Few athletes live better than the stone-cold, kick-ass, whoop-all-comers college running back. You know the type; you can list the examples. His life, at least the televised part of it, is very nearly perfect. On Saturday mornings, people sit at desks and talk to TV cameras about the remarkable things he’s about to do. In the afternoons, he does them. In the early evenings, he takes off his helmet and says into a microphone that, sure, 300 all-purpose yards are nice, and yes, that third touchdown was fun and all, but he’s just happy he could help his team get the win. It's not just that his talent so thoroughly exceeds that of the people who pretend to be his peers. It's that the structures he operates in—the duties of his position, the game plans of his coaches, the demands of the local and national media and of professional scouts—ask only one thing of him: to lay bare that big, honking, canyon-sized talent gap as often and as convincingly as he can.
And yet: the stone-cold, kick-ass, whoop-all-comers college RB can surely feel the flicker of unreality to the whole thing. The sense of the last second before the morning alarm, stretched from September through New Year’s. His teammates and opponents have bad and good games, they struggle and redeem themselves, and he just rattles off versions of superiority. He singlehandedly buries a rival, or he toasts some midgrade team and sits the final quarter-and-a-half. Whenever he takes the ball he selects from the dozens of good things he can do with it, blasting through linebackers, double-timing out around the edge, moving down the field in a hieroglyphic reel of shimmy and spin move and goal-line trot. The dullest announcing superlative—He makes it look easy!—is, with him, literal, and in response to this a vague uneasiness festers. His carries and games and seasons take on the feeling of extended prologue, and the audience, even as it stands and claps, waits for the conflict. In order to become interesting, he has to become, through injury or scandal or eventual NFL comeuppance, worse.
This player has been named Leonard Fournette, and Reggie Bush, and Ricky Williams, and Bo Jackson, and Earl Campbell. Right now he’s named Saquon Barkley.
Barkley, in his third and certainly final season at Penn State, has reached that excellence-as-stasis stage, less a player than an archetype. He’s not only quick in relation to his power or strong in relation to his speed; he refuses the logic—football's foundational logic—that one talent should come at the expense of any other. His thighs are cannonballs, his toes are trills, his hands are fishing nets and then vises. He is too small to grab and too big to tackle. There is no moment in the sport more promising, more immediately heart-quickening, than when he first touches the ball, taking a handoff or pitch or catching it in the flat, scanning the directions and angles of the defense and scheming against them in the same instant.
Then Barkley moves. In every direction lies an advantage. He chooses the middle, he shoulders through the scrum, he veers to the sideline, he is on open grass and with a tip of his pads is past the safety. He has a straight line to the end zone left, tracked by the big swelling sound. It was remarkable, but now it’s over, and really it was over before it started. The sound gets quieter as he jogs to the sideline, ready to do it again.