Saquon Barkley and Adrian Peterson first met on Oct. 28, 2018, when Peterson scored two touchdowns and Barkley totaled 111 yards from scrimmage in Washington’s 20-13 victory against the Giants in MetLife Stadium. The two stellar running backs came together at midfield following the game and expressed their mutual admiration and Peterson told the then-rookie, “the sky’s the limit for you.”
Before retreating to their respective locker rooms, the future Hall of Famer had four words of advice for Barkley: “stay focused and keep grinding.”
More than two years later, that counsel has become particularly poignant to Barkley.
On Sept. 20, he suffered a serious knee injury in the Giants’ second game of the season. Barkley underwent surgery on Oct. 30 to repair a torn right anterior cruciate ligament. He spoke publicly today for the first time since that operation on a Zoom call with reporters when he was asked if he has any uncertainty about becoming the same player he was before the injury.
“No doubt in my mind,” Barkley said.
That confidence comes from his dedication to an arduous rehabilitation and his determination to return to the level of play that made him the 2018 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and the first player in Giants history to exceed 1,000 rushing yards in each of his first two seasons. It also emanates from the example Peterson set nine years ago.
On Dec. 24, 2011, Peterson, then a fifth-year pro with the Minnesota Vikings, tore his ACL and MCL in a game in Washington. He ended his season with 970 rushing yards, his first season with less than 1,000.
Peterson more than made up for it in 2012, when he led the NFL with a career-high 2,097 yards and was named the league’s Most Valuable Player, still the last non-quarterback to win the award. Now with the Detroit Lions in his 14th season, Peterson has 14,660 career rushing yards and 115 touchdowns – including 7,908 yards and 51 scores since his surgery.
It’s no surprise Barkley would like to emulate Peterson’s on-field exploits.
“Someone who’s really important to me would be A.P.,” Barkley said. “Obviously, when you hear this injury, the first person that comes to your mind is the season that A.P. had. I reached out to him or he reached out to me. He put me in contact with his trainer, I was able to ask him a lot of questions. Also, I think the day before surgery, I got to chat with A.P. for a very long time. I could see myself continuing to chat with him throughout.”
The post-injury production of Peterson and numerous other running backs has helped convince Barkley he will be the same dynamic player he was before his surgery.
“That’s the mindset,” Barkley said. “I’m never going to go in it with a negative approach. I feel like you should never go into anything in life with a negative approach. I think a positive mindset is going to be the thing that helps you get through a lot of things in life. That’s the mindset I’m going to have. I know that I’m going to be able to come out and be a better player. That’s what I’m going to challenge myself with. I know that starts with today.”
Though he exudes confidence, Barkley made no grandiose promises or boasts. He wouldn’t say when he expects to return to optimal health.
“No target date in mind,” he said. “Just coming every single day trying to get one percent better and continuing to trust in the medical staff and the trainers here.”
But Barkley admits it has been difficult being a spectator. After 625 touches in his first two years, he had just 19 rushing attempts and six receptions before the injury ended his season.
“It’s definitely a challenge,” he said. “Just the fact that the game that I love and been playing since I was seven is taken away from me a little bit. That definitely is challenging. But I’m just trying to be as supportive as I can. I love seeing my guys out there balling, doing their thing, especially the way we’re playing right now. That definitely makes life a lot easier. I have a lot of great people in my corner, with my family, my friends staying with me and pushing me through. That’s really the focus.
“Yes, I’m a competitor and I would love to have this over yesterday. But that’s not the case, so just have to come with that mindset of taking the same approach as I would if I was on the football field, trying to get better every single day, taking that into rehab.”
Barkley is heartened by the Giants’ recent success, three consecutive victories, as they prepare to play the Seahawks Sunday in Seattle. That includes the improvement of the team’s rushing attack, which initially struggled without Barkley, exceeding 100 yards just once in the first five games. But the Giants have exceeded that figure in each of the last six games, the team’s longest such streak since 2010. Wayne Gallman has rushed for 293 yards and six touchdowns in the last five games.
“Wayne Train, I’m so proud of him,” Barkley said. “He’s playing amazing. Not only him, but Alfred (Morris), EP (Eli Penny), the offensive line, they’re playing amazing. I remember after the Steelers game, when obviously, I guess you could say the run game wasn’t so pretty (totaling 29 yards in the season opener), I remember talking to the offensive line right there and saying, ‘We know what we have here. We’re going to get this thing figured out.’
“Honestly, I wish I was able to be a part of it. But I’m still part of it, to be completely honest. That’s my mindset. I’m still part of it in a way. But to see those guys open up those holes and seeing the running backs run in a way that Wayne is running is honestly amazing. It’s really helped the team.”
Barkley said he is “doing pretty well” mentally and emotionally while acknowledging that challenges lie ahead.
“I imagine there are going to be some more dark places coming up,” he said. “I would say really, probably the darkest time for me was right when it happened. Even though it wasn’t diagnosed what it was, I kind of had a feeling what happened. Obviously, that kind of brings you to tears. It’s tough in that moment. I know how hard I worked. I know how hard we worked as a team and what I wanted to help this team do this year, and I knew that was all taken away at that moment.
“But kind of have to suck it up. You can’t cry about it too long. You can’t complain about it too long. You have to move on. Everything happens for a reason. I have to have that mindset. Like I said, I have amazing people in my life, an amazing team and an amazing staff here and teammates and all those guys who help me and are continuing to help me get through this.”
So is the example set by Adrian Peterson.