EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — In quiet pregame moments, when Saquon Barkley bows his head, he first prays not for touchdowns or carries or a New York Giants’ win. He first prays for Jada, the 19-month-old girl who associates all things football with “Dada” and whose name and birth date are etched inside his cleats.
“When I thank God for all the blessings in my life, she’s the first thing that I start with,” the star running back said in a recent interview.
Barkley’s blessings are numerous, and football fans are familiar with most of them. He’s a freak athlete who at 22 has already made his mark in Penn State record books and in NFL history. Last year, he had a dominant rookie season in which he eclipsed 2,000 total yards, was selected to the Pro Bowl, and was named offensive rookie of the year.
He’s signed to a four-year, $31.2 million contract, according to Forbes, and made another $4.5 million this year in endorsements. Nike recently unveiled Barkley’s clothing line complete with his own logo, an "S" in the shape of a lightning bolt.
But to Barkley, fatherhood trumps every accomplishment on his impressive resume.
Former Penn State linebacker Jarvis Miller wishes everyone could see how his best friend excels as a parent.
“People see the jumps and the cuts and the highlights,” Miller said. "But at the end of the day, he’s a better dad.”
“The amazing thing is it gave me more motivation to accomplish what I want to accomplish,” Barkley said.
Which Barkley will admit isn’t exactly how he thought parenthood would affect his life when he first found out he was going to be a dad two years ago. Initially, he said, his knee-jerk reaction wasn’t one of gratitude or motivation, but of panic.
It was the summer before Barkley’s much-anticipated junior season. His Nittany Lions were reigning Big Ten Champions, coming off a close loss to Southern California in the Rose Bowl, and Barkley had anchored the team with a 22-touchdown, nearly-1,500-rushing yard season.
As national commentators were speculating whether Barkley would win the Heisman Trophy or be selected among the top picks in the 2018 NFL Draft, Barkley was grappling with life-changing news: His girlfriend, Anna Congdon, a fellow Penn State student from Scranton, was pregnant.
Barkley talked with his mother, Tonya Johnson, who told him, “Man up. You’re young, but you have another opportunity in front of you.”
He sat down on a bench near Penn State’s practice facility with Miller, his freshman- and sophomore-year roommate, whom he’d been friends with since they were high school recruits. Miller, now a graduate transfer at UMass, vividly remembers the conversation, which ended with Barkley telling Miller he would be the child’s godfather.
Barkley went to Penn State head coach James Franklin and then-running backs coach Charles Huff.
Barkley said his coaches put him at ease.
They gave “advice on being a dad," Barkley said. “Particularly Coach Franklin, who had a beautiful family already. They were just there for me. That’s the best thing that they did, just being there for me, any questions I had or [for] advice on how to be a father."
A team captain, Barkley went on to have a first-team All-American season, averaging 179 all-purpose yards per game.
Off the field, Barkley heard rumors that he and Congdon were expecting a child, he said, but he only confirmed the news to close friends, such as Miller and cornerback Grant Haley.
In late December, the week before Penn State played Washington in the Fiesta Bowl, Barkley told the running back room. The other backs were excited for Barkley, recalled Eagles rookie Miles Sanders.
“It’s a blessing at the end of the day,” Sanders said, "no matter when a child comes.”
Later that week, at the team hotel in Arizona before the bowl game, Barkley said he talked with the whole team during a “share”, a Penn State pregame ritual during which players open up about their lives. He told his teammates that he was leaving for the NFL, he said, and that he was going to be a dad.
“For him it was a really big, mature moment to say, ‘I’m going to become a father in a couple months,'" said Haley, Barkley’s roommate at the time. "He knew his life was going to change. I think being able to tell your teammates and them having his back was important to him.”
In April 2018, Barkley was in a Scranton hospital room for the birth of his daughter, Jada Clare Barkley, who at once melted his heart and shifted his priorities.
“It hits you kind of all in the moment," Barkley said. "Now I have a responsibility.”
