Nov. 26 was a watershed moment for USC Football, as the team put the finishing touches on a 50-0 rout of rival UCLA. The Trojans were back after being harshly sanctioned, and quarterback Matt Barkley, who had dreamed of being a Trojan since his Newport Beach boyhood, had been central to the turnaround. The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum crowd screamed "One more year!" at Barkley.
A junior, Barkley was thought to be on the verge of leaving to earn millions in the NFL. In fact, during the previous two-year sanction period, many had speculated that Barkley would bolt to a scandal-free school. Instead, the square-jawed, handsome QB stuck around to help rebuild his troubled team.
As he emerged as the face of the program, he showed the kind of guts that would make him a perfect fit for the quarterback-driven NFL. Barkley surprised everyone in late December by deciding that he would stay in school another year to attempt to win a National Championship for USC.
"I grew up in Southern California, and I love everything about this place," he says. "The last half of 2011 really proved that this team was something special, which was to bring USC football back where it needs to be."
Thanks to a scandal he had no part in, before his sophomore season the All-American was thrust into the sports-as-politics spotlight. "I was forced to step up and be a vocal leader, which naturally I'm not," he says. But that twist of fate was OK, he explains: "You can only grow as a person when you're uncomfortable."
While it would have been easy to let the attention go to his head, the 21-year-old Barkley is as humble as a walk-on. He's also surprisingly laid-back.
He does blow off steam, though, in occasionally quirky ways. He gave a TV interview in a spot-on Irish accent. He has 50,000-plus followers on Twitter. He relaxes by playing acoustic guitar, and he follows needtobreathe ("I'm a big fan of what those guys do") and Adele ("She's killing it right now!").
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On the December day he revealed his choice to stay in college, Barkley nearly sent his notoriously high-strung coach, Lane Kiffin, to the ER. Kiffin had been asked over to Barkley's house, and the quarterback drew out the tension by showing the anxious coach a cherished family Christmas ornament rather than immediately addressing his decision. Then the coach read the inscription: "One more year. To the memories next year."
It's safe to predict that, unlike some Trojan players of recent past, you won't read about this one on the TMZ website, partying with celebrities, and you won't see his name in the police blotter, accused of disorderly conduct. Barkley, whose family is deeply religious, is more likely to participate in Bible study than a bar crawl.
His reluctance to cash in early may land him in the pantheon of Trojan greats. But whatever happens next, Barkley says, he "wouldn't give back this experience for anything." Besides, he adds, "I wasn't ready to pay taxes yet."