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Originally published Monday, November 7, 2011 at 10:01 PM

Steve Kelley

USC's Matt Barkley finds love and perspective in Nigeria

The USC quarterback and his longtime girlfriend, Seattle Pacific soccer player Brittany Langdon, went on a mission to Nigeria to help others and found out how lucky they are.

Seattle Times staff columnist

quotes Love guys who display great character. Says much about him. Read more
quotes Nice story, Steve. Thanks for sharing. Read more
quotes Great story. So often we don't get to see the person beyond the player. I don't care... Read more

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It would have been easy for Matt Barkley to spend last Christmas quietly at home, feeling sorry for himself, moping because USC was under NCAA sanctions and couldn't play in a bowl game.

Part of the allure of the university was its rich football tradition and the virtual guarantee of bowl games.

But last Christmas, USC quarterback Barkley was neither on the couch at home nor on the field preparing for a game.

Instead, he was in Nigeria visiting kids like the 14-year-old boy named Abraham, who was living at Transition House, an orphanage in Jos, Nigeria.

Abraham was scarred because his uncle had tried to burn him alive. Because of those scars, Abraham couldn't close his mouth and had trouble talking.

But this teenaged boy, who had experienced so much pain and horror, still was full of life. This boy, who Barkley had come to help, was teaching his teacher about what truly was important. It became a transformative moment in Barkley's young life.

"Abraham is one of the many examples of kids we came in contact with, who had nothing or had come from such horrific family situations, living situations, but were still the most joyful people you'll ever come across," said Barkley by telephone Monday. "He was just full of spirit, full of life, having a blast. And seeing that now his life had potential was really encouraging for us."

Barkley, his parents and his girlfriend, Brittany Langdon, an all-conference midfielder for Seattle Pacific's soccer team, went to Nigeria last Christmas at the invitation of the aid group Go Nigeria.

USC football was in its first year of NCAA sanctions and banned from a bowl game. Brittany and the Barkleys left for Nigeria the morning after Matt's last final exam.

"The sanctions really hit us hard," Barkley said. "Hit the team hard, hit our university hard. I didn't really realize it at the time, but it was something that really threw me off. I wasn't expecting this at all coming into USC.

"I expected to be playing for the Rose Bowl, or a BCS game. But right when we heard the sanctions and we knew we weren't going to be practicing at Christmas, my parents (Beverly and Les) went to work to figure out what we could do over Christmas to make it worth while."

Beverly Barkley got in touch with a high-school friend, Peter Fretheim, the director of Go Nigeria, a nonprofit that supplies food, clothing, medical care and jobs to hundreds of street children and orphans. They found a way to turn a negative into a richly rewarding positive.

Nigeria is a country of profound tensions and deprivations. It is roughly half Muslim and half Christian. In their week-and-a-half in the country, they visited places like Dagon Na Hauwa, a village where 400 people were massacred earlier that year by Muslim extremists.

Langdon and Barkley saw children who had been burned, children who had been scarred from knife wounds. They walked to the site of the village's mass graves with more than 100 surviving children.

"They wanted to talk and get to know us," Langdon said. "They wanted to talk about what they've gone through and their hurt and suffering. They had such absolutely tragic stories, and looking at these kids and coming like we do from America, you can't help but feel, 'What do these kids have?' But they just had so much joy."

Langdon and Barkley served meals, taught classes and played soccer. They brought uniforms and soccer balls and footballs. They distributed hygiene packs. They passed out Christmas presents, which for many of the children were the first presents they'd ever received. Barkley introduced them to the magic of a spiraling football.

"The perspective we have now after being over there and witnessing everything we did, it changed us so much," Barkley said. "After not being able to play in a bowl game, everyone was asking me, 'Are you going to transfer? What are you going to do?' It almost felt like they felt it was the end of the world.

"But getting away from all of that, from the Internet, from my cellphone, from technology, from the media and just being able to serve, it makes you grateful for a lot. I get to play football, this game I love and dreamed of playing, and it really is something I haven't taken for granted since I got back."

Barkley made a video of his trip that is available on USC's website.

"It's difficult to translate the images of being with the people we met," Langdon said. "The touches, the feelings, the smells. But it was one of those experiences where you want to tell people about it or you want them to experience it for themselves.

"Since I've been back, I've been enjoying the little things in life a lot more. We played soccer there and they didn't have shoes and the fields were all dirt and they still were having so much fun. It made me appreciate the game even more. Going out on our field and it's artificial turf — and it's flat and it drains — and I can't believe how blessed I am to get to play on this every single day. I don't take one single moment for granted any more."

Barkley and Langdon, who celebrated her birthday on Christmas in Nigeria, have known each other since they were 5 years old in Southern California. Their families are close. Their sisters are best friends. She said she kissed him for the first time in kindergarten.

"I pretended like I tripped," she said, laughing.

They've been dating since they were 16.

"He's pretty dorky," she said. "He makes me laugh no matter what. He's so joyful all the time and I'm so attracted to his smile and his heart and just his goofiness."

On the field, this is the best of times for both of them. SPU is 12th-ranked and plays in the first round of the NCAA tournament Thursday against Grand Canyon at Cal State Los Angeles.

Barkley, who will face Washington on Saturday at the L.A. Coliseum, is having an All-American season, leading the Pac-12 Conference in touchdown passes with 28. He is second in passing yards and has completed 67 percent of his passes for the No. 18 Trojans. A junior, his draft stock is rapidly rising.

"After I found out what the sanctions meant," Langdon said, "I said to Matt, 'Why aren't you freaking out about this?' And he told me it was nothing to stress about. He said he loved SC and he knew he was supposed to be there. He had so much poise and confidence through all of it. It was so cool, because he was just being Matt."

And part of just being Matt is stepping away from the game, discovering something more in life, taking his girlfriend to Nigeria for Christmas, meeting a boy named Abraham and finding perspective.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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