He stayed overnight, soaking up the first hours of his daughter’s life, he said, and the next morning got on a plane to Dallas for another monumental occasion. Hours later, he was selected by the Giants with the No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft.
Since then, the spotlight on Barkley has only intensified. He sold more jerseys on draft night than any other player in league history, according to ESPN. As a star in the prime New York market, he has endorsements with Nike, Pepsi, Campbell’s Soup, Visa, Dunkin Donuts, and Toyota.
But with the spotlight comes expectations and sometimes criticism. Since returning from a high ankle sprain that sidelined him in Weeks 4-6, Barkley hasn’t been nearly as explosive on the field, logging only 165 rushing yards over the past four games, and only 1 yard in the Giants’ most recent game, a 34-27 loss to the New York Jets two weeks ago.
After the game, he quietly returned to his locker, head down, smudged eye black on one cheek but not the other. He clearly didn’t want to talk, but as reporters approached him, he stood and answered a barrage of questions. In few words, he said recent weeks had proven one of his toughest stretches since college, but he’d work hard to get back to his old self as soon as possible.
When it comes to football, Barkley said he’s always been mature. His parents, Johnson and Alibay Barkley, raised him to go after whatever he wanted in life, but to also own up to mistakes and never make excuses. As a father himself now, Barkley said his approach to adversity hasn’t changed.
“Having a kid, it does make you more mature but, not just in football but any profession, you still gotta go to work and still gotta be the best you can be at your job," he said. “That takes time. That takes effort. And in my case, that takes training."
He may Facetime with Jada in the locker room, or think of her during his pregame prayer, he said, but on the field he’s the same competitor he’s been since he was a good, but not outstanding, young player in the Allentown suburb of Whitehall.
Barkley is even competitive as a parent. He talks with coaches and teammates who have older children. He plans for how he’ll handle the teenage years, the young adult years, even giving Jada away at her wedding someday.
“It’s just a challenge, not in a bad way, but it’s a challenge," Barkley said. “Those stages are things you’ve got to be ready for.”
It’s too early to tell exactly what kind of father he’ll be, but predictably Barkley has put some thought into the kind of dad he wants to be. He wants to motivate Jada, he said, but also to support her when she struggles. He doesn’t want to be a pushover, although he said he doesn’t always excel in that area.
“She already knows she’s got the upper hand on me," Barkley said, laughing, "when she does her little fake cry when she doesn’t get her way.”
Barkley pushes himself so hard because he doesn’t know how to approach hurdles, in football or life, any other way. But nowadays, he pushes himself, too, because he knows Jada will someday know who he is and what’s he done.
Haley, his Penn State-turned-Giants teammate, has no doubt she’ll be proud.
“He’s a great football player, but I think he’s an even better person off the field, and that’s what makes him special," Haley said. “When it comes to football, he does something spectacular every single Sunday. I’ve watched for the last five years, just him doing some crazy things.”
“His role obviously is a captain on the football team,” Haley added. But "I think for him it goes beyond that: just being somebody his family can depend on, someone he wants to make his daughter proud of as she grows up and she learns who he is.”
Barkley’s hopes for Jada, he said, are the same hopes his parents had for him.
“I hope she finds something that she’s passionate about and she commits to it and goes 110 percent at it,” he said. "I hope one day when she gets older she can see the work ethic that I have, and hopefully I can help inspire her to do great things in life.”
While Barkley naturally plans for the future, he tries to slow down, too, and cherish the little moments with his family whenever he gets the chance.
He enjoys watching Congdon embrace motherhood, he said, and appreciates all the work she puts in, especially when he’s traveling for games or events. He loves to see Jada’s personality develop, to see her become a “feisty” bundle of energy, he said, and to watch her blow kisses or mimic dog noises when her favorite animal walks by.
For now, she doesn’t have any idea how big of an NFL star her “Dada” is. She doesn’t know how many yards he’s averaging, or how much he’s worth, or whether his team won or lost when he walks in the door at the end of the day. Either way, she stumbles toward him, little arms outstretched.