COPLAY, Pa. — A young, redheaded driver pulled up to the corner of 2nd and Chestnut, lowered his window and asked an officer if he would remove the barricade in the street. Nick Shafnisky used to be the star quarterback at Whitehall High and Lehigh University, but on this day, he was merely eastern Pennsylvania’s most valuable chauffeur.
“I’ve got Saquon in here,” Shafnisky explained.
On the nearest corner stood Samuel Owens Casual Family Dining, with a banner advertising a dollar-off happy-hour special over a sign that read, “Best of Luck Saquon.” Across the street, in front of Giant Food & Drugstore, stood two large signs side-by-side, one announcing that afternoon, March 24, as “Saquon Barkley Day,” and the other announcing Coplay as “The Little Town That Could. 1 Sq. Mile of God’s Little Masterpiece.”
The officer moved the barricade so Shafnisky could turn left in his Acura and drop off his former teammate in front of his home. On this cold and cloudless day, with the streets framed by diminishing snow banks, a neighbor’s chimes could be heard jingling in the wind. Up the street some locals were eating their eggs and toast at the countertop inside a breakfast joint called the Bacon Strip. Barkley spilled out of Shafnisky’s car wearing a gray hoodie, then climbed the stairs to his front porch and greeted the family and friends waiting for him.
Six miles from Allentown, Coplay could pass for something from another Billy Joel song. It is a workingman’s refuge, an old mill town known for its medieval-looking kilns and the production of the first Portland cement in the United States in the early 1870s. But on this Saturday, it would be known for delivering the world a running back destined to go down as the next small-town hero from a state that takes its football about as seriously as they take it in Texas. Someday, Saquon Barkley of Coplay might be remembered with the legends from the western side of Pennsylvania, like Joe Montana of Monongahela and Joe Namath of Beaver Falls.
Men, women and children poured in from all over, some wearing his Penn State jersey, No. 26, to witness the parade and ceremony. An estimated 3,200 people live in Coplay. An estimated 5,000-plus people showed up for Barkley’s hometown bash.
The fans who could not wait for the festivities walked right up to Barkley’s porch to say hello. Around the corner from GiGi’s Pizza & Pasta Grill, the Barkley home is a modest brick-face row house with an exposed light bulb hanging over the front door. Strangers approached and asked Barkley to sign footballs and caps, and to pose for pictures. And he accommodated every last request with his million-dollar smile.
Soon enough he was whisked away and loaded into a Plymouth Prowler. Barkley sat on top of his seat and held his young nephew as the car headed down Chestnut with a few cops walking ahead and two riding on horseback behind it. His father Alibay Barkley, mother Tonya Johnson, siblings and expectant girlfriend, Anna Congdon, all rode in convertibles while people cheered from both sides of the road. War veterans marched, and so did the Whitehall High band. Fans in New York Giants jerseys shouted their hopes that their team would take Barkley with the No. 2 overall pick in the upcoming draft.
The procession ended in Saylor Park, where local dignitaries and coaches gathered with Barkley and his parents on a makeshift stage near the old, towering kilns. Brian Gilbert, Barkley’s high school coach, spoke of how his star running back embodied the “hard-working, blue-collar community that gets nothing handed to us.” Gilbert added: “With Saquon’s parents living in the heart of Coplay, I think it was just bred right into Saquon.”
Phil Armstrong, county executive, recalled working the down markers for many years at Whitehall games. He used to drop the chains and flee whenever a ball carrier approached — with defenders in close pursuit — to avoid being barreled over.
“But then I found out nobody ever caught you,” Armstrong told Barkley. “So by the time you were a senior, I just stood there and held the chains and watched you fly by.”
Stephen Burker, a 67-year-old councilman who had spent 15 years working in an Allentown slaughterhouse, took the microphone to introduce the man of the hour. This celebration was Burker’s idea. He convinced Barkley’s parents that the borough merely wanted to honor Saquon before the draft, not exploit him, even as the councilman admitted, “This is one of the biggest days in the history of Coplay.”
Burker called Barkley to the podium and the crowd went wild. Barkley admitted he was nervous. He praised the advocates who pushed him to improve his poor grades at Whitehall High School, and spoke of sacrifices made by his mother and father. “Everyone loves to praise me on my character, which I’m so thankful for,” Barkley told his fans. “But that’s a true testament speaking to my parents, how they raised me. I’m so thankful having these two in my life.”
Barkley promised that soon after he’s drafted, he would buy his mother a house in the area “because Coplay and Whitehall are definitely home for me. And I promised my mom that since I was a little kid, and I’m definitely going to make that dream come true.”
