PHOENIX — His NFL announcement was still 24 hours away, but Saquon Barkley knew this was it.
After he helped lead Penn State to a narrow Fiesta Bowl victory on Saturday, after he celebrated with teammates and after the party had died down on the field, Barkley made his way toward the stands.
“To show respect to the fans,” Barkley said afterward. “I just wanted to say thank you to the fans. And this team, this 2017 team, will never be back together. The seniors will go on and play football or go on and be successful businessmen or whatever they pursue in life. And they’re right with us the whole ride.”
Barkley went on to point out that he wasn’t the only Nittany Lions player to do so, mentioning tight end Mike Gesicki and wideout DaeSean Hamilton.
“Yeah,” Hamilton cut in with a smile. “You’re more important than us, though.”
“Don’t listen to him,” Barkley responded.
Barkley, who is in line to be the top running back selected in April’s NFL draft, didn’t like to seek out the spotlight in his three years at Penn State.
But he made sure to have fun while he was in it.
He spearheaded the Lions to back-to-back 11-win seasons, an improbably Big Ten championship and almost certainly two straight top-10 finishes in the polls.
More than that, he became the face of a program that had been battered by scandal and sanctions, leading the Lions into a new era.
“I hope I have left a lasting impression on this university, football program and community at large,” Barkley wrote in his draft announcement. “It has been an honor and a privilege to be able to call Penn State home and represent the Blue & White and all of the great players who came before me and will follow after me.”
By Monday morning, he was out in Pasadena doing some live segments with ESPN ahead of the Rose Bowl, where he was asked about his legacy.
“That’s something that’s really important to me,” Barkley said. “I wanted to go out as one of the best. I want to be remembered as one of the best to play at Penn State.”
Players and coaches past and present seem to think he accomplished that. They spent the entire season talking about Barkley’s impact, which went beyond him finishing second on the school’s all-time rushing list.
“Saquon Barkley is a once in a lifetime type of player and it has been an honor to coach him and watch him grow into a fantastic young man,” Franklin said. “Saquon has left a legacy both on and off the field that will long be remembered by the Penn State community.”
Barkley signed on with Franklin but had initially been offered a Penn State scholarship by his predecessor, Bill O’Brien.
“Man that guy’s a special player,” O’Brien said on a podcast with ESPN’s Adam Schefter. “He’s exciting to watch, and it seems like he’s an even better kid.
“I remember meeting him, and I remember him as a guy who’d look you right in the eye and (was) a very solid guy. I don’t think anyone ever knew the type of player he’d be relative to the level he’s at.”
Barkley almost certainly won’t be playing for O’Brien’s Houston Texans, who traded away the pick that ended up being No. 4 overall to the Cleveland Browns. But he had a message for him all the same.
“I would just tell him how proud I am of him and good luck,” O’Brien said.
At a school that has had many talented running backs, some of the names that came before Barkley spoke earlier in the season about how much he impressed them on and off the field.
“It is so exciting,” Pro Football Hall of Famer Franco Harris said. “I’m amazed at how he knows situations and how he adjusts to situations on the football field. It is incredible. He finds a way.
“This guy is phenom and great to watch. Not only is he a great ballplayer, but he’s a great human being. He’s a great young man.”
Only Evan Royster managed to rush for more yards in Lions history than Barkley. But Barkley came within 100 yards of topping in three seasons what Royster accomplished in four.
And Royster knows it.
“This guy is a once-in-a-lifetime talent,” Royster said when visiting Happy Valley for a game this season. “I love watching the kid play. I think he’s got a great future, and I speak so highly of him to everyone I come across. It’s just that feeling of being so proud of where you came from and loving what Penn State is all about. And seeing how he represents that.
“I think he’ll be one of the greatest guys to come out of Penn State to play in the NFL.”
His big-play highlights and penchant for hurdling defenders became common enough this fall among sports fans that they became referenced outside of football.
A recent update for ESPN’s mobile scores app boasts that it has been “optimized for iOS 11 and the new iPhone X to have us running as smoothly as Saquon Barkley through the hole.”
Beyond that, opposing coaches started a weekly parade of praise, with Big Ten luminaries like Ohio State’s Urban Meyer calling him “as good an all-purpose running back as we’ve seen. And that’s 30 years.”
Washington’s Chris Petersen said Barkley was “as good as advertised” after he gashed the Huskies’ No. 1-ranked run defense for a 92-yard touchdown on Saturday. Washington had only allowed 92 rushing yards per game in the regular season.
To some, just the fact that he suited up for the game was what impressed them.
The top running backs in last year’s draft — Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey — had dealt with injuries during the season and both elected to skip their team’s lower-tier bowl games as a precaution.
No doubt Barkley heard from people suggesting he do the same, not risking a major injury before becoming a sure millionaire in the spring. But Barkley said in November he felt he owed it to himself and his teammates to play.
That may become increasingly uncommon soon. NFL-bound defensive back Denzel Ward elected to sit out Ohio State’s high-profile Cotton Bowl matchup against USC, announcing his decision a few hours before the game.
A day later, shortly after Barkley was being interviewed following the win, an Ohio State assistant took to Twitter.
“You know what’s impressive?” Buckeyes receivers coach Zach Smith wrote. “The fact a should-be top 5 pick is playing in a non-playoff bowl game!! (Barkley) is the real deal. Saw it in person, and him playing proves it that much more.”
He wasn’t done.
“Draft this kid #1 overall. He is everything any NFL team wants. A freak that PLAYED in his bowl game because he LOVES his teammates and the GAME!!! I’m a fan. (From a school that hated playing him).
“My son told me he needs a signed (Barkley) jersey. And I told him, ‘Yes you do, son.’ He’s what you should want to be like.”