It is all so impossibly perfect that even Matt Barkley knows it is hard to believe. No one meets his future spouse in nursery school. No one carries a crush through elementary school, then middle school, then high school, simply flipping the calendar until he and the girl turn 16, so that their parents finally will allow them to date.
No one has only one girlfriend through high school and college and then two days before Christmas, after easily the most crushing couple of months of his life, takes her back to where it all began, to the playground, the slides and the swings. There, where they used to wear uniforms and giggle and play in the sand, where he was just a boy and not a name, he drops to a knee and starts giving a speech his girl can't hear because she's bawling and nodding and, finally, saying yes, she loves him, too.
No one does that. The starting quarterback of the University of Southern California most certainly doesn't do that, not a month after separating a shoulder and a week before a bowl game and a handful of months before the NFL draft and the start of a career that will make him rich and even more famous.
Except Barkley did. On Dec. 23, 2012, at Mariners Christian School in Costa Mesa, Calif., Barkley asked his best friend, Brittany Langdon, to become his wife right there by the jungle gym they used to climb when he had a blonde bowl cut. Of course, Brittany said yes.
Because that's how it works for Barkley, right? Everything comes easily, naturally, perfectly. Look at him. He grew up in a gated community in Newport Beach, Calif., with a successful father, a loving mother and a brother and sister who are twins. He was a natural athlete with supportive parents who weren't pushy or overbearing. Barkley played on an elite travel soccer team as a kid. He was a pitcher on his baseball team.
And he was grounded by his religious faith.
"Matt's always had a certain peace about him," his father, Les, said.
Only everything hasn't been perfect for Matt Barkley. Not even close.
Barkley is a horrible basketball player. He denies it, but it's true. He can't handle the ball. He doesn't have a jump shot. He's not a good defender.
"I wouldn't take him on my team," said Khaled Holmes, USC's starting center the past two seasons. "He'd be the last pick."
This is a rare criticism of Barkley, and Holmes can make it because they've been friends since Barkley was in sixth grade. That's when Barkley transitioned from soccer to football. It was more painful than he imagined. Probably because of his extensive soccer action, poorly padded cleats and uneven field conditions, Barkley severely fractured the growth plates in both heels. For months, he couldn't walk. He took heat treatments and large doses of anti-inflammatory medicine while he waited to outgrow it.
"It was a challenge for him not to quit [football]," Les Barkley said, "because of the pain."
Barkley didn't quit. He started three years in middle school before joining Holmes -- who was a year older and a starting offensive lineman -- at Mater Dei High School. Monarchs coach Bruce Rollinson, who had Matt Leinart and Colt Brennan as freshmen, did something he never thought he would do: He named a freshman his starting quarterback. Barkley was 14 years old and had played only a couple of years of organized football. His mother, Beverly, wouldn't let him play earlier for fear he'd get hurt.
Rollinson saw the kid he stuck in a passing tournament rifle his first attempt 45 yards on a post route for a touchdown and said, "You've got to be kidding me; that's a freshman?" Barkley's first pass in his first game for Mater Dei, a Southern California football factory, was a 40-yard completion that the receiver took in for a touchdown. Barkley never looked back.
Lane Kiffin, then an assistant for USC, first saw Barkley in ninth grade. Soon after, Pete Carroll, then the Trojans' head coach, offered Barkley a scholarship. Barkley accepted as a junior and never considered going anywhere else.
Barkley started four years at Mater Dei and had such a marvelous career that last month the school retired his number. He graduated a semester early and enrolled in USC in the spring and fully expected to redshirt as a freshman until Mark Sanchez shocked everyone and decided to leave a year early for the draft.
"Wow," was the reaction of Steve Clarkson, who was Barkley's personal quarterback coach for about six years.
"He was not afraid, that's the one thing about it," Clarkson said. "He was more than excited and ready and confident about being the guy."
