High school – just the thought of it brings shivers to most of those that survived that four year hell hole of hormones, angst, and debauchery.
As a 14-year-old freshman, I arrived on my first day on campus alone. All of my friends from yesteryear went to different schools, and I was left with nothing but fear and anxiety. What if I don’t meet people? How do I be popular? How do I not screw this up in front of the hot girls that I will most assuredly never get a chance to date? Now that I think about that, how do I date? All of these questions raced through my head for hours the night before without ever getting close to an answer. This was almost certainly going to suck, and suck a lot.
And then first period happened.
I still strangely remember everything about my first real high school class. I got into my seat well before the bell rang (because to be quite honest I didn't have anyone to hold me up) and quietly waited for my day to begin. It was a religion class (yes, those exist at Catholic high schools) taught by Mrs. Hall. She was a short, happy-go-lucky woman who was about as welcoming as any new kid could hope for. As other students poured in and started filling up chairs, my new teacher inspected her fresh pupils. Her gaze stopped on me, and I think she could tell I was alone. Before Mrs. Hall could come over and say something, a large figure stepped in between us and sat one desk to my right. There were still open seats in every direction, but for some reason this tall, blonde, muscular man-child was sitting right beside my curly-headed, braces-filled self. It didn't make sense.
"Hi, I’m Matt," he said. As calmly as I could muster through my nervousness, I responded, "Hi, I’m Brett."
We talked through class and got to know each other a little bit. It was all very small talk-ish, but I do remember my new acquaintance mentioning that he was on the football team. As a hockey player myself, it was nice to meet someone else who enjoyed sports that revolve around making others bleed for fun. Our class eventually ended and we parted ways, but I can still distinctly remember the overwhelming feeling of relief that came over me as I went through my other classes. I knew I wasn't exactly friends with this Matt kid, but the fact that I actually got to talk to someone was huge for me. I wasn't invisible after all; maybe this high school thing won’t be so bad? Maybe I can make some new friends?
Later on that day we had our first rally to welcome the new freshman class. Our head football coach went into a speech and addressed a few of the younger football players that hoped to one day play for this stereotypically gravel-voiced man, and at the end of his spiel he singled out one student, a freshmen quarterback that was already a varsity starter.
"Matt Barkley, come on up here," he growled.
The stands erupted in applause, as if I was supposed to know who the hell we were cheering for. He might as well have been the Pope judging by the pure ferocity of the crowd. Much to my surprise, the kid that walked up to the microphone was the very same Matt that sat next to me in Mrs. Hall’s class. According to Coach Rollinson, this guy was not only a great quarterback, but the greatest quarterback to ever come to this school. Considering our previous two signal callers were Matt Leinart and Colt Brennan, both of whom would go on to be in the NFL, that was pretty high praise for a 15-year-old kid. After Barkley’s little pep talk was done and the crowd once again exploded, it hit me – this guy is a God on campus. He could probably have any girl in this room. 95% of the male population in this school probably lusts for his athletic ability. This Matt Barkley character is quite literally the guy at this school…and yet he sat next to me.
Matt could have gone anywhere. He had friends in that class that he very easily could have bartered his way into sitting next to with any number of people who were aware of his deific status. He had a teacher that more than likely already knew who he was well before he even walked through the door, and yet he sat next to the kid staring at a blank notebook with nobody to talk to. He didn't have to do that, he really didn't – but he did. Matt Barkley introduced himself to me. I was nobody, and arguably the most ignorable person in that whole class, but he reached out anyway. It was a simple gesture from a nice guy that was entirely meaningless, and yet one of the most important moments of my life.
I had no illusions of being best buddies with the varsity quarterback. We ran with different crowds and had vastly different interests, but that wasn't what was important to me. I wouldn't have been able to meet the people that would become my best friends if Matt Barkley didn't meet me first. That aforementioned sense of relief gave me a confidence boost that is damn near indescribable to anyone other than emotionally turbulent 14-year-old males who have deep seeded self-esteem issues and a fear of rejection. Somebody talked to me, so why I can’t I go talk to someone myself? I’m sure they won’t bite – that Matt guy definitely didn't.
Three periods later I met Phil, my current best friend of eight years. He was reading a Halo novel – "The Fall of Reach" to be exact – and it happened to be the same book I was reading. I tapped him on the shoulder and introduced myself. Four years of Latin and almost a decade of putting up with his Steeler fandom later, and he’s going to be a groomsman in my wedding when I finally get around to marrying the love of my life. I wouldn't have said a word to Phil if Matt never said a word to me. That much I know is true. As insignificant as Matt Barkley may have thought a conversation with some random kid he met in religion class was that day, that insignificant conversation got me through my first day of high school and set me up for what we would be the rest of my life. Isn't it funny how the smallest of things can become so earth-shatteringly huge?