Now Barkley is eight days away from living the dream, from being drafted, from following Super Bowl champions Matt Millen and Dan Koppen as Whitehall grads who made it to the NFL. The franchise that picks Barkley won’t only be getting the best of Coplay, Pennsylvania. It will also be getting the Bronx-born son of a once-troubled fighter and the woman who wouldn’t let him or anyone else take her family down.
Alibay Barkley lifted the sleeve of his sweatshirt to reveal a New York Jets tattoo above his left elbow. He liked them long before his son Saquon decided he wanted to someday run the football like Curtis Martin.
“That’s the team that, when I was going through my hard times, they pulled me through a lot of stuff,” Alibay said.
Raised poor in the Bronx, the son of a shoemaker and nephew of former world boxing champ Iran Barkley, Alibay was an amateur fighter who was once his own worst enemy. He got nailed on a robbery charge as a teenager before violating probation with an arrest for possessing an unlicensed gun. Alibay explained to the officers that he had just read the Second Amendment. “I thought I had the right to bear arms,” he said.
Alibay said he spent nearly a year inside Rikers Island, then did some boxing before a shoulder injury knocked him out of the ring. He was arrested four additional times for various offenses between 1992 and 2000, each time serving between two and seven days, according to the New York City Department of Correction. He was also trying and failing to kick a drug habit that was controlling his life.
Alibay started a family with his Bronx-born-and-raised wife, Tonya Johnson, but over time Johnson saw gang activity run amok in their Southern Boulevard neighborhood. Her aunt and grandmother had moved to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where Johnson savored the green grass and fresh air on visits with her children. “When I was a kid,” she said, “I always wanted to move out of New York.” In 2001, when Saquon and his sister Shaquona were young, their mother finally left to protect their future.
“It was now or never,” Johnson said. “The block I was living on was getting a little too out of hand, and I didn’t want to live in fear for my kids. … You hear some of these stories about people who lost childhood friends, and I didn’t want to be one of those mothers.”
Johnson told Alibay she was leaving for Bethlehem with or without him, his choice. He decided to follow his family and attempt to start living drug-free. “That showed me his character,” Johnson said.
Johnson and the Barkleys escaped New York, but they didn’t escape poverty. They moved from Bethlehem to Allentown and ended up homeless for a while as the children stayed with relatives and friends. In 2005 they moved to Coplay, where 13 years later Saquon proved himself worthy of a parade.
Alibay, 49, said on his son’s big day in March, that he has been clean for 17 or 18 years, then quickly offered this correction: “I slipped up one time out here. … That was like in ’04, and that was when we were homeless and I didn’t know what to do. That lasted for like four months, and after that I was clean.”
Last spring, Alibay filed a federal lawsuit against the Allentown police and the local transit agency alleging racial discrimination over a 2016 incident that started as an argument with a bus driver over whether he had paid his fare and ended with officers using a Taser while arresting him. (The misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and theft of services were dismissed. The suit, according to Barkley attorney John Kotsatos, was settled last month to his client’s satisfaction.) “I forgave them,” Alibay said of the case, “but what they did was wrong.”
Bald, thickly built and wearing a goatee, Saquon’s father maintained that he has found contentment in Coplay through smarter life choices. Alibay was last a cook at a Chili’s restaurant in Whitehall and said he plans on returning to work soon. He is most thankful for how his children have carried themselves, including his teenage twins Ali and Aliyah.
“They are all respectful,” Alibay said. “They are all humble. They are all thankful. Saquon’s just on a stage that allows everybody to recognize him.”
Kayla Cunningham met Saquon Barkley when they were in middle school. Cunningham was two years older than Barkley and already an accomplished athlete. They became fast friends and regular combatants in the Cunningham basement, where they fought for control of a soccer ball while crashing into furniture and each other.
Cunningham knocked Barkley on his back. Barkley knocked Cunningham on hers. “We would destroy the basement,” she said. “The towel rack in the bathroom was broken. Once I thought he gave me a concussion … when my head hit the back of the couch so hard. We didn’t care. We tackled each other and did whatever we had to do to get the ball.”
Nick Shafnisky, the quarterback who was also two grade levels ahead of Barkley, used to wipe the floor with Saquon in wrestling matches in the Cunningham basement. “Now I’m scared of him,” Shafnisky said.
