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Silver Football winners Saquon Barkley, J.T. Barrett took time to find home

This story begins in February 2014 with two young men trying to find their way, their place.

Saquon Barkley is 17, a star running back in eastern Pennsylvania whom some have dubbed "Little Barry Sanders." He has committed to play for Rutgers, and his father always tells him, "Be a man of your word."

But Rutgers athletics is suddenly synonymous with a coach firing basketballs at his players. And there's this ebullient new coach at Penn State named James Franklin, who could sell deer urine to a deer and calls Barkley "a guy we couldn't let leave the state."

J.T. Barrett, meanwhile, has been enrolled at Ohio State for a year and still has no true role on the team. His coaches sometimes call him "Fat-ass" after he arrived from Texas out of shape, partly the result of ACL surgery.

Barrett is a distant third on the depth chart at quarterback behind Braxton Miller, the Big Ten's reigning offensive player of the year, and Cardale Jones, who can out-throw some NFL quarterbacks from his knees.

At that point, Barrett recalls having "an honest conversation with myself: Did you come to Ohio State all the way from Texas to watch somebody play your position? Or did you come to play?"

Fast forward to December 2016. Barrett will lead his Buckeyes into a semifinal playoff game against Clemson. Barkley and his band of Nittany Lions are off to the Rose Bowl.

Team accomplishments, individual greatness.

Barkley and Barrett are the 2016 recipients of the Chicago Tribune Silver Football, awarded since 1924 to the Big Ten's best player — or in this case, players. Big Ten head coaches vote on the award, and both Barkley and Barrett received four first-place votes and two seconds.

They have a common personality trait: They lead while remaining low-key.

"When he speaks," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer told the Tribune of Barrett, a fourth-year junior, "it's like that old E.F. Hutton commercial. He's not overbearing. He's not one to babble."

Franklin said Barkley, a sophomore, handles success "probably better than any young player I've ever been around. The type of teammate he is and how selfless he is, Saquon sets the tone for our entire organization."

'He'd be smoking weed'

Alibay Barkley pulled up his left sleeve to reveal a tattoo you won't find on many Pennsylvania residents. It's an interlocking "NY" and "Jets," a mark of his favorite NFL team. The green and red ink will never leave him, just like his New York accent.

Barkley is from the Bronx, which is Giants territory. The 1986 Giants won the Super Bowl but also lost a fan.

"I love the underdog," Barkley said. "I always root for people less fortunate."

Alibay (the "Ali" is pronounced like the legendary fighter) had a rough upbringing and at 19 served two years at Rikers Island, he said, after police caught him with a gun. A nephew of three-division world champion Iran Barkley, he boxed in New York's Golden Gloves competition at 156 pounds.

"Haven't worked out in a minute," he said. "But I still got the skills."

Saquon (SAY-kwon) inherited Alibay's quickness and love of football. Barely out of diapers, Saquon would sit in front of the TV to watch Jets games from kickoff to final gun.

"It was amazing," Alibay said. "Curtis Martin was his favorite running back. He said, one day, that's what he wanted to."

What his mother, Tonya, wanted to do was move the family to Coplay, Pa., just north of Allentown and not far from Cubs manager Joe Maddon's native Hazleton. That's where her mother and sister lived, and it's where Saquon could play youth football and encounter less danger.

"They were able to run on grass that was green and didn't have any dog poop," Tonya said.

Had they remained at their two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx, near 167th Street and Southern Boulevard, life might have been dire.

"He wouldn't have finished high school," Tonya predicted.

Said Alibay: "He'd be smoking weed, probably in jail. Maybe dead."

At the time, though, Alibay resisted the move from his comfort zone to a sleepy area with few minorities. But he had no choice if he wanted to remain with their five kids.

"She told me, 'If you ain't coming, I'm leaving,'" Alibay recalled.

Saquon found trouble only once in his new environs. He and some friends were caught egging a house, and as punishment he was required to read a book — "Friday Night Lights."

"My mom felt it was the right decision (to move)," Saquon said, "to give her kids a better life, a better opportunity, school-wise. My sister (Shaquona) went to college, and I'm in college. We're the first two to do that. They made that sacrifice for their kids, and I love them to death for that."

'This is whack'

Barrett grew up in Wichita Falls, Texas, two hours northwest of Dallas, longing to be the next Vince Young. He worked out for Texas coach Mack Brown and told Longhorns coaches he would commit even if there was another quarterback in their recruiting class.

But they were fixated on the bigger, stronger Tyrone Swoopes.

"I was hurt a little bit," Barrett said by telephone. "But it's like breaking up with a girl. If she doesn't want to be with you anymore, you ain't about to beg."

Meyer, meanwhile, wanted to sign a dual-threat quarterback. There were two in-state studs — Malik Zaire of Dayton and Mitch Trubisky of Mentor — and Meyer knew both of their high school coaches.

But Meyer was not permitted to visit them during spring ball in 2012, and both declined to throw for him in Columbus. Zaire went to Notre Dame, and Trubisky chose North Carolina.

"One by one, everybody starts committing (elsewhere)," Meyer said, "and I get a little panicky."

Meyer's quarterbacks coach, Tom Herman, began connecting with Barrett by telephone, eventually telling Meyer, "We found our QB."

Meyer offered Barrett a scholarship without having seen him throw, explaining: "The way we evaluate quarterbacks here is one, competitor; two, toughness; three, leadership skills; four, ability to extend the play. And then we look at arm strength."

The Barrett who arrived in Columbus in January 2013 was not much to look at: barely above 6 feet, 230 pounds — 10 more than today — and unable to fully practice after knee surgery.

When coaches would try to motivate him by calling him "Fat-ass," Barrett remembers thinking: "This is whack. I thought these guys liked me. It went on for about five months, but I stopped letting it bother me."

Barrett, as aptly described in a Sports Illustrated profile, is a "thinker and a worrier ... he recalls being petrified of storms during his childhood in Texas' Tornado Alley."

Barrett said he entered fall camp in 2014 with a new mindset, to let go of mistakes. Miss a read? Overthrow an open man? Move on.

He beat out Jones for the No. 2 spot and two days later became the starter after Miller's right shoulder gave out. He earned Meyer's everlasting respect during his worst statistical game of that season at Penn State.

Barrett played with a second-degree MCL sprain that normally requires two to three weeks of rest. But at halftime Barrett told an Ohio State trainer, "No way I'm coming out of this game."

"It was bangin'. It was hurtin'," Barrett said. "It was my lead leg, so to step and throw, I was being cautious. I didn't play great by any means."

But his two overtime touchdown runs delivered a 31-24 victory and kept Ohio State on track to win the national championship.

"I trust him so much," Meyer said.

Next steps

They found their way. They found their place.

Barrett was named the Big Ten's top quarterback this season. Barkley was acclaimed as the conference's top running back and its offensive player of the year.

Barrett hasn't talked to Meyer about his plans for next season. If he returns for a fifth year, he'll be at Ohio Stadium on Oct. 28, peering across the field at 70 players in blue and white.

One will be Barkley, who will enter 2017 as a Heisman Trophy favorite. It will be his third year in State College, and if he displays the same kind of vision and quickness that allowed him to score 19 touchdowns this season, he could move on to the pros in 2018.

His father is rooting for it. Which means he'll be rooting against his Jets next season.

"I hope they have a rough year," he said, "and get Saquon."

tgreenstein@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @TeddyGreenstein

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