The first pass Barkley threw in spring practice was coming off the goal line. He ripped a seam route, and Carroll said, "Holy mackerel, that was impressive." By the fifth day, Barkley seized an opportunity to get more reps "and never looked back," Carroll said.
That was that.
On that day, Barkley didn't realize that football is more than just a sport. It is big business. Head coaches look out for themselves. In the NCAA, innocent athletes get punished for the misdeeds of their predecessors. Barkley was blissfully naïve.
He knows now.
"I didn't have the typical USC storyline," Barkley said. "I definitely had to learn a lot that I didn't anticipate."
Among the things he learned: How to be the face of a powerful program rocked by the departures of the head coach, the athletic director and the school president, and how to handle a bowl ban and scholarship reductions for something that happened well before he arrived. Barkley paid the price for Reggie Bush. He could have left USC before his sophomore season, but he didn't, just as he didn't after a marvelous junior season, when Barkley led the Trojans to a 10-2 record that included wins over Notre Dame, Oregon and UCLA.
He could have left his father's alma mater, where his brother and sister are now sophomores. No one would have blamed him, but Barkley stayed. He didn't leave after the sanctions because that would've been the easy way out. He didn't leave when the NFL beckoned because he wanted to finish the job with a national championship. If he won the Heisman Trophy along the way, so be it.
That's why, after a 21-14 loss to Stanford the third week of last season, Barkley's heart and chest were on fire. He was in the locker room immediately after the game, extremely mad, as he said, racing through the whole game. What could he have changed? What if he had done something differently? And what the heck was he going to tell the media, who were waiting? The dreams had died.
He decided. "We're going to stick together," Barkley said. "This is not over."
It wasn't then, but injuries started to mount and because of the scholarship reductions, the second-tier players were not the caliber USC was used to. When UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr separated Barkley's shoulder late in a 38-28 win over the Trojans in the second to last game of the regular season, it was the final indignity.
"For everything that Matt and the whole team had been through -- he'd had such a great career and not to be able to finish on the field -- it was just I'm sure a nightmare for Matt," Holmes said. "And it just kind of went in line with how the nightmare season went."
Barkley has no regrets about returning for his senior season. Of all the adversity he faced, however, he gave an unexpected answer to the question of what was the hardest part.
"I think the unknown, when you're faced with a new challenge," Barkley said. "I've never had someone to look up to as a quarterback, as a role model of how to do it. You see players in the past and how they do things, but I never played with an older quarterback to show me the ropes. I had to learn by trial and error at times. I had to try things out myself, see what would work with the guys, what would work on the field. A lot of it was teaching myself leadership through experience."
That is about to change.
As for his basketball skills, Barkley had a message for his good friend Holmes.
"Tell him I could probably take him in a game of one-on-one," Barkley said. "I'm too quick for him."
Scouts are skeptical
Jim Harbaugh was asked a simple question last month at the NFL owners meetings. He knew Matt Barkley. He had coached against him twice while at Stanford, in 2009 and 2010. He knew that Barkley finished his USC career 0-4 against the Cardinal, with seven touchdowns and six interceptions.
Did Harbaugh think Barkley was an NFL starting-caliber quarterback?
"'Tis the season for ripping apart someone's game," Harbaugh quipped.
And so it has been.
Since he entered USC in the spring of 2009, Barkley has been touted as a potential No. 1 overall draft pick. ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. said as much after Barkley's first start as a freshman. Had Barkley left USC after his junior season, he would have been a guaranteed top-10 pick. Andrew Luck was going first overall. Washington fell in love with Robert Griffin III at No. 2. Barkley would have been next.
Barkley went into the 2012 season as the front-runner to win the Heisman Trophy and virtually a lock to be the top draft pick.
A scout for one AFC team put it this way: "I see Matt as more of a second-round quarterback that can become a starter in a West Coast offense. He's accurate, smart and usually makes good decisions, but he does not have the big arm or athletic ability to carry a team on his own."
