football-fbs flag

Mark Wogenrich | The Morning Call | December 17, 2016

Saquon Barkley's journey from the Bronx to the Rose Bowl

  Penn State running back Saquon Barkley was named Big Ten offensive player of the year.

Racing past his father on his way to the end zone, Saquon Barkley couldn't suppress a smile that said, "You owe me $100." Barkley was eight years old, the headliner of Hokendauqua's youth football team, and already had a flair for scoring touchdowns.

"If I score 15 touchdowns this season," Barkley told his father during one of their walks to Hokey's field in Whitehall, "you give me $100."

This touchdown would be his best yet: 99 yards, with notes of the cuts and burst and speed Barkley later showcased at Whitehall High and Penn State. Watching from the sideline, Alibay Barkley caught his son's smile. He smiled back, then shook his head.

"Not today," Alibay Barkley said, pointing to the penalty flag that dissolved the play. Saquon put his head down as the ball was spotted at the 20-yard line. His disappointment didn't last long.

"The next play, Saquon shot right back up and ran for an 80-yard touchdown," Alibay Barkley said. "He knew he got it that time. I had to give him the money."

Saquon Barkley's biggest fan recognized his son's football gift early, even before that breakthrough moment. At age three, Saquon watched New York Jets games with his father at their home in the Bronx, New York, pointing at running back Curtis Martin and saying, "When I grow up, I'm going to be No. 28." He's on his way.

Barkley, the Big Ten's offensive player of the year, proved himself this season as one of the nation's most complete college running backs. The sophomore leads the Big Ten in touchdowns (19) and all-purpose yards (1,666) and is second in rushing yards (1,302) heading into Penn State's appearance in the Rose Bowl.

Barkley was the conduit through which Penn State's offense operated, and the central figure for every opposing defensive coordinator to trace. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said it's "not realistic" expecting to stop Barkley, and Ohio State's Urban Meyer called him a first-round draft pick.

With two more seasons of eligibility at Penn State, Barkley is thrilling NFL scouts as well. Matt Millen, a fellow Whitehall and Penn State alum, sat with three scouts during the Penn State-Rutgers game who were "salivating" over Barkley.

MORE: Full FBS bowl schedule

Millen said they saw a back with the natural ability to create and a three-down prospect who can catch passes and protect the quarterback.

"He's smart, humble, coachable, teachable; there's nothing in there that's negative," Millen said. "And he's a 220-pound guy who runs a sub 4.4 [in the 40-yard dash]. Who does that?"

Further, Penn State coach James Franklin said Barkley has kept football in balance. He maintains good grades, is a popular player on community-service projects and was named to the team's Leadership Council as a sophomore.

"All this success that's happened so quickly for him, he's handled it better probably than any young player I've ever been around," Franklin said. "I think that's one of the reasons we've had the success we've had."

Saquon Barkley's biggest fans watch their son's games with equal measures of nerves and pride. Tonya Johnson, Barkley's mother, cringes when he ad-libs the leaps and flips that draw gasps from Beaver Stadium. "That throws me for a loop," she said. "I tell him all the time, 'Cut that out.'"

Alibay Barkley, meanwhile, reflects on the days he walked Saquon to practices and games when the family didn't have a car. They talked a lot on those walks, about scoring touchdowns, about his father's past, about Saquon's future.

Alibay Barkley is amazed that his son is 19 years old. He also is relieved.

"I'm happy that he's not in the same predicament that I was at 19," Alibay Barkley said.


Alibay Barkley sat in the living room of his Coplay home recently, explaining why he spent a year at Rikers Island Prison when he was Saquon's age.

He was surrounded by photos of his and Johnson's five children and five grandchildren. Their Christmas stockings hung in a doorway. A montage of Saquon's career accomplishments, including three photos of his Penn State leaps and another with Gov. Tom Wolf from high school, covered one wall.

Alibay Barkley talked about boxing. He grew up fighting, both in the Bronx and other places he lived across the country, and had a fierce left jab.

Boxing talent ran in the family. Alibay Barkley's uncle, Iran Barkley, was a three-time world champ who twice beat Thomas Hearns for title belts. While in prison, Alibay Barkley watched his uncle fight on ABC's Wide World of Sports and told himself, "When I get home, I'm going to do that."

"I was a good boxer," Alibay Barkley said, "but I made bad choices."

MORE: Barkley and four other early candidates for the 2017 Heisman

He grew up surrounded by drugs and fights and crime and people who made it easier to get into all three. Alibay Barkley, now 47, said he was in constant trouble as a teenager, culminating with a gun charge that, when combined with probation, sent him to prison.

That experience changed him, as did meeting Tonya Johnson. They were from the Bronx, though Johnson had relatives who lived in Bethlehem. When they married and began their family (Johnson already had a son, Rashard), the Bronx became a barrier.

Tonya Johnson brought their kids, including Saquon and older sister Shaqouna, to visit her family in Bethlehem on occasion. Johnson initially thought the area was "boring and dreadful," but the kids liked the fields and grass. Saquon's asthma symptoms relented on the visits. He breathed better in Bethlehem.

Alibay Barkley was working but also continued to box. He quit, simultaneously during one fight and on his potential future, after literally throwing out his left shoulder. The shoulder still pops and cracks when he moves it.

Though the injury halted his boxing career, Alibay Barkley felt that he had given up on himself. He worked hard to stay clean but, after Saquon was born, "messed up again" and returned to drugs. At that point, Johnson decided to move her family from the Bronx to Bethlehem, with or without their father.

"For my kids, it was so they could run around and enjoy the air, enjoy the freedom and not have to worry about sitting in a park and seeing a shootout," Johnson said. "I told him, 'I'm leaving. You can either follow or not.' He was not doing well, so he chose to follow. ___

This article is written by Mark Wogenrich from The Morning Call and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network.

Florida State women's soccer surges to the top of Week 5's Power Ranking

Florida State women's soccer surges to the top of Andrew McDevitt's Week 5 college soccer Power 5 Ranking

David Taylor: College wrestling stats, titles, history

David Taylor won his third world championship on September 17, 2023. Let's take a look back at his legendary college career.

5 storylines to follow this college wrestling season

Penn State will once again be a hot topic leading into the 2023-2024 college wrestling season, so here's everything you need to know about the Blue and White, as well as the teams, coaches and athletes that will be looking to challenge the reigning champs this year. 

Subscribe To Email Updates

Enter your information to receive emails about offers, promotions from and our partners