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A few weeks before he got married, and more than a month before the start of training camp, Matt Barkley walked into a small room at the NovaCare Complex. It was June. Most of the other players had long since fled the area for various offseason activities, but Barkley and the rest of the rookies hung around the Eagles’ practice facility as part of their never-ending initiation into the NFL.
Barkley had just finished a workout, and he was dressed casually – jeans, gray T-shirt, boat shoes with no socks. He pulled out a chair and sat down and crossed his legs. Except for the four bottles of water he brought along, and the two reporters who showed up to speak with him, Barkley was alone that day. It had to be a strange sensation – a moment of relative quiet for a guy who hasn’t had many in his life.
Barkley has been something of a celebrity since before he could shave or drive. He was the starting quarterback as a freshman at Matter Dei, one of the most famous prep school football factories in the nation. He was 15. It was a remarkable feat made even more improbable by the fact that he hadn’t begun playing tackle football until he was 12. His mom wouldn’t allow it. She made him play soccer.
That’s when the attention began. It hasn’t stopped since. He started at USC as a true freshman. California kid with California looks becomes starting signal caller at famous California university. How California cool. Fans mobbed him. Reporters mobbed him. In a town full of stars, he was one of the biggest – forever surrounded by cameras and microphones and autograph seekers and hangers-on and …
And then Barkley landed in Philadelphia -- a football-mad city with an unshakable reputation for being tough on the Birds in general and the quarterbacks in particular. Pressure in high school. Pressure in college. More pressure in the pros. Right?
Except, no, not really. Not for Barkley. Not yet. If room to breathe was previously a precious and hard-to-come-by commodity for Barkley, he’s suddenly found himself as un-fussed over as he’s been in a decade – and in Philly, of all places.
“I think right now is the least amount of pressure I’ve had, to tell you the truth, and the least amount of attention,” Barkley said at the NovaCare Complex that day in June. “It’s been great. I don’t mind it either way. You just get used to it. But now, with how the whole draft turned out, it just allows me to not even worry about everything and just put my head down and work and focus and not be judged on everything you do … it’s the least amount of attention I’ve gotten in a while.”
He would have gotten more publicity if he’d entered the NFL draft after his junior year in college. Barkley threw for 3,528 yards, 39 touchdowns and just seven interceptions that season. He completed 69.1 percent of his passes. He was projected to be the third quarterback taken after Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. Instead, Barkley passed on passing in the NFL. He stayed in school.
The decision cost him millions. The numbers his senior year – 3,273 yards, 36 touchdowns, 15 interceptions, 63.6 percent completion – weren’t that far off the stats from his junior campaign. Didn’t matter. USC was just 7-6 in 2012, and Barkley separated his shoulder late in the season in a game against UCLA. Combine all that with questions about Barkley’s arm strength and poof -- he plummeted from first-rounder to just another guy who waited for his name to be called. And waited. And waited. And waited some more.
“The whole draft weekend was kind of tough on my family,” Barkley admitted. “It wasn’t what we expected. Especially once the sun went down the second night and we had to wait.”
On Day 3, after the sun reappeared, the Eagles traded up to get Barkley. He was taken in the fourth round, number 98 overall. The NFL’s official website ran a story about the selection with the following ho-hum, hardly-Hollywood lines:
“It's worth remembering that Barkley is just a fourth-round pick. It's not an investment that will change everything the Eagles do at the position.”
Just a fourth-round pick. Not an investment that will change everything. Oof. Taking a sack from the blind side would have been less painful.
Barkley’s new reality – the one that cast him as bit character in the Eagles' ongoing drama – was reinforced by all the company he had at quarterback. Michael Vick. Nick Foles. Dennis Dixon. G.J. Kinne. Lots of names on that list, the first two of which have been NFL starters. Even more daunting for Barkley, they’ve been starters for the Eagles.
“It’s kind of funny,” Barkley said, “because it was the same thing coming into my freshman year of college – there was a competition. Same thing coming in here my rookie year – there’s a competition. I just came in knowing that the job was open and knowing that I would have to work hard. When it happened, I didn’t think it was anything special.”
During minicamp and OTAs, Barkley took most of his snaps with the third team. Perhaps that will change in training camp. Perhaps Barkley will assert himself as he’s done in the past and challenge Vick and Foles for the starting job. Or maybe, for the first time since he was a kid, he’ll be forced to wait and watch and learn from the shadows while the spotlight falls on someone else.
“Right now, I’m looking at myself as an unproven rookie,” Barkley said. “I think time will tell what that turns into. I definitely view myself as a high-level quarterback. Whatever other attributes you want to put on there, that’s up to you guys. But I definitely feel like I can compete in this league and perform at a high level. All those other adjectives are up to the coaches or other people to describe.”