In a back room at the original El Cholo Spanish Cafe, a Mexican restaurant in mid-city Los Angeles so old it claims to have invented the nacho, pictures of USC immortals hang from the peach adobe walls. Matt Barkley sits beneath them, picking apart a sizzling skillet of chicken fajitas, carefully scooping each one into a flour tortilla and dressing it with green peppers. "Did you really invent nachos?" he asks a waiter, who nods wearily, as if he's heard the question from a thousand tourists.
"I love history," Barkley says over the mariachi music. He scans the full-color prints next to the fireplace—Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, the shiny Song Girls—but his eyes settle on a black-and-white taken more than 75 years ago, of a track star wearing a determined expression and a cardinal singlet as he glides along the perimeter of Bovard Field.
Barkley knows the man in the photo. As a freshman, he heard him speak to 160 students at USC's Annenberg School for Communication in a class called Sports, Business, Media, and afterward the professor arranged a meeting. What followed was an improbable friendship, between a flaxen-haired 18-year-old from Orange County who could fire a football through a cubby hole from 40 paces, and a white-haired 92-year-old from South L.A. who scampered a mile in four minutes and eight seconds 16 years before Roger Bannister crossed the threshold, roomed with Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics, flew a B-24 bomber that was shot down over the Pacific in World War II, spent 47 days avoiding sharks in a bullet-riddled raft and the next two years wasting to within an inch of his life in Japanese prison camps. His story would become the subject of a best-selling book, Unbroken.
The leaders of L.A.'s de facto NFL team are afforded stunning connections. Leinart met Paris Hilton. Bush met Kim Kardashian. Barkley met Louie Zamperini. They grab lunch a couple of times a year, along with Jeff Fellenzer, the adjunct who introduced them. Barkley has been to Zamperini's house in the Hollywood Hills. He has invited him to practices at Howard Jones Field. In 2009, when Barkley became the first true freshman to be named USC's opening game quarterback, Zamperini sent him a note with a verse from Timothy 4:12: "Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example." Barkley asks the USC football office to separate Zamperini's letters from the rest of his fan mail.
The two seem to have little in common, other than that they both played a sport at USC, seven decades apart. They've talked about the raft, where Zamperini atrophied to 60 pounds but recited poetry to sharpen his mind, and the camps, where he was singled out for regular beatings by a sergeant his fellow prisoners nicknamed the Bird. Barkley thought about Zamperini in June 2010 when the NCAA leveled the Trojans with a two-year bowl ban and stripped the program of 30 scholarships, penalties imposed because of Bush's relationship with a wannabe sports marketer. "It's not so bad," Barkley told himself. And he thinks of Zamperini again now, with the masses predicting he will win the Heisman and bring another national title trophy to Heritage Hall. "Whatever I do," Barkley says, "I can't ever measure up to Louie."
For all the recent problems with college football, the sport has been rescued more than once by its white-knight quarterbacks, and now here is Barkley, blending the passion of Tim Tebow with the fastidiousness of Andrew Luck and the joy of Robert Griffin III. He, more than any coach or athletic director or university president, oversaw the reconstruction of USC football. And he, unlike the previous coach and athletic director and university president, could not bear to leave the job incomplete. Without the sanctions, Barkley would be in the NFL today, pulling down about $15 million. But he is still riding through campus on his single-speed bicycle, gray with red pedals, tires and rims, because he wants to play in a postseason game other than the 2009 Emerald Bowl. He picks up the $15 tab at El Cholo, for fear the NCAA will submarine any more of his plans. "We got knocked down," Barkley says, "and we're still on one knee. But we're ready to stand up and start jumping, and I don't want to miss that."
Besides the shooting guard for the Lakers and the CEO of Disney, there is no loftier position in Southern California than USC quarterback, and Barkley is the position's beau ideal: 6'3", 230, with a smile you'd see in a Colgate commercial, an honor student who can play a guitar, build a computer and deliver a sermon. "Matty Trojan," head coach Lane Kiffin calls him. Barkley gives NFL scouts what they crave, five-step drops and play-action passes and deep out patterns, leaving the triple and quadruple options to everybody else. His style and pedigree are really no different from those of the men who came before him, from Carson Palmer to Matt Leinart to Mark Sanchez, other pro-style QBs reared by powerful Orange County high schools and influential private coaches. But at USC, Barkley stands alone, an accidental archetype.
Matt Barkley grew up on a cul de sac in a gated community in Newport Beach, and MTV might have tabbed him for one of its sun-kissed reality shows if he weren't so precociously functional. He walked when he was eight months old, rode a boogie board when he was one and conquered a bike without training wheels when he was three. He taught himself to read at five, the same year he met a cute kindergartner named Brittany Langdon, now a soccer player at Seattle Pacific and still his girlfriend. The only people to keep them apart were their parents, who did not let them date until they were 16. "We've got some pictures that will be good for the wedding montage," Barkley says, making a rare telegraphed pass. He went to The Pegasus School for the gifted in Huntington Beach, broke apart old televisions and remote controls to see how they worked, and built model planes and cars. He did not play football until sixth grade, but it came as naturally as everything else, and he has been his team's starting quarterback in every game he's dressed for over the past 10 years.
Orange County is a USC stronghold and a QB haven, dating back to the days of Todd Marinovich and Rob Johnson. The Barkleys were an SC family—Matt's father, Les, a partner at an investment firm, was an All-America water polo player there—but not the kind that went to football games on Saturdays. They were puzzled when Matt, at eight, promised his grandmother on a videotaped birthday message that he would throw touchdown passes for the Trojans. He was still five years away from taking his first snap, and when he finally joined the Newport-Mesa Seahawks of the Junior All-American League, his mother didn't understand why he had to leave the field every time possession changed.
But Beverly Barkley wanted to support her son, so she called the head coach at Mater Dei High School in nearby Santa Ana, which she heard had a strong football program. Mater Dei produces a college quarterback every other year, including Marinovich and Leinart, but in the early 2000s would-be signal-callers were scared off by three vaunted brothers already in the pipeline: the Forciers, Jason, Chris and Tate. The Barkleys, who might have been the only family in Orange County unfamiliar with the Forciers, were not fazed. And before Matt's freshman year, the Forciers unexpectedly moved back to San Diego because the commute to Mater Dei had become too exhausting, leaving a 14-year-old atop the depth chart. "Matt Barkley is the kind of person the stars line up for," says Monarchs coach Bruce Rollinson. "He lies in a bed of roses." His first pass was a 48-yard touchdown, and Kiffin, then USC's offensive coordinator, drove down Interstate 5 in the spring to see him practice. A week later Kiffin was back with head coach Pete Carroll, to offer a scholarship. Barkley would not take an official visit to another college.