Everything was going great until I got punched in the face.
I was maybe 10 years old and my dad had taken me to this boxing gym to spar against a kid who was training for a tournament. My dad did stuff like that all time. He would set me up to fight guys at the gym, or have me box random people in the neighborhood. He always had me fighting.
My dad was a pretty good boxer back in the day, and my great uncle, Iran Barkley, also boxed — he was a three-time world champion. So boxing was … I don’t want to say it was forced on me, but even though I had been telling my parents ever since I was able to talk that I wanted to be a football player, my dad definitely wanted me to be a boxer.
So I was 10 years old and I was in the ring against this kid — I had the big red Everlast gloves on, the headgear, the mouthpiece, the whole nine — and for the first two rounds, I was feeling good. I was jumping around, dancing, ducking and dodging punches. I felt like Muhammad Ali in there — float like a butterfly, you know?
But the third round wasn’t so pretty.
Early in the round, I dropped my hands and caught a shot right in the face. I hadn’t really been hit in the first two rounds, so it kind of stunned me. I was like, Whoa … that kinda hurt. Shake it off. Protect yourself, man!
I got hit again, and I was thinking, O.K. How much time is left? How much longer do I have?
Then I got hit a third time, and I was like, Yo, this isn’t fun. Why is my dad making me do this!?
Remember, I was like 10 years old.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I got knocked out or anything. And if we were really scoring the fight, I probably would have won because I know I dominated those first two rounds.
But I learned three things that day.
First, I didn’t like getting hit — which I know sounds strange now because of the position I play. But that’s … different.
Second, I didn’t love boxing. I was pretty decent, and if I’d stuck with it maybe I could have been really good. But I didn’t have that love for it, you know? Like my dad and my great uncle did, or how I love the game of football.
And the third and probably most important thing I learned that day was….
Talent can only take you so far.
I was a better boxer than the kid I fought that day, even though he had been training hard and I was only doing it because my dad wanted me to. My talent and athleticism carried me for those first two rounds. But in the third, I couldn’t keep my hands up because I was tired. And at that point, it wasn’t about talent anymore. It was about endurance. It was about preparation. The other kid was more prepared for a three-round fight than I was, and that’s why I kept getting punched in the face.
Because I hadn’t prepared.
I never forgot that.
Fast-forward to April 2018.
It’s two days before the NFL draft, and I know I’m in trouble. A few teams have called to bring me in for last-minute workouts or interviews, but I’ve told them all no. (Respectfully, of course.)
Why can’t I go?
Because I’m at a hospital in Pennsylvania.
My girlfriend is pregnant. I’m worried she’s going to give birth on the same day I’m supposed to be in New York for the draft.
Actually, I’m not worried. I mean, if it’s between the draft and my daughter’s birth, my little girl is gonna win. Getting drafted is a dream come true. But as much as I love football, family is always first.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to choose. Because on that day — April 24, 2018 — my daughter, Jada Clare Barkley, was born.
Courtesy of Saquon Barkley
That’s gotta be the best draft story ever, right? I mean, I had two dreams growing up: to play in the NFL, and to have a family of my own. And two days after my daughter was born, I got to go to New York and walk across the stage and shake the commissioner’s hand and hold up that Giants jersey.
I’m telling you: Best. Draft. Story. Ever!
But back to that hospital room, where I met Jada for the first time. I was sitting there, holding my little girl in my arms, and I was just looking down at her and thinking about the kind of dad I wanted to be.
Which made me think about my own parents.
Which made me instantly sorry for all the stuff I did when I was a kid. (Sorry, Mom and Dad … I love you, tho!)
I was very fortunate to have the kind of parents I had growing up. They sacrificed a lot for me and my brothers and sisters.
