USC quarterback Matt Barkley could be heading to the NFL draft next year… (Alex Gallardo / Los Angeles…)
On a hot summer afternoon four days before college football's first broiling weekend, I'm hanging out with this town's marquee college football player, looking for a shady spot to sit and talk.
Matt Barkley knows just the place.
"There's a bench over there," he says, pointing to a tree-covered spot on the USC campus that I've passed dozens of times but never noticed. "That will work."
Matt Barkley knows this place. He loves this place. He embraces the nooks, immerses himself in the crannies. He talks about soaking in the richness of the Doheny Library. He talks about occasionally ducking out of Heritage Hall to walk through the Cinematic Arts Complex because it just feels so cool.
"The biggest appeal for me is just being here, and being part of all this," he says.
After surviving two of the most difficult seasons endured by any Trojans quarterback, Matt Barkley can finally, truly call USC home.
Just in time for him to leave it.
Watch him closely for the next couple of months, because you probably won't be seeing him around here again. Barkley is understandably hoping to use a second consecutive season with no bowl or championship hopes to obtain something even greater — an NFL future.
Despite the daily pleadings from his coach and what will certainly be an autumn's worth of love from his fans, Barkley is probably in his final year here, and can you blame him?
He's already a senior academically. By the time the year is finished, he will have given the school three seasons with only one turmoil-filled Emerald Bowl in return.
He's done his time. He's made his mark. Yes, he would become a campus legend if he stays in school to lead them out of probation next season, but who goes to college to become a campus legend?
"I came to USC to prepare myself for a job," he says. "That job just happens to be football."
And, given his steady improvement, that job should be ready for him in next spring's NFL draft, and if the round is right, the kid is gone.
"I'll just say this — I want to put myself in a position to go out with a bang," Barkley says. "I'm not trying to get out of here, but I want to play great enough to make sure that there is no question, no doubt, about what I have to do."
It may sound strange, but if USC fans want something to cheer about this season, it's OK to cheer for Barkley's long farewell. Cheer him for serving as the calm, dignified face of a team dragged through purgatory. Cheer him for coaxing the sunlight out of players legally bound to the shadows.
Cheer for him for refusing to criticize while watching his comeback efforts undermined by the defense last season against Washington and Stanford. Cheer for him for never allowing despair to overcome his gestures or doubt to fill his quotes.
While you're at it, cheer for Barkley to win the Heisman Trophy, if only because he is nowhere in the preseason rankings and unfairly has little chance because his team cannot win a championship.
"I didn't know I couldn't win the Heisman," he says, smiling. "I didn't do anything to get us on probation, did I?"
When Barkley showed up here three years ago as that special little blond-haired boy hanging from Pete Carroll's apron strings, it was difficult to like him. Now, it is impossible not to respect him, the supposedly pampered Orange County kid becoming a city-wide role model, maturing through the stereotypes and shining over the perceptions.
"Matt is going to go down as a great Trojan whether he stays in school or not," says Coach Lane Kiffin. "He has led us through tough, tough times … even though he doesn't have the championships to show for it, he may have done something even harder."
And he's done it by breaking the mold of the recent USC quarterback. He doesn't do Hollywood like Matt Leinart, and he doesn't do partying like Mark Sanchez.
Kiffin was driving home from work one Thursday night when he spotted Barkley walking across the street. Kiffin summoned the quarterback to his car and offered him a ride.
"He asked me to take him to a fraternity house, and I'm thinking, OK, I know what's going on here," said Kiffin. "But it turns, he was going there for a Bible study."
That's Barkley, who doesn't drink, doesn't curse, and loves to go country line dancing, a fact which I still don't quite believe. Instead of wallowing in self pity during last winter's bowl season, Barkley traveled to Nigeria to do charity work among the poor, his most memorable moments occurring when he handed out soccer balls to children.
"To see their eyes light up like those soccer balls were made of gold, I will never forget that," Barkley said. "To see that something so small can be so important, it really taught me something."
He hopes to pass along those lessons this season to an offense that he runs from sideline to huddle, a talented group that should propel him to a triumphant exit.
"Yeah, the whole probation thing stinks, it's been really brutal, but at the end of the day, it's all about banding together to play ball," Barkley says. "That's what we try to do, forget about everything else and just play a simple game of ball."
No matter what happens this season, here's guessing Barkley will make that simple game worth watching. He's playing for nothing. He's playing for everything.