Considering he was just a few days away from the start of training camp of what is arguably the biggest season of his career, Saquon Barkley could have been spending a hot Saturday morning on some isolated island, relaxing and mentally preparing for the grind that’s ahead.
Instead, he was spending part of his Saturday morning signing autographs, taking photos, and trying to help out the Batch microcreamery at the Downtown Allentown Market.
Barkley was also raising money for the Michael Ann & Saquon Barkley Hope Foundation, whose mission is to support the goals of youth to excel in academia and athletics through scholarships, educational assistance, and athletics guidance. The foundation wants to bring community leaders. educators and the families of our youth to help ambitious young individuals succeed in their lives, whether it’s in the classroom or sports.
The former Whitehall High and Penn State star is entering his fifth NFL season after an offseason filled with chatter about his health, his future, and whether or not he will be with the New York Giants in 2023.
Barkley remained steadfast in saying he feels great and he’s ready for a big season on a new-look New York team that has a new coach in Brian Daboll, the former offensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills, and a new offensive coordinator, Mike Kafka, who comes to the Meadowlands from Kansas City. Joe Schoen, who also had been with the Bills, is the team’s new general manager and senior vice president.
Daboll is the third different head coach Barkley has had with the Giants in the four years and three months since he was drafted with the second pick in the 2018 draft.
“I’m really excited,” he said. “It’s a big year for me and I put a lot of hard work into this offseason. Obviously, there’s a lot of hard work left to put in, but I am excited about the new coaching staff. It’s going to be a fun year.”
Regarding the conversation concerning his future, Barkley said he just wants to get back on the field.
“I just want to play football; something I’ve loved to do so since I was a little kid and I continue to love to do, and something I’m not going to fall out of love with,” he said. “I’m excited and it’s going to be a really big year, and I’m just going to go out there and give it my all and try to make everyone proud.”
Barkley has only been completely healthy for one season, his rookie year in 2018. He dealt with ankle injuries in both 2019 and 2021, and had a torn ACL and sprained MCL in 2020.
He ran for 2,310 yards in his first two seasons with a combined six rushing TDs, but has been limited to 627 yards and two scores over the past two years. In addition to his health issues, he has dealt with a less-than-average offensive line and some shaky play-calling from a myriad of head coaches and offensive coordinators.
Through it all, he has never complained or demanded change. He took the high road even amid some media criticism directed at the Giants for taking him with the second pick in the draft.
Now, just maybe, the best is yet to come.
“It’s good when you can trust your body again and that only came through a lot of rehabbing, a lot of strength training, a lot of hard work in the training room, in the weight room, and on the field,” he said.
Besides being encouraged by his own health, he sees a team that’s more unified and ready to surprise. The Giants are 19-46 in Barkley’s four seasons with the franchise and ranked 31st in offense each of the past two seasons.
Four of the team’s first five draft picks this year were offensive players, with offensive linemen Evan Neal from Alabama and Joshua Ezeudu from North Carolina joining the fold along with Kentucky wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson and San Diego State tight end Daniel Bellinger. Free agency also brought new faces to the offense.
“It’s big,” he said of the changes and additions. “We did a really good job of building the chemistry through OTAs, learning the playbook, learning the system … it’s going to be fun.”
Barkley had fun with the more than 250 families lined up to see him in Allentown.
Batch co-owners Rick Pongracz and Manny Rodriguez, who grew up together on Allentown’s south side and played sports at Salisbury and Allentown Central Catholic, respectively, were thrilled to have Barkley promote their business with was billed as “Scoops with Saquon.”
“Ever since we have opened our doors at the Downtown Allentown Market, our business has stayed true to its roots and thought about ways to give ways to give back,” Rodriguez said. “We’re excited to partner with Saquon Barkley and his foundation because he’s given back as well since he’s been in the league.”
The Batch opened in Allentown late in 2019 and stayed open through the pandemic. It has since expanded to additional locations at the golf course at Shepherd Hills and to a location at the Trolley Bank in Quakertown. It also has a food truck.
“You couldn’t ask for a better day to have Saquon here,” Pongracz said. “it’s 95 degrees outside and sunny, and a big local day; it’s all come together very well. This place is home for us. To have Saquon here in his hometown is like having the cherry on top.”
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Harold Fairclough, the current Emmaus football coach who was an assistant at Whitehall when Barkley played for the Zephyrs, was on hand to see his former player.
“I was the defensive coordinator at Whitehall for two years and Saquon played outside linebacker for us and we had a pretty good relationship,” Fairclough said. “I took him to Rutgers to watch their spring game and I took him to Penn State when he was a junior.”
“It’s great to see Saquon back here and he’s doing various things back in the Lehigh Valley,” Fairclough said. “When I saw that Jahan (Dotson, former Nazareth and Penn State receiver who is now with the Washington Commanders) had his clinic last week, I was thinking how great it would be if they would collaborate on something big. Maybe that’s coming down the road. They’re both from the area and we’re so proud of them. Every time I hear Saquon’s name on the radio or see him on TV, it puts a big smile on my face. He’s a great kid. I know he’s a grown man now, but he’ll always be a great kid to me.”
Fairclough also coached Manny Rodriguez at Central and was proud to support him and his business.
“I grew up in the inner city,” Fairlclough said. “And it’s also good to see them giving back to the Allentown community and help the city get its footing. Hopefully, we can all do more, myself included, to give back more.”
Barkley — who is excited for his brother Ali, who will be a walk-on at Temple this fall — will most definitely be back home.
“It’s always good to come back to Allentown and the Lehigh Valley,” he said. “It’s always good to come home and see familiar faces like coach Fairclough. It always takes me back to my high school days. This place will always be special to me. I’m not the man I am today without my family and my community. I took a lot of things I learned at Whitehall and from Coplay to Penn State and now into my NFL career. So it’s always good to be in a position to give back and put some smiles on kids’ faces.”