The word “leadership” is a difficult one to gauge.
Plug it into a Yahoo! Images search and you’ll be greeted with a Bill Clinton poster, a slew of penguins marching and a compass unsure of its own direction.
Peruse your nearest trusty dictionary and it’ll likely show an archaic definition such as: “The process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.”
Sure, these two methods will give you some sort of idea about what the word loosely represents, but both miss the mark when trying to decipher just how a 20-year-old quarterback with bleached-blond hair and the calmness of a native Southern Californian can lead an illustrious program through one of its darkest hours.
The phrase “poster boy” doesn’t do justice to the role sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley has been asked to play since stepping onto campus two years ago.
From billboards to jerseys to overpriced memorabilia, there is very little in the athletic program that doesn’t have some bearing of Barkley’s name, photograph or signature on it.
So why does the sophomore deserve such adoration and promotion?
If you look simply at the on-field performance, the answer won’t likely be found.
But patrol the sidelines during practice or listen in on any team meeting, and it’s the typically laid-back Barkley who quickly commands the respect of all teammates within earshot.
It’s largely assumed that a player in Barkley’s shoes automatically takes to the role of team leader. Look beyond the captain’s patch adorning the jersey of the Trojans’ quarterback and you’ll see that the distinguished title didn’t choose him; he chose it.
“I think I am naturally a leader by example,” Barkley said. “I am always just trying to do the right thing and show other people by my actions what needs to be done. With my experiences last year, it has really helped me grow into a vocal leader.”
Yet, behind the standard pride and honor that comes with being named a team captain, there exists a unique sincerity to Barkley that shouldn’t be overlooked because of one pent-up fanatical frustration over a late-game interception or failed offensive series.
Success between the lines is still a week-to-week challenge for the former Mater Dei standout. For every crisp throw over the middle of the defense, the still-maturing gunslinger forces a ball into double coverage. And in a year where underclassmen have taken control of the weekly headlines, Barkley and the hype that surrounds his every move have taken a noticeable backseat.
For an athlete whose ego has been stroked from day one, you’d suspect the USC quarterback to spend his time clamoring for the spotlight with each passing day.
But Barkley doesn’t.
As he watches his team struggle to find consistency through the first nine games of its topsy-turvy season, you’d assume he’d likely be consumed by the thought of greener pastures such as the NFL.
But Barkley isn’t.
Where capturing awards, pleasing scouts and garnering national buzz seemingly go hand in hand with the stereotypical label of what it means to be a starting college quarterback at a top-notch program, USC’s steady hand focuses his attention on a much greater task: remaining faithful to the team’s progression on and off the field.
And it is in the moments that test this faith — the kind you won’t find making their way into a Saturday night box score — that truly shine a light on Barkley, the leader.
When senior kicker Joe Houston made kicking field goals in the first half of Saturday’s contest against Arizona State look as painful as Sylvester Stallone attempting to box in Rocky VI, it was Barkley who lent encouragement as a barrage of boos bombarded Houston as he made his way to the sideline.
As Pete Carroll’s get-out-of-Dodge routine took aback an entire team that looked up to the now-Seahawks coach like a father, it was Barkley who faced the uncertainty.
It would have been very easy for the five-star prospect to protect his future from the turmoil that lay ahead of him and his teammates last summer. But instead of fleeing, he relished the opportunity to stay. As he saw it, it was a chance to lay the foundation for the team’s newly redefined identity — one built on strength of character, a collective vision and a steadfast commitment to trusting one another even during trying times.
“I don’t think there are any single guys out there on this time, guys who are looking out for themselves,” Barkley said. “This year we are more united, and after all we’ve been through this off-season, that’s made us stronger as a team.”
Looking at Barkley’s inherent leadership qualities on the football field, however, doesn’t tell you the whole story of the person he is off it.
Although he is the first to admit he is not without flaws, the university’s golden arm puts the finishing touches on a rather impressive leadership-driven poster with a steady dose of community service and outreach to those in need. From volunteer missions in poverty-stricken regions of Mexico, to orphanage visits in South Africa, to helping jumpstart the Monarchs for Marines program for Camp Pendleton soldiers and their families, Barkley’s selfless actions speak for themselves.
“I believe it is our responsibility to give back,” Barkley said. “Here, in Southern California, we are so blessed; those trips give you perspective of how grateful we are to live here. It really opens up your heart. Serving is just one of the best ways I think you can reach out.”
And whether it is his service on the well-cut grass of the Coliseum or out in the community, the image of Barkley, the leader, is cut-and-dry.
Don’t be fooled by his carefree nature, or the laid-back persona he naturally gives off regardless of what the final score reads.
Because regardless of the Saturday night box scores or noticeable mistakes he is going to continue to make during his on-field maturation, Barkley is the straw that stirs USC’s drink.
His ability to lead has nothing to do with his talented right arm or the endless amount of press clippings dedicated to his career, and everything to do with the rare desire and respect he has for what it means to be the field general for USC football.
The Trojans’ 6-3 record might speak to an up-and-down campaign, where stability and unity are about as common as 60 minutes of quality football, but in a year where rebuilding and growth seem to be evident with just four games to play, having No. 7 at the center of progression means having the key to resurrecting the once-storied program in the hands of a well-qualified leader.
“For The Love Of The Game” runs Wednesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Dave at firstname.lastname@example.org.