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Thumb war, pingpong, Connect 4: Saquon Barkley wants to win, at everything

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The competitive fire drives New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley. As a matter of fact, it burns constantly, perhaps dormant only for the few hours he sleeps each night.

"I'm definitely competitive," Barkley said.

Barkley is next level. To the point where Giants receiver Sterling Shepard, one of his closest friends and most common opponents in his endless pursuit of menial competitions, sometimes feels the need to throw his hands in the air and say, "OK, you got it, Bro!"

When Barkley and Shepard get together, some type of game or competition breaks out. They lived and trained together throughout part of the offseason, and if it wasn't running or lifting weights, they were competing in handball, who could hold their breath underwater the longest or ... something. Anything.

Barkley needed to remind himself multiple times at his youth football camps this summer that he needed to chill.

"OK, you're playing against little kids. Calm down," Barkley remembers telling himself. "It's not that serious."

This could be a problem if Barkley, whose Giants host the Dallas Cowboys on Monday (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN), wasn't one of the NFL's best running backs.

"I'm not ... eh, I can be over the edge sometimes," he admitted with a smile. "I can be."

Hang around Barkley, 22, long enough and he is sure to turn something as ordinary as a handshake or answering questions at a meeting into a competition. His fellow running backs insist he takes joy in being the first to answer their position coach Craig Johnson. Tight end Evan Engram, another of Barkley's top friendly adversaries, shared a competition the pair had that centered around how well they could spit their gum in the air. Barkley was a master in this event.

If the Giants are coloring pictures for children during a team charity event, they joke Barkley will find a way to turn it into a winning endeavor. This is a man who won't turn down a challenge, whether it be thumb wars, Connect 4, arm wrestling, card games, chess, gripping footballs or tic-tac-toe.

"He's one of the most competitive guys I've ever met in my life," running back Wayne Gallman said. "I'm pretty competitive, but I don't reach out and try to compete with everyone on absolutely everything."

Barkley and Gallman are liable to each grab an end of the football at any moment. First to lose their grip loses. These competitions occur regularly.

"It can be things that don't matter," fullback Elijhaa Penny said. "Sometimes you just laugh at it like, 'You really want to compete about something like that. Go ahead. You got it! I don't have time.'"

This is how Barkley gets his fix. More than anything, he hates to lose. He was that kid growing up who hated losing so much he cried when it happened.

This was evident when the Giants added a pingpong table to their locker room this year. Barkley was admittedly awful at first. That was unacceptable, so he went home and practiced. He watched YouTube videos to get better. He has since transformed himself into one of the better players in the locker room and recently bought a table for his home to make sure he won't lose -- specifically, to Shepard -- because Shepard will let him know about it if he does.

That eats at Barkley's soul. He demands to keep playing until he wins because he wants those bragging rights.

"That's just how I am when it comes to sports," he said. "When I set my mind to something, and I want to be good or great at something, I work towards it. That's the only thing I know helps me. I've seen positive impact with that in my life."

It has been like that from the start.

Starting young

Barkley remembers when his competitive juices started flowing. It began when he was 5 or 6 years old. He would compete against his dad, Alibay, to see who could finish their spaghetti first.

"That's the earliest memory I had of always competing over little things," Barkley said. "My whole life it's how I've been."

Barkley would play with his older brother, Rashard Johnson, and his friends. Johnson was 10 years his senior but didn't show any pity. That was fine. The way Barkley remembers it, he was 6 or 7 years old when he would play football with the teenage Johnson and his friends. They would tackle Barkley as if he was their contemporary.

"My brother was like, 'No, don't take it easy on him,'" Barkley said.

This toughened him up. So, too, did the basketball beatings he took from brother, until he finally beat him when he was a teenager.

Barkley said it was a "big deal" to beat his brother. He was always trying to beat the older kids, and took the same approach to the football field.

His longtime friend and high school quarterback Nick Shafnisky remembers one of Barkley's first high school touchdowns came on a Hail Mary pass in the final seconds. There were a bunch of guys around Barkley. The ball wasn't intended for him, but Barkley came down with it.

"He never backed down from a challenge, I guess you would say," Shafnisky said. "He was just younger, but he didn't care. He was smaller, but he didn't care."

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0:20

Saquon shows no mercy in basketball

Saquon Barkley's competitive nature is on full display as he throws down a big dunk against a young relative.

The competitiveness spawned from these experiences has him taking a similar approach with the next generation of Barkleys. He posted a video last year of him dunking on his younger cousin and proudly talking trash afterward.

Barkley doesn't expect it to be much different with his daughter, 1-year-old Jada. He insists (for now) his competitiveness won't allow it.

"No mercy at all. I'm not like that with any of my little nephews, any of my little cousins," Barkley said, before admitting this might be easier said than done with the little girl who melts his heart. "I think the best way to learn, obviously, is through lessons."

'I want to be great'

Teammates get a good laugh when Barkley loses at one of the competitions he concocts -- especially when it's against Shepard or Gallman. They seem to know how to push his buttons best.

But it's all in good fun. They know the same competitiveness they like to stoke is driving Barkley to be the greatest of all time.

"It doesn't matter if it's rock-paper-scissors. He doesn't like to lose," wide receiver Corey Coleman said. "That mindset and attitude has taken him a long way."

Barkley brings the same approach to the weight room and field. Craig Johnson says he rarely needs to get on Barkley. If anything, the second-year running back is too hard on himself if he drops a pass or misses a hole.

Gallman recalls a moment in the spring when Barkley upped the weight on his last set on the bench press just to make sure he did more than his partner. Gallman didn't even have a chance to match because he had completed his final set.

Anything to motivate. Barkley uses it all. When he sees Ezekiel Elliott, Christian McCaffrey, Todd Gurley II or Dalvin Cook going off in the middle of a game on the stadium video board, his teammates say he'll tell them he has to do better.

"Most people say it," Penny said. "When [No.] 26 does it, it's for real, because then he goes out there and does what he says, which is crazy."

It's no wonder Barkley studies and admires Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. Their approaches are similar. Their win-at-all-costs mentality is what feeds his soul.

"When I think of great -- I don't think I'm at that level yet where I'm trying to get to -- I think Kobe and Michael Jordan. Those guys. You study their craft and their competitive nature. That Mamba mentality mode," Barkley said. "The psychology of Michael Jordan, I've watched that a lot of times on YouTube. Sometimes people hate [Jordan] for it, but that is the reasons they're great. I want to be great.

"When it comes to the sport and the field where I work and play, that is what I'm working towards. I want to be legendary like one of those guys. It starts there."