I never stuck with football. Hockey season ran right through football season, and I was much better at crushing people into the boards at 25 miles per hour than I was at playing football, though I loved both sports equally. I opted to instead become "the tape guy" for the football team, while working for MDTV, which was our TV production program. I sat in a scissor lift every weekday, recording practices and marking drill sessions, and then spent my Friday nights in the truck directing live Internet broadcasts that would occasionally get picked up by Fox Sports West for the bigger games. I even got to work with NFL Films on a documentary about our famous rivalry with Servite High. It’s funny how life has a way of foreshadowing itself.
I still distinctly remember Barkley missing a 20-yard dig route in practice one day by only a couple of inches, and specifically how angry he was that he missed. He wanted that throw to be perfect. It had to be perfect. He wouldn't stop until it was perfect. People say he doesn't have an NFL arm, but when Matt Barkley is angry he will hurt people with that ball. Even as 16-year-olds, we could hear the pop from all the way across the field as his cousin’s hands skirted the laws of physics rep after rep. My favorite "you've got to be kidding me" moment came in our junior year. At our own one-yard-line in the annual Servite rivalry game, Barkley inexplicably avoided a pass rusher screaming off the edge, and as a second assailant dragged him down by the legs he flat out launched the ball, without stepping into the throw mind you, 50 yards to his receiver in stride for a 99-yard touchdown. It was quintessential Matt Barkley. You wouldn't know when, you wouldn't know how, but if he had the ball in his hands, he would find some way to silence the opposing crowd. The Servite stands looked like they had just been subjected to a 12 hour marathon of Sarah McLaughlin ASPCA commercials. It was glorious. There have never been tears so delicious.
I would chit-chat with Matt on and off for our four years of high school. I wouldn't really call us "bros," but he knew me and I knew him, and we were friendly with each other. Hell, he was friendly with everyone now that I think about it. Most hot-shot quarterbacks run around drinking, partying, and getting away with academic murder, but not Matt Barkley. He was friendly with everyone, avoided the party animal scene, got great grades, and did mountains of charity work from here to South America. He was such a good person to the point where it made you almost feel bad about yourself.
When Barkley took up the mantle at USC, he continued being the same guy that he’s always been. He did well in school, stayed active in the community, and lived a life in accordance with his devout Christianity. Despite crippling scholarship penalties and Pete Carroll’s, Monte Kiffin’s, and Lane Kiffin’s collective ineptitude, Matt Barkley stayed at USC rather than being a top-five NFL pick last year and got them into position to be a national title contender. He had multiple epic duels with Andrew Luck (and I still maintain that the 2011 triple overtime Stanford-USC showdown was one of the greatest football games I’ve ever seen) and somehow kept them competitive with Oregon’s intimidating offense.
Just as he did when we were in high school, Matt Barkley played big in big games, led those who would follow him, and did what it took to get his team in position to win. Were there some bad interceptions here and there? Sure. Were his feet clumsy at times and his delivery not as tight as you want? Absolutely. Did he force throws at times when his sieve of an offensive line let Star Lotulelei through play after play? Yep. Does any of that really matter? Is that what really determines what makes or breaks a quarterback?
A lot of players have come into the NFL with great mechanics, arm strength, and all of the physical qualities you could ever want, but they forgot to pack a spine and a brain. Drew Brees was short. Russell Wilson was shorter. Philip Rivers had a funky delivery. Colin Kaepernick was a gimmick. Tom Brady was essentially silly putty with a nice face. Some of these players were taken high, some of them were taken low, but none of them were seen as complete packages. What they did have, however, was a drive to win. These men aren't all among the top quarterbacks in the NFL because they can run a 4.4 forty or throw the ball 60 yards; they are successful because they work harder and longer than anyone else in the league. They don’t back down from a fight. They don’t give in when it’s 3rd and 9 with under two minutes to play. They don’t curl up in a ball when Clay Matthews tries to literally rip them in half. These men are quarterbacks, not robots.
In my opinion, people get too wrapped up in the physical and technical aspects of playing the position in the modern NFL . So Matt Barkley’s feet need work? So he doesn't have Matt Stafford’s arm? So he doesn't have the mobility to run for 50 yard touchdowns?
Who. The. Hell. Cares.
There’s more to being the face of a franchise than having a strong arm. You know what I want in a quarterback? I want a guy that wants to win. I want a guy that makes his teammates want to win. I want a guy that gladly takes a shot on the chin while delivering a strike over middle to put his team in field goal range. I want a guy that can turn down millions of dollars, take a program that was declared dead, and make them a preseason #1 title favorite just to shove it down everyone’s throat who said he couldn't do it. I want a guy with the kind of heart that sits next to a lonely kid on his first day of school and, intentional or not, makes him feel like it isn't the end of the world.
You know what I want in a quarterback? I want Matt Barkley.