of their number 7 jerseys on the wall. They will host Thursday-night barbecues this season to keep teammates out of trouble. Barkley doesn't know if he'll even have time to visit Brittany at Seattle Pacific. He is taking only one class, Macintosh, OSX, and iOS Forensics, about the infiltration of data servers and security websites. "I'm stoked about it," he says. Barkley is, in McDonald's words, "a tech geek" whose favorite sites include Gizmodo, Lifehacker, Engadget and iMore. He recently cracked open his MacBook so he could rebuild it with extra RAM and a solid-state hard drive. He also put a brake on his single-speed bike, which he used to have to stop with his feet, a practice that made trainers understandably nervous.
In a social media class last semester, Barkley designed a free mobile app to promote USC through stats, chats and videos. The athletic department wanted to name it after him, a 21st-century way to launch a Heisman Trophy campaign, but Barkley resisted. The app, now called Project Tro7an, features a series called "Matt Vs." in which Barkley competes against other USC athletes in their respective sports. You can, for example, watch him suck wind in a water polo match, which certainly won't earn him any Heisman votes. Even at Barkley's childhood home, self-promotion is scarce, with only one small picture of him wearing a football uniform. When a television crew recently toured, the cameramen looked glum. "They wanted to see the shrine," Les says.
USC football has reclaimed its usual perch—credible title hopes, the nation's best recruiting class and a new $70 million training facility that covers 110,000 square feet—but Barkley did not lift the Trojans alone. A resilient senior class, from McDonald to Holmes to defensive end Devon Kennard, stood with him. Barkley thinks about what he would have missed had he declared for the draft. He wouldn't have been able to go to Port-au-Prince last spring with 15 teammates and help build four houses. He wouldn't have been able to plan double dates this summer with Holmes and their girlfriends. And in the first week of August he wouldn't be at Palermo, a red-checked tablecloth Italian restaurant in Los Feliz, eating chicken Parmesan across from a living history lesson.
Louie Zamperini is talking about a race in the '36 Olympics, when he faltered in the 5,000 meters but ran the final lap with such fury that Adolf Hitler insisted on meeting him. Barkley peppers Zamperini with questions. Zamperini chides Barkley for not sampling the cannoli. Employees approach Barkley—"It was all falling apart," the manager gushes, "but you kept it together"—and ask to take a picture with him. Barkley asks to take one with Zamperini. They stand up and sling their arms over each other's shoulders. Fellenzer, the professor who brought them together 3½ years ago, holds the camera. He fits USC's oldest and youngest living legends into the frame (above, left).
Whenever Zamperini comes to campus, Fellenzer introduces him the same way: "Greatest Trojan of 'em all." He wonders how he will introduce Barkley, assuming this season unfolds as expected. He seems to have been pondering it for a while. "What I'd probably call him," Fellenzer says, "is the greatest Trojan football player of 'em all."
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USC has 15 returning starters and will be in the mix for a national championship. That confers considerable status: Seven of the previous 12 Heisman winners have been quarterbacks who played for the title.
He threw for 3,528 yards and 39 TDs (with only seven interceptions) in '11, and those stats could increase with the country's best WR combination, Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, at his disposal.
Barkley has early (Stanford) and late (Notre Dame) showcases, but he can make his biggest impact on Nov. 3 against Oregon and De'Anthony Thomas, whom he will likely face again in the Pac-12 title game.
Starting with Clemson's Tajh Boyd and the ACC, Andy Staples and Stewart Mandel preview each BCS conference at SI.com/cfb