We lived in the South Bronx when I was little. New York was all my parents had ever known. It was where they grew up. Where their friends were. Where their life was. But they also had some extended family in Pennsylvania, and … listen, I love New York. That’s where I was born, and that’s who I represent when I put on that New York Giants jersey. But the Bronx was a tough place for a kid to grow up. And my parents saw a better opportunity for their kids and for us as a family in Pennsylvania.
So they made the difficult decision to move us out there.
That took a lot of courage. It was a big sacrifice for them to leave everything they had ever known.
And in that moment, as I’m looking down at Jada and thinking about the sacrifices my parents made, I know that I’m going to do the same thing for my daughter. I’m going to make whatever sacrifices I have to make in life — for her.
Then, Jada looks up at me, and she smiles for the first time in her little life. She flashes those dimples, and I swear she’s blushing (she always blushes when she smiles) … and it just melts me. And I know she’s got me wrapped around her little finger already. Like, she can’t even talk yet, but I know that when she can talk, whenever she asks for something and she hits me with those dimples and that blushed look, I’m gonna cave. With a smile like that, I’m gonna give her whatever she wants.
Yeah, man … I’m definitely in trouble.
You know how people say that when you die your life flashes before your eyes? Well, sitting in that hospital room and looking into Jada’s eyes, I experienced the opposite.
I was seeing the future flash before me.
I could see myself giving her baths and changing her diapers. Learning how to do her hair. Sending her off to school for the first time. Teaching her how to drive a car. Sending her off to college. Walking her down the aisle at her wedding….
Whoa … that’s actually a crazy thought.
Maybe we won’t think about that juuuust yet….
But what I’m saying is, when Jada came into my life I really took a step back and thought hard about my future and what I wanted it to look like.
You know, the long game.
I remember when I was a little kid I used to tell my mom all the time that I was going to make it to the NFL, and that when I did I was gonna buy her a house. It was my little promise to her.
She would always respond by saying, “What if you don’t?”
Pretty harsh, right? Your kid is telling you his dreams, and you just shoot him down like that?
But that’s just the genius of my mother. See, it’s not that she didn’t believe in me. My mom has always believed in me. It’s just that she wanted me to be smart — to not be so focused on one thing that I lose sight of the bigger picture.
What she was really saying was, It’s great to have big dreams. But you need a backup plan.
I remembered that message when it came time for me to decide where I was going to go to college, and it’s one of the main reasons I chose Penn State. I knew that playing for that program and in the Big Ten would help prepare me to play in the NFL, but I also knew that I would get a world-class education.
And I needed that, because I think we all know what NFL really stands for.
Not for long.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
The crazy thing is … I’m a college dropout.
I’m serious. That’s what it feels like. I left school early to enter the draft, and even though I know it was the right decision for my football career and my future, I still get people who ask me what I got my degree in, or what year I graduated. And it makes me uncomfortable because … I don’t like my answer.
“Oh … I, uh … I didn’t actually … you know … uh … graduate yet.”
I hate having to answer that way.
So as soon as I can, I’m going to go back to Penn State to finish my degree. And when I do, I’m going to walk across that stage, hold my degree up high, and then go home and hang it on my wall to show my daughter that I accomplished something great.
To show her that daddy is much more than just a football player.
I’ve been blessed enough to have accomplished a lot of my biggest goals in life. I made it to the NFL. I have a beautiful daughter. I even made good on my promise to buy my mom a house.
And while my college degree is definitely coming soon, I’m at the point in my life where it’s time to start setting some new goals. Because if there’s one thing I know, it’s that I can’t play football forever. The average career for a running back is shorter than it is for any other position. It’s a brutal job. It’s a physical job. There’s no telling how long my career is going to last. It could be two years. It could be 10.
I just know that it’s probably not going to be for me to decide when it’s over.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about what comes next.
Anybody who knows me will tell you, I love to argue. I love to debate. And football is the thing I know better than anything else. So sure, I can’t play football forever.
But I can talk about it forever.
That’s why I’m getting my degree in communications. I love this game so much, and when I’m not able to put the shoulder pads on anymore, I still want to be involved. I want to be as close to the game as possible.
