NEW YORK -- It was a Tuesday afternoon in early October and New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley was sitting in the back seat of an old-school yellow taxicab stamped with logos for Campbell’s Chunky Soup and the NFL’s Play Football initiative. This was supposed to be his off day, a respite from the craziness of a promising -- but often frustrating -- rookie season filled with losses.
Barkley was filming a commercial, and he was set to pop out of the cab to surprise the Cardinal Hayes High School football team in the Bronx.
As the young Giants star waited, he admitted to nerves. Barkley had been in the NFL for only a short time. Maybe the rookie would be an unfamiliar face.
“You never know. That’s embarrassing if nobody notices and is like, ‘Who is this cat?'” Barkley said.
It didn't go that way. He was met with a reaction befitting a rising star.
It’s this vulnerability -- and more -- that makes Barkley such a likable and impressive addition to the Giants. At 21, he’s as self-effacing as he is talented, with the world seemingly at his disposal.
As an example, Barkley works with the Covenant House of Newark, New Jersey, to get tickets for every Giants home game for three homeless children. Then he goes out of his way -- win or lose -- to spend 15 minutes or so with them after the games.
All that attention he's receiving from being the No. 2 overall pick in the draft and having early success hasn’t blurred his focus.
“So far, what I’ve seen is he has handled it like a real pro,” Giants running backs coach Craig Johnson said recently.
Barkley entered Week 7 leading all NFL running backs with seven runs of 20-plus yards. He was tied for the league lead with three rushes of 40-plus yards.
To Barkley, those are just numbers. After rushing for 130 yards and adding another 99 yards receiving last Thursday night, he was hardly content. In his estimation, it meant nothing because the Giants had lost 34-13 to the Philadelphia Eagles.
The jump cuts that made defenders look silly and the 50-yard touchdown weren’t any sort of consolation prize. Not for this rookie running back, who became just the second player in NFL history to top 100 total yards in each of his first six career games.
Barkley will have a chance to tie Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt’s record on Monday night (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN) against the Atlanta Falcons. He has already proved capable of doing things on the football field through his first six games that leave everyone, including the opposition, in awe.
“Saquon is a beast," Eagles running back Corey Clement said. "It’s hard not to say it. If I was saying anything otherwise, I’d be a hater."
That’s what makes the situation in the Bronx all the more extraordinary. Barkley seems to be keeping it together despite all that has come at him over the past year -- praise, fame, money, on-field success and a newborn daughter. His trademark smile, flashed for the teenagers during the commercial shoot when they trailed him with their phones, seemed sincere.
“That’s what it’s about,” Barkley said. “I was able to have genuine conversations with some kids, give them stories about how I got here, what drives me, what motivates me. That is something I want to continue to do.”
He took as much away from that moment as the young men he was there to advise.
Life was different at Penn State, where Barkley was the big fish in a small pond. He was a student tucked into a campus in central Pennsylvania, an amateur getting a taste of what was about to come.
"I was able to have genuine conversations with some kids, give them stories about how I got here, what drives me, what motivates me. That is something I want to continue to do." Saquon Barkley
A lot has changed since. Barkley signed endorsement deals with Nike, Pepsi and Visa, among others. He’s financially set, and even bought a new home for his parents in his hometown of Whitehall, Pennsylvania, and vowed to save or invest all his paychecks, a la Marshawn Lynch and Rob Gronkowski.
Barkley quickly became part of a circle that includes Giants wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard. They have become fast friends, even hanging out before the draft. He has a close-knit team that begins with his family and childhood friends.
They’re all within a reasonable car ride. New York/New Jersey is Barkley’s new home. He lives in an apartment on the Jersey side with a picturesque view of Manhattan. His girlfriend, Anna Congdon, and their 6-month-old daughter, Jada, live with him.
The days of being a faceless star are gone. Barkley notices the stares, points and pictures when he’s out and about. He oddly doesn’t view himself as famous, but more as a recognizable face or body. He knows his every move matters -- on the street, at home, or on the sideline.
“It’s different than in college. More of a spotlight. National attention,” Barkley said. “It reminds you that you have to be responsible. There are people that view you in a different way, look at you in a different way and you are a role model to some kids. You have an impact on kids. Little things like what you say. Things you’re doing. And you have to be aware of that.”
It’s all still strange, in a way you would imagine when people continually ask to see your quads and calves. That happens to Barkley more than he ever expected.
He’s had people approach him in airports and say, "Hey, nice legs." He's almost unsure how to respond. He usually just replies with a thank you. While the exchange is odd, he figures compliments come in different forms. This is his new norm.
Barkley believes being a father helps keep him grounded.
“He’s a good dad,” Barkley’s mother, Tonya Johnson, added. “He changes diapers. So far, so good. He’s doing what he needs to do.”
No matter how disappointing a loss might be, there are always those private moments when baby Jada looks at him without any idea he’s something special. The yards and touchdowns don’t matter to her or his family.
“[Fatherhood] humbles you. Brings you back down to life,” Barkley said. “Makes you understand what really matters. The spotlight, attention, all that doesn’t really matter. You go home to your daughter, even after a loss when you’re upset and you don’t want to talk to anybody. You see her crack that smile, and it changes your day.”
Shepard, who's also a new father, has admired his teammate's approach.
“He’s a great father to his daughter," Shepard said. "Very family-oriented. That is what I admire most about him, how close he is with his family. He always talks about his daughter.”
Shepard says Barkley is sneaky funny. He talks a lot. Never shuts up, really, but is always upbeat, and there is rarely a dull moment when he's around.
This is the beauty of Barkley, capable of being as measured and reserved when needed off the field, explosive and elusive when on it. As the football legend grows (and the early returns suggest he’s destined for big things), so will the pressure, demands and fame.
“I tell him, ‘Don’t think about what other people think of you,’” his mother said. “Think about what you would want for yourself, and you also have a child. Because people are going to judge you regardless. But you have a child, be the role model you want for your child.”
Barkley said: “There will be times when I mess up. I’m human, but I want to be a role model for the good things I do and the bad things I do. And the times I do make mistakes, learn from those mistakes.”
Beckham, who is just two lockers down, is an example of how difficult stardom can be. Beckham has compared it to living life as an animal on display at the zoo.
Barkley has said since he was drafted that his approach was to be himself.
The nerves before getting out of the taxi and surprising a high school football team? It shows he’s doing pretty well so far.