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Matt Barkley's gift to USC could keep on giving

BILL PLASCHKE

The quarterback's decision to stay with the Trojans for another season might lead to a 2012 national championship — even as he puts future NFL riches at risk.

December 22, 2011|Bill Plaschke

Deck the halls with boughs of Barkley.

Three days before Christmas, the USC football program was stunned Thursday to discover three shiny, previously unobtainable objects under its tree.

A possible 2012 national championship. A possible 2012 Heisman Trophy. An impossibly glowing kid named Matt Barkley.

PHOTOS: Decision day for Matt Barkley

Yeah, he's staying. Against all odds, he's staying. Defying all practical advice, he's staying.

Turning down buckets of NFL money to embrace a community of Trojans hearts, quarterback Barkley announced Thursday he was returning to school for a final college season that his presence could turn into one of the most memorable in school history.

At the end of a heartfelt speech whose final stirring paragraphs might one day be etched in granite, Barkley said that after leading the Trojans through their darkest probation moments, he couldn't resist the chance to carry them to what could be their finest hour.

"Our USC football team has been through some tough times, and we have persevered, but the 2012 team has some serious unfinished business to attend to, and I intend to play a part of it," Barkley announced amid roaring cheers at the news conference set appropriately in front of a giant Christmas tree in the middle of Heritage Hall. "So yes, I've firmly decided to forgo the NFL draft in 2012 and finish this exceptional and unique journey that I've had here at USC."

About the time the cheering stopped and the shock settled and the football world started scratching its head, Coach Lane Kiffin stepped to the dais and uttered the only appropriate word.

"Wow," he said.

Wow indeed, as Barkley just gave up as much as $20 million in guaranteed high-draft-pick money for a chance to finish out a journey that pays him nothing. Even with the insurance policy he surely possesses, Barkley is risking a lifetime of riches to become perhaps the greatest of Trojans football legends.

It didn't work out that way for former Trojans quarterback Matt Leinart, who returned to school several years ago with similar fanfare, only to lose in the national title game and fall in the NFL draft. But Barkley clearly follows his own path, from last summer's mission work in Africa to Wednesday night at his parents' Newport Beach home

That's where he informed Kiffin of his decision in typical cornball Barkley fashion. After being summoned to an evening meeting, the coach walked into the house and was escorted to the family Christmas tree. Once there, Barkley showed Kiffin a homemade ornament that contained a photo of the coach and quarterback hugging after Barkley threw his school-record sixth touchdown pass in Colorado.

Kiffin, befuddled and perhaps even a bit irked that he would be summoned to trim a tree, said simply, "Cool ornament."

Barkley then told him to turn the ornament over.

On the other side it read, "One more year."

A day later, Kiffin appeared to momentarily choke up when discussing a move that clearly shocked even him.

"This is a special, special college student-athlete story," said Kiffin, adding. "He's the perfect Trojan. He's Matty Trojan."

Another name fit Barkley on Thursday when he gave his return speech. Anybody else think he sounded like Tim Tebow? He sounded eerily like Tebow when the former Florida quarterback gave his infamous "Promise Speech" that led the Gators to the 2008 national title.

"I am prepared to play quarterback in the NFL, it is my dream to play quarterback in the NFL, and I intend to make that dream a reality," Barkley said. "But I also know that I came to USC to compete and have a rare journey as a USC football player, earn a degree from this exceptional university and forge lifelong bonds with the Trojan family."

By returning, next season Barkley will be college football's new Tebow, everybody's All-American who will be favored to win a Heisman with a fifth-ranked team returning enough powerful pieces that it could be favored to win the national championship.

"It was not until I actually became a student-athlete here and was immersed in all that USC is, that I began to comprehend the true and lasting value of USC," said Barkley. "Ironically, the unique level of adversity that was heaped upon our team two years ago has only strengthened that value and added to me and my teammate's resolve … resolve that was expressed in the games that we were allowed to play in 2011, and resolve that will be even more strongly expressed in every quarter of every game we are blessed to play in 2012."

Those games, the Trojans' first that will count in three years, will now be under the most powerful of microscopes. For the first time in Barkley's career, not only will everyone be watching, but everyone will be expecting.

The kid made a tough decision. The kid made, to many, a strange decision, as anything less than brilliant success for his 2012 Trojans might be criticized as Barkley's utter failure.

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