Whether it was before a big game in college or before a prime time game in the NFL, I’ve seen a lot of former players who are now broadcasters out on the field. They’re always standing there, just kind of looking around. And when I see that, I imagine they’re reminiscing about when they were playing — big plays they made, big wins they had — just remembering that feeling, you know? But even though they’re not playing anymore, they’re still on the field, so close to the game that they can remember what it was like to suit up themselves.
Then they get to take all of that knowledge and bring it to TV.
That’s what I want to do.
Or maybe I could be up in the booth, calling Monday Night Football. Or across the desk from Stephen A. Smith on First Take. I told you how much I like to argue! I think I could get up there and debate MJ vs. LeBron, or some NFL power rankings. It’s fun to listen to, and I bet it’s even more fun to be in on the action.
Or maybe I could anchor my own show one day.
Michael J. LeBrecht II /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images
Another thing I would like to do — and I’ll probably look to start this up before I even retire — is open up a youth gym. Something to give kids the opportunity to work hard and try different sports and find out what they’re good at — find out what their passions are.
My dad wanted me to be a boxer. But he didn’t force me into it. He made me try it and he made me give it a real shot. But when it came time for me to decide what I really wanted to pursue, he let me make my own decision. And I chose football, because that was my passion. Not boxing.
I was fortunate to have a dad who let me try different things and allowed me to follow my true passion, and I would love to provide that for other kids. There are so many kids who don’t have a father figure, or who don’t have access to top-of-the-line facilities for one reason or another. Or maybe they just don’t have someplace that helps to keep them away from all the bad influences that are out there.
I would like to provide a place like that for them.
A place where I can help develop kids as athletes, but also as people.
That’s how I see myself giving back. Through kids. I want to be a positive role model. I want to be known as a guy who’s doing things the right way. And just like my parents and coaches — and so many other people I’ve been blessed to have in my life — I want to spread my knowledge around and pass on the lessons I’ve learned to the next generation.
I think that’s how you truly leave your mark in this world.
So those are the big things that I think about when I look ahead to my life after football. And really, I can sum it up in three words:
Anchor (or broadcaster, or debater, or analyst).
And that last one, man … that’s the most important one. Today, tomorrow and for the rest of my life, I see myself being the best father I can possibly be to Jada.
I’m telling you … you have to see this girl’s smile.
You can kind of see it in this video I posted recently:
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Ha! Y’all didn’t know I could sing, did you!
Nah, nah … I’m a lot of things, but I’m definitely not a singer.
But that’s what I feel like when I’m with my daughter. I just want to sing and laugh and give her kisses and enjoy her.
The beginning of my rookie season was tough because Jada was still brand new, but I was really busy with football and with getting acclimated to being a professional. So I had to settle for a lot of FaceTime and photos from my girlfriend instead of one-on-one time with my little girl.
Things are starting to calm down a bit, and now I’m able to spend a lot of time with her.
It’s still crazy sometimes to think that I’m really a dad. Like, I’ll be walking down the street wearing one of those baby carriage things — the one that’s like a backpack and it holds the baby against your chest — and Jada will be in there, just chillin’. And I’ll stop and think, Whoa, I’m definitely a dad….
Then I’ll take a selfie with her.
She’s my everything, man.
So yeah … anchor, mentor and, above all else, father.
That’s my future.
And where I’m at right now, it comes back to preparation, right? Just like when I was 10 years old in the ring with that other kid. I was getting punched in the face because I wasn’t prepared. So now, even though I’m only a rookie, I’m starting to prepare for my life after football by laying some groundwork so that when life starts throwing punches at me down the road, I’ll be ready. I’ll be able to give back while living the life I want for myself and my family, making my parents — and my daughter — proud.
If I’m able to do that — and maybe win a couple of Super Bowl rings along the way 🙌🏾 — that’d be more than enough for me.