In Kiper's recent three-round projection, he has Jacksonville selecting Barkley with the first pick in the second round. Todd McShay, the director of college scouting for Scouts Inc., has Barkley as the No. 32-ranked prospect, but does not have Barkley in the first round in his latest mock draft.
"He's only a first-round prospect or deserving of a first-round grade for teams with the proper scheme and also with the right coaches in place to get the most out of what he does best," McShay said. "I know it sounds like a cop-out. Probably his most important thing when it comes to his career is, does the team that drafts him have the right scheme and understand what they're looking for, and then, most important, do they have coaches that get the most out of his football intelligence? He's got to win with X's and O's, be smarter, check out of plays, open up the playbook and really develop his tools mentally. The Sean Paytons, the Andy Reids, there are guys that can take average overall tools -- second- or third-round physical tools -- and make him into a good starter in the NFL."
Greg Cosell, who has spent more than two decades breaking down film of quarterbacks as the executive producer of ESPN's "NFL Matchup" show, takes the analysis of Barkley one step further.
"I don't think he's an NFL starting quarterback," Cosell said. "When all is said and done, you're dealing with a quarterback with average arm strength that struggles to drive the ball at the intermediate and deeper levels. Therefore, there are throws that he will struggle to make, and, given that he's essentially a pocket quarterback, that's how he will have to make his living. He's not an athletic quarterback. I don't think he has very good feet. So when you look at the fact he's shorter than you'd like, has an average arm, and he's not particularly athletic in and around the pocket like a Drew Brees, I just think his physical traits don't lend themselves to him being a high-quality NFL starter."
Barkley knows he has critics.
"It was almost like a snowball effect," Barkley said. "One person said something. Another person echoed it. Another caught on. It continued to be a bashing. I know who I am. People who watch real tape and know football know the truth, know the high-level athlete I am and the quarterback I'm capable of being. I'm not worried about that. I learned to tune out the talking heads a long time ago."
Barkley has an ally in Carroll, who praises him effusively. Carroll doesn't need a quarterback, but his former defensive coordinator, new Jacksonville head coach Gus Bradley, might.
Asked whether Barkley can be an NFL starter, Carroll didn't hesitate.
"No question," he said. "I've been with a lot of guys that have started, and there's no question he's capable of being a starter and will start early. He has nothing to hold him back. He's thrown every route and read every coverage. Of course, it's harder in the NFL. The players are better. But he's as well-versed as a guy can get. If these other guys can do it, he can do it."
"Definitely," he said. "Absolutely."
The one thing Barkley doesn't lack is perspective. Football is important to him. Of course, he cares whether he is drafted on Thursday. But he has a broader view.
Barkley has seen the devastation in Haiti, how people have to live under tarps with no drinking water and sewage running through the streets. He has been to orphanages in Nigeria and built houses in South Africa.
And Barkley has made visiting sick children a priority. While at USC, he went to Children's Hospital Los Angeles weekly. On Friday, he was in Memphis, Tenn., trying to "brighten a face or two," as he said, at St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital.
"He's always looking outward, not inward," USC athletic director Pat Haden said.
That's why, after receiving a $5 million endowment for USC's community service program, Haden named the program's coordinator position after Barkley.
"I think he's made us all better, myself included," Haden said.
So if on Thursday Barkley isn't one of the first nine players off the board, when at least one team is expected to select a quarterback, his world won't end.
Of the remaining teams with first-round picks, none needs a quarterback. So if a team in the second round doesn't want to risk losing Barkley, it will have some options for trading up in the lower part of the first round.
Barkley opted not to attend the draft in New York, but not because he feared an Aaron Rodgers moment. On Sunday, his mom returned from a two-week mission in Uganda. He knew she would be tired and didn't want her to have to get on another plane for a cross-country trip to New York. So Barkley will watch the draft at his parents' home, surrounded by family, friends and Brittany. There will be barbecue and laughter and love, and there is nowhere else Barkley would rather be to begin his NFL journey.
"There's definitely going to be a lot of emotions," he said. "I'm not worried at all. I'm going to embrace it no matter what."