The pressure is there. It is real. It is tangible. And it isn’t just because there is so much easily obtainable testimony about just how good Saquon Barkley is. Anyone with a laptop and an internet connection can see that.
Here’s one: Barkley takes a handoff from Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley, tip-toes slightly right, measuring the USC linemen in the 2017 Rose Bowl and … holy COW, he makes a diagonal cut that seems geometrically implausible, and physically impossible, and he dashes 79 yards to the end zone …
Here’s another: Barkley taking the ball from McSorley and not simply running through a gaggle of Pittsburgh Panthers, not merely running over them, but all but dismissing them, as if they were a collection of Pop Warner kids. We can do this all day. There are, in truth, many worse ways to spend a rainy day.
But those obvious gifts alone aren’t what will make the spotlight that glares on Barkley beginning next September as bright and as intense as any that has ever shone on a rookie athlete in New York. Barkley is used to the adulation of regular folks; he used to perform these miracles in front of 106,572 people every Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
It’s the accolades that keep falling out of the mouths of grown men, experienced football men, men who generally know better than to heap hyperbole on a kid still four months shy of playing his first-ever NFL game, unable to help themselves.
“He was touched by the hand of God,” said Dave Gettleman, the Giants’ GM who made Barkley the second pick of the draft, notably eschewing Sam Darnold (who, for trivia buffs, watched Barkley’s Rose Bowl sprint from the sidelines before completing a 453-yard, five-touchdown masterpiece of his own in a 52-49 USC win and who, for as long as they share the city, will be Barkley’s daily foil).
He’s a “touchdown maker,” Gettleman gushed.
“I haven’t seen a guy like this in a long time,” Gettleman cooed, “and I’ve been doing this thing for 30 years.”
So much for managing expectations.
On the one hand, of course: good for Gettleman. This is the pick that will likely define his tenure running the Giants, and if he wants to praise Barkley (and, by association, his own wisdom) from Hasbrouck Heights to Valley Stream, then good for him, and better for Giants fans if Barkley is equal to the adjectives.
It is certainly a unique way to go. We are a city that saw the ultimate soft-sell in 1996, when Derek Jeter was a rookie and was preceded by almost zero hype. We are already listening to the Jets’ brass cool fans’ jets on how early they should expect to see Darnold take meaningful snaps from center. The most-beloved rookie of recent vintage, Kristaps Porzingis, made children cry out loud when he was selected, for crying out loud.
This is something else.
To find something this close to the early Barkley Phenomenon, you have to probably go back more than a half century. As early as 1961, the NBA wanted to phase out the archaic “Territorial” draft, by which teams could claim rights to players thanks to geography. But Knicks boss Ned Irish fought to keep the rule in place and for only one reason.
“There’s a kid on the freshman team at Princeton,” Irish told confidantes, “and I’ll be willing to junk the system once we get Bill Bradley.”
Irish stood by that belief, and took Bradley even though when he did it Bradley had already accepted a Rhodes Scholarship and showed no inclination to play pro ball (and as sacrilegious as this may sound, Knicks fans, doesn’t it make you wonder at least a little bit if the Knicks lineup Bradley ultimately joined two years later hadn’t instead included Billy Cunningham or Rick Barry, whom Irish eschewed?).
By the time Bradley returned from Oxford, it was at the eye of a hype storm the Knicks had never known. Even their former coach, Joe Lapchick, never one to engage in much purple prose about any one player, said after watching Bradley practice: “He can change the whole league around. He has so many assets and competes so beautifully. He is capable of the incredible and does things on a court that make you wonder if you really saw them.”
You probably have to fast-forward 15 years to find another example. Boston Globe sportswriter Bob Ryan was covering the 76ers-Celtics NBA Finals in 1980 when, on an off-day, Sixers GM Pat Williams — who’d done a little dabbling as a baseball scout — invited him to drive with him to Crenshaw High School, where the two watched Darryl Strawberry strike out in a high-school game. Looking.
And yet Williams, like every other scout in attendance, was smitten just watching Strawberry lope back to the dugout.
“He reminds us all of a black Ted Williams,” Pat Williams told Ryan, and that was a description that followed Strawberry all the way to May 4, 1983, when he made his debut for the Mets — in Year 7 of a seven-year slog through the baseball desert — when even normally taciturn Mets GM Frank Cashen couldn’t help himself.
“This kid,” Cashen said that night, “has more potential than any player I’ve ever seen. This team will go where he takes us the next few years.”
Two years and eight days later, not long after punching a table at the Waldorf-Astoria with unbridled glee after winning the inaugural NBA lottery, Knicks GM Dave DeBusschere — who never much minded sharing exactly what was on his mind — upped the ante when he encountered his first microphone after earning the right to be Patrick Ewing’s new boss.
“He puts us on another level,” DeBusschere said.
A few days later, no less an authority than Bill Bradley — by then the junior senator from New Jersey — said, “He is a once-in-three-generations kind of player.”
Now, it should be noted that both Cashen and DeBusschere happened to be right. Strawberry was a key member of the 1986 championship Mets, and Ewing did everything within his power to deliver the Knicks back to the Canyon of Heroes during 15 marvelous years as a Knick.
And maybe it’s worth remembering what another not-so-bashful Giants GM had to say on the day in April 2004 when he swapped three draft picks alongside Philip Rivers to San Diego in exchange for Eli Manning.
“What would you have given to get a chance at Peyton Manning if you knew he was going to be this good?” Ernie Accorsi asked, some seven months before Eli would play the first of 210 consecutive starts, and he barely waited an eye-blink before adding: “That’s how much we think of this kid.”
Two Super Bowls later, with Eli about to spend much of the coming autumn handing the ball off to Saquon Barkley, you’d have to say Ernie was probably right, too.
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