LOS ANGELES — Matt Barkley stood in front of the Christmas tree in Heritage Hall last December with all of Los Angeles and his NFL future in the palm of his hand.
The Newport Beach kid with the bright smile stood tall, announcing he would return for his senior season and uttering the words that would put the USC Trojan nation in a frenzy over the next few months: “The 2012 team has some serious unfinished business to attend to and I intend to play a part in it.”
Cue the band.
The outpouring of emotions nearly blew the lid off of Heritage Hall. Lane Kiffin gushed as he shared stories about ornaments.
Optimism, at that point, was as wide as the Pacific Ocean. It was the stuff legends are made of. Barkley, as the face of the program, would lead USC from the despair of a two-year bowl ban and right into a national championship, while winning the Heisman Trophy, despite USC playing with 10 less players than the rest of the country due to NCAA sanctions.
“Matty Trojan” would forever go down in Trojan lore and his No. 7 jersey would hang in the peristyle end of the Coliseum along with the other Trojans known by one name: Garrett, O.J., White, Marcus, Carson, and Leinart.
Less than a year later, that all seems like one, distant memory.
“Nothing is always as it’s supposed to be in life,” Barkley said. “Often things go as planned but a lot of the times things (don’t) go according to plan. It’s just something you have to deal with. I’ll handle it and stay positive.”
Barkley, adored by Trojan fans near and far, emerged from the tunnel on Senior Day Saturday, having already played his final home game at the Coliseum. Barkley’s senior day was spent as a spectator, the result of an AC sprain suffered in his right shoulder late in USCs loss to UCLA.
“It sucks that this game is ending this way, not being able to suit up and everything,” Barkley said.
Kiffin’s gushing has turned into ultimate sadness for his senior quarterback.
“There’s not a lot of words to describe it,” Kiffin said. “I can’t feel worse for a family and for a kid.”
Still, Barkley remains ever the optimist, only these days about things less shiny as it relates to his USC career, hoping to be available to play in his team’s bowl game and thankful the injury isn’t what he originally thought it was.
“I thought I broke my collarbone like I did in high school,” Barkley said.
This week, he’s spent time undergoing physical therapy and sitting in coaches meeting going over game plans to get a feel for what his life in the NFL will be like next season.
In actuality, that life in the NFL possibly could have been the world as he knows it today. It would have been his reality had he rode the momentum of last season into the NFL combine. He could very well be joined at the hip with Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III had he stood in front of the Christmas tree and delivered a different speech on that December day.
He didn’t, instead returning to school in hopes of being able to do something special. For a chance to return to the Orange Bowl and start a wave of Trojan domination similar to what Carson did 10 years ago. To return to the same place Leinart won a national title seven years ago.
“You know what?” Barkley said. “I took a chance and I don’t think enough guys really go for it enough these days and I did (but) it didn’t turn out the way I planned.