STATE COLLEGE - The parents of more the 500 kids, boys and girls, in grades 1-8, paid $249 to spend last weekend here with Saquon Barkley.
Ostensibly this was a football camp, and indeed there were instruction, drills, and seven-on-seven competition; each camper received a mouthpiece, and high school and college coaches were involved.
But every camper also got a group photo, autograph and t-shirt. This was really a fan experience.
“When we heard Saquon was going to be here, …. I mean, he loooves Saquon,’’ said one camper’s mother Saturday, just before the assembled parents, in Holuba Hall, were asked to belt out a “We are …. Penn State,’’ chant.
“I love Saquon,’’ the mom added. “Everybody loves Saquon.’’
Indeed, Barkley’s celebrity has been on a parallel track to his football since he left Penn State a little over a year ago.
He was the NFL’s AP Offensive Rookie of the Year after a season in which he ran for 1,307 yards and caught passes for 721 for the otherwise offensively challenged New York Giants.
The Offseason of Saquon began when he was asked to play a starring role - carrying the ball into the future - in the 100-Year Game commercial the NFL produced for this year’s Super Bowl.
“They showed me (my role) and they kind of broke it down that I’m the one ending the commercial kind of jumping off into the future,’’ Barkley said Saturday. “That was another moment I guess you can say when I was like, ‘Wow I’m really here,’ ”
Then came a birthday party, in February, that included Jay-Z and P Diddy. And an invite to the Met Gala in New York City, the modern celebration of American excess where he shared a red carpet with Lady Gaga, Joan Collins, Tom Brady, all manner of Kardashians, and many, many fashionably fabulous people who think you should have heard of them.
“I was nervous with the Met, to be honest,” he said, and not only because we wore a tuxedo with shorts.
“The red carpet was nerve wracking. I took like four photos and kind of like sprinted up the stairs.”
And there have been the requisite endorsements and shoe deals and charitable good works. It remains to be seen if Barkley - so likeable, so evidently admirable - will became the rare celebrity athlete who transcends sports. New York might help, although the Giants’ goofy, dysfunctional organization may not.
Barkley could have held his camp in the New York metroplex, of course. But it seems that Penn State will always be a comfort zone. Which is why he came back for Pro Day last month, just to support his guys, sleeping on the couch in ex-teammate Koa Farmer’s apartment.
“This is where I feel like I shaped myself into the player I am today,” he said. “The winter workouts, being here at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning, spring ball and camp, those are the things that shaped me. Taking that stuff to the NFL is the reason why I’ve been successful.”
At 22, he seem to have figured a lot of things out.
“In the NFL, even if you have success,’’ he said, “the brotherhood’s not the same.’’