December 2009 Nick Dunn
Depending on your perspective, 95 yards can be a long or a short distance. A car moving at 70 mph would cover that ground in 2.8 seconds. A competitive sprinter would take closer to 10. For a 19-year-old freshman quarterback leading his football team on a potential game-winning drive in one of college football’s most intimidating environments? Well, 95 yards might look more like 95 continents.
For USC quarterback Matt Barkley, those 95 yards were what he’d been waiting for since he was a kid dreaming of wearing the University of Southern California cardinal and gold. As the No. 1 recruit in the nation coming out of high school, Barkley’s swift rise up the depth chart was more satisfying than surprising; his near flawless performance in his first-ever start against San Jose State more fulfilling than unforeseen. But it came down to the final minutes on the road at Ohio State’s famed Horseshoe to see what the youngster was truly made of.
Trailing 15-10 and facing a second-and-19 from their own 5-yard line with six minutes left in the game, Barkley’s shoulder was throbbing. He’d been hit earlier in the game but was playing through the pain. His team needed a touchdown, and he had to lead them to it.
It started with an 11-yard Joe McKnight rush, then back-to-back passes of 21 and 26 yards from Barkley before the Trojans were in scoring range. On third-and-2 from the Ohio State 6 later in the drive, Barkley converted with a QB scramble, and then on the next play handed off to Stafon Johnson who scored the game-winning touchdown and silenced the record 106,000 in attendance.
Barkley’s performance under pressure was jaw-dropping, but it was his reflection a month later that shed light on what kept him so calm in the clutch.
“I was praying the whole time for God to help me get through,” he said. “I couldn’t really hear the crowd. It was thunderous, but for some reason I was able to just block it out. No doubt I could feel God’s presence around me.”
It'd be easy to think the best high school football player in the nation would be full of himself when walking the hallways of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif., but that certainly wasn’t the case with Matt Barkley.
Matt Barkley – #7
|University of Southern California|
Born: Sept. 8, 1990
Hometown: Newport Beach, Calif.
Height/Weight: 6-3/220 lbs.
• Under Armour High School All-America Game MVP
• 2007 Gatorade Male High School Athlete and Football
Player of the Year
• Super Prep All-American, Prep Star All-American,
Considered one of the best prep programs in the country, Mater Dei has no shortage of football prestige. It boasts two previous Heisman Trophy winners—most recently USC alum Matt Leinart in 2004—and currently has seven players on Division I rosters. Games typically draw between 10,000 and 25,000 spectators.
Despite the gridiron fever—typically a fertile ground for FCA—the athletic ministry had remained unrealized on the campus to that point. That was until Barkley unprecedentedly became the starting quarterback as a freshman.
A Christian since elementary school, Barkley and his cousin Robbie Boyer, who now plays wide receiver for USC, decided to make a faith statement that coincided with their football success. By their junior years, they started praying before every game on the field.
At first it was only those two and offensive coordinator Dave Money. But quickly the prayer huddle began to grow.
“One of the coolest and most emotional things we went through was looking down on that field and seeing that prayer circle,” said Barkley’s mother, Bev. “It went from three to seven or eight, and, by the end, there were 30 or 40.”
Soon enough, the Barkley and Boyer families approached FCA’s Barry Martinez and Jared Hall about starting a Huddle at Mater Dei. Hall, a former college quarterback himself at Minnesota’s Bethel University, immediately connected with the young athletes to form a summer Bible study.
Over time, Hall grew into a spiritual mentor for Barkley, and the two still talk regularly even though they live 45 minutes apart.
“His faith is definitely his top priority,” Hall said of Barkley. “I’ve never met a 19-year-old who puts more faith in Jesus Christ than he does. In the midst of all the things you go through as an athlete, he has just stayed dedicated to Christ.”
Now, Barkley’s younger siblings, twins Sam and Laney, are the co-presidents of the FCA Huddle at Mater Dei, where it continues to thrive.
Last December, after Matt graduated from Mater Dei for early enrollment at USC, all five members of the Barkley family went on a mission trip to South Africa and experienced what Matt called the best Christmas he’d ever had.
