EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Saquon Barkley has participated in hundreds of football practices, but none quite like his first as a professional football player.
He took handoffs from a quarterback, Eli Manning, who is 16 years his senior. He split first-team reps with veteran Jonathan Stewart, and was one of many offensive weapons in a huddle that included Odell Beckham, Jr., Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram. And Barkley performed before a large and vocal crowd that gave the workout the feel of a Friday night high school game.
So what did the Giants' standout rookie, who was the second overall selection in the 2018 NFL Draft, think about all that?
"Just excited, living the dream," he said. "I'm a New York Giant, playing football. I've been wanting to do this since I was a little kid, to play in the NFL. Just attacking every single day, trying to get better."
He's also learning to handle the adulation that comes with being a marquee player for the NFL's flagship franchise. Barkley was extremely popular in Happy Valley during his three seasons at Penn State. But his fame has jettisoned upward in the nation's largest media market. Barkley has yet to take a handoff in a pro game, but his No. 26 jersey is already the NFL's top seller. Several fans who attended the practice wore them and called to him, which is pretty heady stuff for someone who is just 21.
"(I) definitely never practiced in front of a crowd like that," Barkley said. "It was awesome. Like you said, saw a lot of 26 jerseys in the stands, saw my family. I got to see my family after, I was able to sign photos for kids after also, and that becomes part of the game. You don't do it for the fans, but you play for the fans also, too, and you want to come out there and practice your heart out, and just for them being out there showing love and support, it means a lot to me."
Barkley wasn't certain how to react when the fans began chanting his name.
"No one told me how you are supposed to respond to that," he said. "If you aren't busy and you have a chance to acknowledge them, I think you should, but when you're in a drill and focused, you should be focused on football."
That's exactly where the Giants want Barkley's concentration to remain, on his obligations in uniform - learning the offense, being a good teammate, and contributing to the team's hoped-for resurgence.
But the ownership, management, and coach Pat Shurmur are aware that Barkley's special ability and high draft status has turned him into a wildly popular figure, much as Beckham was four years ago. Team president John Mara had to go all the way back to 1981 and Pro Football Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor to find a Giants rookie with this much hype in his first camp. But, Mara conceded that was, "maybe not quite this much."
The Giants have been impressed with how Barkley – who became a father just two days before the draft – has handled all the significant changes in his life.
"We're excited about him," Mara said. "He obviously has unlimited physical skills, he's a real fine young man, as well. I think he adds a completely different dimension that maybe we haven't had in our offense in quite some time. I do get a little nervous about all the hype, since he hasn't played a down yet. But I think he's capable of living up to it and just (is) very mature beyond his years, I think. So, we are obviously very excited about him."
"He needs to go through the process and he was the second pick in the draft," Shurmur said. "Certainly, we know what we expect from him. He's also a rookie and there's certain things that you have to do. The good news is he understands what he has to do and he's doing it. That's what we keep track of.
"He's a New York Football Giant now and there's certain things that we're going to ask him to do, and we're going to train him to do it."
Barkley is well aware his primary obligation is to be the best football player and teammate he can be, and do everything the coaches ask of him. In that sense, Barkley is happy to be just another player contributing to his team and to the Giants' re-tooled offense.
"I felt great," he said. "I've been watching a lot of film. Obviously, I got to get installed with the playbook in rookie minicamp and minicamp before, so definitely got a step ahead than what I was when I first came here. I understand the playbook, and now it's just trying to put it all together. All the hard work I've put in the offseason, all the studying I've done, all the backs I've watched, I try to take it to my own game and continue to get better every single day.
"You got to see the potential that we have on our offense. When you look to your left and your right, you've got Odell, you got Cody (Latimer), you got Shepard, you've got Evan Engram catching one-handed passes. That guy is someone who, obviously everyone is impressive, but that's somebody who has stood out to me and caught my attention. He's like a wide receiver out there. You definitely see the potential, and you've got Eli dropping dimes, our offensive line playing great, (Jonathan) Stewart being a great leader to me, also. I learn from all the other backs, also, so when you get to go out there, and just repetition and continue to get better every single day and continue to learn from each other."
He may be a 21-year-old rookie, but Barkley sounds suspiciously like a wizened veteran.
View the best photos from Friday's Training Camp practice