The quarterback was there for the start of Barkley’s transition from a smallish, insecure sophomore who thought of quitting the game and later hoped to play for Division II Kutztown University into a 6-foot, 233-pound dynamo with 4.4-second, 40-yard-dash speed, a Greek god’s body and the goal of becoming an all-time NFL great. Whitehall was playing Emmaus High that day, and on the final snap of the first half, Shafnisky heaved a pass to his younger, unproven teammate. “It was a Hail Mary,” the quarterback recalled, “and he went up over two guys and caught it for a touchdown. That was the highlight of the year.”
Barkley accepted an offer from Rutgers because he couldn’t believe a Division I school wanted him on a full ride. This was a familiar theme through young Barkley’s narrative — he didn’t have a lot of faith in himself. Bob Hartman, the Whitehall athletic director, recalled summoning Barkley to his office to talk about football and schoolwork, and Barkley always asking on arrival, “What did I do wrong?” Nothing, of course. “He just didn’t have self-confidence,” Hartman said, “until Penn State.”
Barkley used the Rutgers scholarship to fuel a newfound passion in the weight room. He blew up as a junior, and after James Franklin replaced Bill O’Brien at Penn State, Franklin told Barkley that he needed to switch his commitment to the Nittany Lions and that he wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.
Barkley was a natural-born pleaser, and a young man of his word, and he had given Rutgers coach Kyle Flood his word that he would play for the Scarlet Knights. “He wants people to like him,” Hartman said. “He wants people to be happy. He wants to be able to help people.” So Barkley’s call to Flood to tell him that he was backing out hurt the recruit as much as it hurt the Rutgers staff.
“To this day,” said Cunningham, a soccer player at Temple, “he still feels bad about making that phone call.”
Before he was done at Whitehall, Barkley had made a big name for himself with explosive touchdown dashes and an act of kindness at a track meet that touched everyone who heard about it. Rachel Panek of Saucon Valley had won the 100-meter hurdles at the Colonial League Track and Field Championships in 2015 but was forced to rerun the race because of a breakdown in the meet’s timing system. Panek competed in the high jump after her initial hurdles victory and, with tired legs, hit a hurdle and placed eighth in the do-over. Seeing a complete stranger distraught over an obvious injustice, Barkley gave Panek the gold medal he won in his 100-meter race.
“Saquon was more upset with me that I told the media; he didn’t want anyone to know,” said his track coach, Jim Sebesta. “I said, ‘Saquon, this is unheard of. People just don’t do that.’ It was the first medal he ever won, in his first year in track at the league meet. He just didn’t think it was fair that someone else got screwed.”
Sebesta said Barkley was always pulling for the least talented kids on his teams. He told Barkley that he had grown into such a reliable role model for younger boys, he surely saved some from joining gangs in Allentown.
But Barkley was not a perfect student-athlete at Whitehall, where Charles Huff, then the Penn State running backs coach, and his staffmate Sean Spencer visited Barkley to warn him that his good deeds and respectful disposition wouldn’t win him bonus points and makeup tests in State College.
“I told him the NCAA doesn’t have a makeup,” recalled Huff, now an assistant head coach at Mississippi State. “If your grade-point average isn’t what it needs to be, they’ll take this game away from you. … I told him, ‘You’ve got three weeks to get all your grades that are a C and D and make them a mid-C or better, or you’re not running track.’ … And three weeks later, all his grades were a mid-C or better.”
A 3.0 student at Penn State, Barkley promised his mother he would earn his degree. He has been taking two classes online during his pre-draft preparation and figures he’ll be about 14 credits short when he’s done. Barkley said if he doesn’t graduate with his class next spring, he’d like to finish up in 2020.
Either way, he will have his first real job before he graduates. The Cleveland Browns will almost certainly take a quarterback with the No. 1 pick, then Barkley will be in play with the Giants at No. 2, and possibly again with the Browns at No. 4. Given the modern NFL’s aversion to investing too much in the position he plays, there’s a chance Barkley could fall out of the top five.
The people who know Barkley and have coached and trained him, say that would be a crime. They say Barkley is the best player in this draft, and they offer compelling reasons why.
Hartman described Barkley as an old soul who watches old film of old greats. When Hartman and Barkley meet for dinner, the running back is forever asking the AD to rank local players historically. Who are the top 10 running backs in Lehigh Valley history? Where does Nick Shafnisky rank among the best Whitehall quarterbacks ever?
“He’s passionate about that,” Hartman said. “He always asks where people stand.”
For a simple reason: Barkley wants to stand ahead of everyone in his class. If he ends up in Cleveland, he will undoubtedly target Jim Brown as the greatest running back of all.
