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Penn State's Saquon Barkley built through constant work

| Monday, Oct. 30, 2017, 10:03 p.m.
Penn State's Saquon Barkley leaps over Ohio State kicker Sean Nuernberger en route to a 97-yard opening kickoff return for a touchdown in the first quarter Oct. 28, 2017.
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Penn State's Saquon Barkley leaps over Ohio State kicker Sean Nuernberger en route to a 97-yard opening kickoff return for a touchdown in the first quarter Oct. 28, 2017.

The story of Penn State running back Saquon Barkley isn't a familiar story about a can't-miss prodigy. Instead, it's about how astonishing talent was forged by hard-work and determination.

In 2001, concerned about the violence and drugs she witnessed daily in the Bronx, Barkley's mother, Tonya Johnson, moved her family to Bethlehem, where she had a sister.

Barkley's parents worked numerous jobs, and as they moved to Allentown and finally to nearby Copley, they pointed their six children toward sports.

Young Saquon was drawn to football and wrestling.

Barkley had more success on the wrestling mat, where in elementary school and junior high he competed and prospered in the middle weights. Tim Cunningham, now Whitehall's wrestling coach, said the youngster could have been a district or state champion.

Sophomore year at Whitehall, Barkley saw time with the varsity football team, but the 160-pound linebacker/running back lacked confidence and bulk.

“He just needed confidence,” coach Brian Gilbert said, ‘“and that was frustrating for us because we were like, ‘You could be so good.'

“Between sophomore and junior years was where things really clicked. Working in the weight room, he began to realize, ‘Wow, I'm pretty strong compared to these other kids.' And he was able to transfer that confidence onto the field.”

Gilbert said it was in his junior season that Barkley displayed hints of the player he would become.

“I'll never forget this one play where everyone had him boxed in,” said Gilbert. “All of a sudden you saw the whole pile start moving forward. That's how strong he was.”

He built that strength, friends said, through an almost obsessive devotion to the weight room.

Gilbert said whenever he pointed out a deficiency, Barkley not only wanted to correct it, but master it.

“Most kids will just gravitate to what they're good at and push aside what their deficiencies are,” he said. “He's the other way.”

It was on the track, where Barkley ran sprints and relays, that another aspect of his legend emerged.

During a combined league meet in 2015, Saucon Valley's Rachel Panek won the 100-meter hurdles.

But a timing malfunction necessitated a re-race, and in that event, Panek stumbled over a hurdle and finished eighth.

Barkley saw what happened, and after winning the 100 meters, he searched out Panek and gave her his gold medal.

“I love winning races and receiving medals,” he said at the time. “But I felt she deserved it, too. Everyone saw that she won her race.”

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