For eight days, the Barkleys and about 20 others from Santa Ana’s Rock Harbor Church spent time with kids at an orphanage called Bridges of Hope Academy just outside of Capetown, South Africa. It’s essentially a school for about 65 kids who have been saved from the city’s slums.
Matt played his guitar for evening worship services, and everyone spent the days hanging out with the kids playing games.
“It was so awesome—just a breath of fresh air,” Barkley said. “I felt like I was free to be me and interact with those kids. We got them each a medium-sized duffel bag with sunblock and a bathing suit, and their faces just lit up. It was really neat to see the joy after receiving what we thought was such a little gift, but
it meant so much to them.”
Barkley and his father, Les—a former USC water polo All-American—had to return to the States for Barkley’s appearance in the Under Armour High School All-America Game, but they never forgot the experience. He’d been on mission trips before, but this one had a distinct effect on Barkley, one he hopes to carry with him during his time at USC.
In many ways, this country has seen the impact a high-profile college football player can have when he uses his spotlight to glorify Christ. Quarterbacks Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford and Colt McCoy have all been outspoken about their faith during their time in college, but soon that trio will likely transition to the NFL.
Where will the attention shift? Hopefully, it will fall on guys like Matt Barkley.
“He’s got opportunities every day,” Hall said. “Every interview he has the chance to point people to the Lord—why he’s been given these abilities and Who he can give thanks to.”
Barkley knows he will go through challenges to his faith, but he’s praying that God will help him keep the focus off himself. That can be difficult when you’re playing one of the most glamorous positions in college football. With no pro football team in a city as big as Los Angeles, USC football almost takes the place of the long-departed Rams and Raiders, and the starting quarterback is under more scrutiny than anyone.
But in discussions about Barkley, the one word that keeps coming up is “unflappable.” He’s unflappable on the field, composed in his life outside of football and, most
importantly, undeterred in his walk with Christ.
Simply put, Matt Barkley is who he is, and he’s confident God will carry him through the inevitable challenges ahead.
“(I’m hoping) that people would just see a difference and hopefully change their habits and the way they live,” Barkley said. “I think I can see it on this team and on this campus already. God is definitely moving on this campus in a lot of ways.”
Barkley and Boyer’s prayer circle tradition has stayed with them at USC. These two, along with fullback Adam Goodman, are accountability partners, and Barkley still looks to his parents often for advice and spiritual mentoring.
Currently, Barkley is focusing on 1 Timothy 4:12 (NIV): “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.”
It’s a verse that is more than appropriate for his current situation, where many of his teammates are three, four, or even five years older. But the key, according to Barkley, is realizing that he’s not alone in his journey—even when he’s 95 yards away from where he wants to be.
“Relying on God’s strength keeps me grounded and keeps me calm,” he said. “It has to do with my personality as well, but that’s how God made me. I have to just keep my composure and realize that I didn’t do anything on my own to get to this point. Sure, it was hard work, but ultimately I’ve got to keep my mind right in knowing that God put me here for a reason, and I wouldn’t be here without Him.”
L to R: Jared Hall, Robbie Boyer and Barkley
Earning respect as a freshman and leading older teammates: “They really welcomed me in and lifted me up. They welcomed me as one of the guys. I don’t think they really care if I’m 18 or 19 or whatever. I don’t try to act a certain way. I just try to be a man and play with them. They don’t see me as a little freshman anymore, which is great, and I respect the heck out of them. And I hope they respect me as well.”
Accountability and being an example: “It’s great to have Christian guys on the team. There aren’t too many—only a handful—but we’re reaching out and trying to do the best we can. It’s huge to have that core group of guys you can trust and really depend on to strengthen you. It’s cool to have Jared Hall, Robbie (Boyer) and my father—men like that who have challenged me, who hold me accountable. But God is definitely moving here in a lot of ways. By our being examples and living in a manner that’s honorable to people, especially to women, and just the way we act—I hope that speaks volumes in little ways.”
--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.
Photos courtesy of USC Media Relations and Jared Hall