Lead­ing man?

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - NEWS - Steve Pop­per Colum­nist The (Ber­gen County, N.J.) Record USA TO­DAY Net­work

The Gi­ants drafted Saquon Barkley to be a star run­ning back, but he could serve an­other cru­cial role.

EAST RUTHER­FORD – It wasn’t just the 3-13 record on the field that the Gi­ants wanted to erase af­ter last sea­son.

The en­dur­ing memories, dat­ing all the way back to the day that Odell Beckham Jr. and a hand­ful of team­mates posed on a boat just ahead of a play­off de­feat, were a non-stop pro­ces­sion of a team im­plod­ing.

Be­fore the Eli Manning sit­u­a­tion went hay­wire, the fi­nal straw that cost head coach Ben McA­doo and gen­eral man­ager Jerry Reese their jobs, there were the sus­pen­sions of de­fen­sive backs Do­minique Rodger­sCro­mar­tie and Janoris Jenk­ins, the trou­bles of cor­ner­back Eli Ap­ple and the an­tics and in­juries of Beckham.

And into this a child shall lead them. That sounds a lit­tle risky, eas­ier to en­vi­sion as a Bi­ble verse than ac­tu­ally work­ing in a dys­func­tional NFL locker room. But that’s the ex­pec­ta­tion for Saquon Barkley, to carry the load of­fen­sively, smile for the cam­eras off the field and be­hind closed doors be the sort of high­char­ac­ter leader that the locker room des­per­ately needs.

The Gi­ants of­fi­cially in­tro­duced Barkley April 28, first hav­ing him hold court with the me­dia for 20 min­utes as the 21year-old deftly han­dled him­self more like a movie star than a run­ning back plucked off of the Penn State cam­pus. He was then shut­tled past the Mead­ow­lands Flea Mar­ket and into MetLife Sta­dium to show­case him to a few thou­sand mem­bers of the des­per­ate fan base.

Seated in the front row of the au­di­to­rium watch­ing Barkley speak was Gi­ants co-owner Steve Tisch. He knows celebrity, pro­duc­ing movies for decades, and af­ter watch­ing the per­for­mance at the lectern he was talk­ing about the charis­matic movie and TV fig­ures who he was re­minded of lis­ten­ing to him.

“He’s charis­matic, un­be­liev­ably gifted as an ath­lete,” Tisch said. “He’s very well spo­ken. I think he re­ally knows him­self. His poise is very im­pres­sive. I think the value he’s go­ing to bring to the Gi­ants on the field and in the locker room is fantastic. I was think­ing the other day, we’ve got a quar­ter­back and a run­ning back and we’ve got the Gi­ants back.

“I mean, I keep re­mind­ing my­self that this is a 21-year-old. I’ve got five kids, and he’s a role model. I think he’s go­ing to be a role model for his generation. That’s a lot of re­spon­si­bil­ity to ask for a 21-year-old to be a role model. I’m not sug­gest­ing he needs to take that re­spon­si­bil­ity, but just be­cause of who he is and the team he’s play­ing for, he’s go­ing to prob­a­bly ac­cept that re­spon­si­bil­ity and I think he’s go­ing to be ex­tremely im­pres­sive.”

Barkley has heard this talk, un­der­stand­ing the celebrity he ar­rives in New York with al­ready. While the New York mar­ket can make some play­ers into stars — think Beckham — Barkley al­ready is a star, one who has been her­alded as the next face of the fran­chise and maybe the face of the NFL.

To get there, as he al­lows his Roc Na­tion rep­re­sen­ta­tives to cul­ti­vate his grow­ing celebrity, he in­sists he is fo­cused on what will get him there — per­form­ing on the field.

“I know that’s been said about me and that’s been said about me in col­lege at Penn State,” Barkley said. “But I think it’s kind of how you view it. I re­ally never view my­self as that. If that comes along with the things that I’m do­ing, then so be it. But the way that I kind of han­dle that is just con­tinue to stay fo­cused on the sport and con­tinue to stay fo­cused on foot­ball and fo­cus on my fam­ily and the things that get you there.

“But the face of the fran­chise, when you have suc­cess, that tag comes along (with it). That’s kind of how I view it. The more suc­cess you have, the more at- ten­tion and the more spot­light comes to your name and they kind of tag you with that. But that’s not some­thing that I’m re­ally look­ing forward to be­ing. If that hap­pens, God will­ing, I have a lot of suc­cess and that comes with the ter­ri­tory, then so be it.”

The 37-year-old Manning is still the player who has seen it all — the ups and downs — and has the Su­per Bowl rings to prove it. But there was cer­tainly a vacuum to be filled. Gen­eral man­ager Dave Get­tle­man and Gi­ants coach Pat Shur­mur both agreed that age is not an ob­sta­cle to lead­er­ship.

“You don’t have to be ex­tra­or­di­nary in any way to lead,” Shur­mur said. “You just have to have the courage to do the right thing at the right time for the right rea­sons and not worry about the con­se­quences. There’s no rea­son to say that a young player can’t do it as well as an old player. Then you start to lead. Then what we have to do and what Dave has done, we want to put a locker room of more of those guys to­gether, then they lead one an­other. Then the cul­ture of your team starts and ends in that locker room.”

“I had a con­ver­sa­tion with my fa­ther and my mom about that and team­mates and how you come in a locker room at the age of 21 and lead when you’re with guys like Eli Manning and Odell, and, well, I just have to be who I am,” Barkley said. “That’s the best ad­vice that I’ve got­ten through­out this whole process. It’s ‘ be Saquon Barkley’ and ev­ery­thing else will take care of it­self.

“The way I view that is com­ing into the locker room and be who you are, I’m a de­ter­mined guy, I love the game of foot­ball, I love talk­ing foot­ball, I love hang­ing out with the guys, I love my team­mates and I’m will­ing to do any­thing for my team­mates and earn their re­spect. You have to earn the re­spect of your team­mates first, and I’m un­der that mind-set that noth­ing is given to you. You have to earn ev­ery­thing. … That’s some­thing that I feel like in col­lege dur­ing my fresh­man year I didn’t do, I didn’t step up to that chal­lenge and I didn’t speak enough and I kind of sat back and let (oth­ers) speak and I didn’t take that ap­proach where I felt like at that time, look­ing back, I could have def­i­nitely helped.”

He had ad­vice even for the as­sem­bled me­dia. When asked if be­ing a Bronx na­tive be­fore his mother pulled them out of New York and to Le­high Val­ley in Penn­syl­va­nia he had sights he wanted to see, maybe catch a Yan­kees or Mets game?

“I’ve been to a Broad­way show,” he said. “I’ve seen Hamil

ton, which is one of the great­est things I’ve seen in my life. I’d def­i­nitely en­cour­age you guys to go see that.”

He knows some­thing about a big show. He’s about to dive head­first into it.

CATALINA FRAGOSO/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Gi­ants first-round pick Saquon Barkley is shoul­der­ing high ex­pec­ta­tions: to carry the load of­fen­sively and be a high-char­ac­ter leader in the locker room.

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