FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — This was one of the days Saquon Barkley dreamed about once the devastation wore off, the day Joe Judge let him play football with his friends again, catch passes from Daniel Jones again, make decisive cuts again, feel liberated again.
“It’s just fun to be able to play football again,” Barkley said Thursday after making a cameo in team drills on Day 2 of the Giants’ and Patriots’ joint practices. “I feel like a little kid, and taking it day by day.”
And so it hardly mattered to Barkley, slightly more than 11 months after wrecking his knee in Week 2 of a lost 2020 season, that he had to wear a red 26, just as the quarterbacks do.
“I hate it. I hate it. I hate it,” he said, but he was smiling broadly when he said it. “You gotta do what you gotta do.”
You gotta do what you gotta do before the coach and the trainers and the strength and conditioning people decide his surgical knee is ready for the inevitable violent hits all running backs, young and old, marquee and ordinary, must endure.
“I said something in the locker room that I don’t care if it’s pink, orange, yellow, whatever color,” Barkley said, “as long as I’m able to get out there and take some reps with my team.”
This was the first time he could participate in team drills, 7-on-7 and 11-on-11, which means it was a giant step for him, and a giant psychological and emotional lift for the New York Football Giants.
One giant step closer to wearing that precious Blue 26 that will mark the ultimate triumph of his human spirit. That Blue 26 that is poised at last to impact winning for the first time with a better supporting cast and a maturing third-year quarterback and itching to rerun that race to Canton that general manager Dave Gettleman envisioned when he drafted Barkley (still only 24) with the second overall pick in 2018.
Eight reps in all. Three catches on four targets. He looked like his old self when he leaked out of the backfield and then cut sharply over the middle for a reception on which there was contact with the Patriots defending against him.
“You know what? I think that’s a positive thing because this is the first time I’m thinking about it,” Barkley said. “I really didn’t think about that at all. When I caught the ball, I wasn’t thinking about my knee or anything.”
He expects it will all come back naturally to him: the vision, the patience, the running through contact and through the whistle — perhaps not right away, but soon, because playing running back is akin to riding a bike for him.
Judge knows that it is important for Barkley to experience the inherent violence of the sport, but the risk isn’t worth the reward in the third and final preseason game Sunday night against the Patriots.
Barkley appears ready for a limited role on opening day, maybe 10 touches or so, but no one knows for certain right now and no one, including Barkley, is saying.
“To me, it’s not just the hitting,” Barkley said. “It’s just playing football. Those reps are so valuable right now.”
He resembled a caged tiger on the sideline whenever it wasn’t his turn, occasionally crouching with his helmet beside him, occasionally bending over to stretch, mostly pacing, and he sagged when he saw Corey Clement running in to replace him after only a pair of two-minute drill snaps.
When Logan Ryan intercepted a Mac Jones throw over the middle on a much better day for Big Blue, Barkley shouted encouragement from the sideline.
“When he gets that red jersey off, he’s a tough tackle,” Ryan said. “But he brings a lot of energy to our team. He’s obviously one of our better players, and it’s good to see him feeling like himself, bouncing around getting some action, He’s been champing at the bit for it. It’s always exciting to get that opportunity and dust off those cobwebs, I think he did a good job of it.”
Everyone who knows the character of the man, and what this game means to him, and what being a New York Giant means to him, was certain this day would arrive. No one, of course, could predict Saqwhen. But Barkley isn’t a guy you ever want to bet against, or ever count out.
“He’s an amazing player, amazing leader,” Blake Martinez said. “Just excited to have him out there, and always want everyone healthy.”
Barkley had been excused Wednesday for a personal reason, so it was his turn to run Bill Belichick’s hill, a version of which Judge craves for East Rutherford, N.J.
“I feel really good right now. My body resounded really well so that’s another positive thing,” Barkley said.
Then he handed his wristband, headband and gloves to a Giants aide to hand to fans shouting to him off the practice field. Still a fan favorite. Just wait until he gets to wear his Blue 26 again.
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