In the moment, the snippet captured by NFL Films was simply a feel-good passing of the torch from one generation of electrifying runner to another. This was from Oct. 28, 2018, and Saquon Barkley had already started compiling a personal highlight reel of head-shaking plays on his way to a league-high 2,028 yards from scrimmage as a rookie.
But on this day, the pupil was schooled by the teacher. Washington walked into MetLife Stadium and crunched the Giants 20-13 and running back Adrian Peterson, 33 years old, had turned back the clock, rushing for 149 yards, catching one TD pass and running for another, a 64-yarder.
“That’s Adrian Peterson, bro,” Barkley tells his fellow back, Wayne Gallman. “You ever watch his highlights? You ever see his comeback season? I used to watch that all the time.”
Later, at midfield, the two embraced. Peterson told Barkley, “Love what you’re doing. You got it, man. Keep putting your best foot forward, the sky is the limit for you. You really have the talent. It’s remarkable to see.”
If you look at Barkley in that moment, look at his eyes, look at his body language, you know exactly what is scrolling through his mind: “HOLY COW, ADRIAN PETERSON KNOWS WHO I AM!!!”
And, man, is that video poignant right now.
Because if Peterson’s brilliant career was a model for Barkley on the way up, all the way through Penn State and Whitehall High School, then it is the way he crafted a second chapter for himself following a ruinous knee injury in 2011 that will provide an even more relevant guidepost for him.
The Giants made official Monday what everyone feared, announcing that Barkley had indeed torn his ACL at Chicago’s Soldier Field on Sunday afternoon and will miss the rest of the season. Additional reports say that there was also lesser damage to his MCL and meniscus. It will be a long, arduous, sweaty, miserable road back.
“Don’t fall asleep on 26,” Giants coach Joe Judge said Monday, referencing Barkley’s uniform number, echoing the exact same sentiment he’d uttered Sunday in the wake of the Giants 17-13 loss to the Bears. “He’ll write a hell of a story.”
That is the only way to root if you are Judge, if you are Barkley’s teammates, if you are a Giants fan. But also if you merely enjoy the pleasure of watching a rare athlete display skills on a football field that take your breath away. Barkley was like that, right from the start.
The first time he ever touched a ball in a Giants uniform — the exhibition opener against Cleveland in ’18 — he took the ball from Eli Manning around his own 11, danced through several Browns and sped past a few more on his way to a 39-yard pickup. There have been dozens of clips just like that, available all over YouTube.
And it is impossible to shake this question:
Will we ever see that version of Barkley again?
“I’m not a doctor,” Judge said. “I’m sure they’ll give him the best medical care possible. I know he’ll work as hard as possible.
“You look at who was able to come back from ACLs and have tremendous comebacks the next year out. This is a young guy, physically gifted, and we’ll do everything in our position as coaches to keep him mentally sharp, make sure we gear everything around his specific plan to get him going full speed.”
There is little question Barkley will attack his rehab the way he’s attacked his career so far, marrying his physical gifts with a work ethic that has always made his coaches shudder. Still, an ACL for a football skill player is not unlike Tommy John surgery for a baseball pitcher: Doctors can offer rosy prognoses. They can offer the hope that your post-op self might even be better than before you went under anesthesia.
But until you reach back for your fastball, you never quite know for sure.
And until Barkley attempts his first physics-defying cut with his wounded right knee sometime next year, plants his cleats in the turf in anger, he won’t quite know for sure.
Peterson, of course, came back from a tear of both the ACL and MCL in his left knee in December 2011; the very next season he rushed for 2,097 yards and won both MVP and Comeback Player of the Year. He’s rushed for over 1,000 yards four times since his injury, led the league twice.
Late Sunday Peterson Tweeted: “@saquon a born winner! The comeback is going to be scary 100”
Barkley followed his idol once to the very pinnacle of his position. Can he do it again? There is only one way to root.
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