“He told me, ‘If I can be LeBron James in Cleveland and turn that program around and win the Super Bowl, it would be the best thing I’ve done in my life,'” Cunningham said. “Who thinks like that? Nobody wants to go to the Browns, and here he is saying, ‘I want a statue. I want to be that image for Cleveland.'”
Barkley put up video-game numbers at Penn State and at the combine. He has less body fat than a supermodel, can catch the ball out of the backfield and regularly hurdles defenders with the greatest of ease.
“He’s got the quads and calves of a 300-pound bodybuilder,” said Brian Stamper, Barkley’s trainer at Tom Shaw Performance in Orlando. In one weight-room session, Stamper was blown away by Barkley’s ability to jump off the floor, on his eighth rep, with 365 pounds on his back.
“I just don’t know how you can pass on him,” Stamper said.
Only he’s not a quarterback and, as always, the Browns desperately need one. So what about the Giants in the two-hole? Barkley said he thinks that 37-year-old Eli Manning “definitely has a lot in his tank left and is still an extraordinary player,” and that a potential Barkley-Odell Beckham Jr. pairing would represent a “pick-your-poison” proposition for opposing defenses. Despite his father’s affection for the quarterback-starved Jets, who are picking third, Barkley agreed that the Giants are the better bet to return to the playoffs sooner rather than later.
As a first-round running back with matinee-idol looks, Barkley would be a modern-day Frank Gifford in New York, times 10. “He would absolutely own the city,” said one influential Giants source. On the other hand, Huff made it clear Barkley has no intention of making regular appearances in gossip columns or in compromising social media videos.
“Saquon’s smile and personality is a great match for New York,” Huff said. “But in the city that never sleeps, I can see him going back to his room after a game and playing video games with his family, going to sleep and then going to practice the next day. I don’t see him in clubs in the wee hours of the morning.
“In the end, I don’t see him turning into Broadway Joe.”
In Saylor Park, after the parade and the ceremony and the announcement that Barkley’s Whitehall jersey number (21) would be retired after his brother Ali is done wearing it, word spread that Barkley wouldn’t be signing autographs. The people lined up anyway and banked on the fact Barkley has trouble saying no. Their hunch paid off.
Barkley spent two-and-a-half hours signing autographs and taking selfies for an estimated 2,000 people, the line extending across the street into the food-store parking lot. His mother and his agent, Kim Miale of Roc Nation, didn’t seem terribly thrilled about it, especially with some fans carrying bags of items to be signed. Someone suggested to Barkley that he stop if and when he grew tired.
That wasn’t about to happen. Earlier in March, after being honored by state legislators at the Capitol in Harrisburg, Barkley asked the driver and chief of staff for State Rep. Jeanne McNeill to stop their van so he could hop out and sign for the 30 or so teenagers calling his name. Once Barkley got going at Saylor Park, he was never going to stop. “There were still kids in the line,” Burker said, “and even if there were 5,000 of them waiting, he can’t say no to a kid.”
Cunningham was hardly surprised by the scene. She’s long known Barkley as a friend of few flaws; his worst offense as a kid, she said, was playing ding dong ditch.
Barkley has had no choice but to grow up fast. He was worried about his pending fatherhood and how he would measure up as a parent, and a week after learning of his girlfriend’s pregnancy, Cunningham sent him an encouraging card and a onesie with mocking directions for a rookie dad. “I truly believe he will be a better father than football player,” Cunningham said.
Barkley attended his girlfriend’s baby shower after he was finished in Saylor Park, then returned to his pre-draft training. Huff compared his former running back’s athleticism to that of Bo Jackson. In speaking about Barkley’s character, Huff recalled an 81-yard touchdown in a blowout victory over Purdue. Most players would’ve been thinking about their SportsCenter highlight near the end of that run, Huff figured. Barkley? He was thinking about stepping out of bounds and allowing a Penn State bench player to enter the game and score on the next play.
“He’s never going to embarrass your franchise,” Huff said. “He’s a down-to-earth kid. He’s not the Bronx or the big city. He’d rather sit on his porch, and if three kids come by with a basketball, go out and try to steal their dribble and play with them for two hours.”
Over his three years at Penn State, Barkley visited his hometown and Whitehall sporting events as often as he could. He swears that no matter where his superhero calves take him, he will return to Coplay over and over again. “So it’s never going to be goodbye,” Barkley said.
But times and people change. Money and worldwide acclaim turned Joe Montana of Monongahela into Joe Cool in dark shades, and Joe Namath of Beaver Falls into Broadway Joe in a mink coat. So what will become of Pennsylvania’s latest small-town legend, Saquon Barkley?
The good people of Coplay believe fame and fortune have finally met their match.