AUSTIN, Texas — Maleek Barkley stood in the Lake Travis (Texas) High School indoor practice facility in early May, reminiscing about the first time he stepped into the building and marveling at how far he’s come.
“I remember walking in here my first day as a freshman and just being blown away,” Barkley said. “And now I’m going to a huge SEC school.”
Barkley is heading into his second week of practice as an Arkansas Razorbacks wide receiver. To understand how big a deal — and how unlikely — this is, you have to go back to his upbringing in Las Vegas and the series of events that led him to spend his high school years in the Lone Star State, thousands of miles from family.
“You’re always gonna have to meet new people and life isn’t always going to be easy,” Barkley said. “All of that taught me that I can adapt really easily. It made me a better people person because I had to meet new people a lot.
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“I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t move like that. I don’t know where I would have ended up.”
Barkley’s mother, Roslyn Reed, signed him to play football in a Las Vegas program called Elite Youth Sports, run by Josh McConnico.
McConnico said he started the program with his brother as a legitimate option for Las Vegas-area parents.
“We did it because of the nature of the game in Vegas,” he said. “It was so crooked. There were so many leagues there that don’t look out for the interest of the parents and the players. For us, we were trying to contribute to our community by establishing a league that would be based on more than just football.”
Barkley played for the “Elite Gators” and it became apparent he possessed special talent.
Around the end of Barkley’s seventh grade year, an incident with other students who McConnico said were bullying Barkley turned violent and ended with him being placed in juvenile hall. Because of McConnico’s relationship with some of the people there, he was called to come and talk to Barkley.
Barkley did his mandated community service at Elite Youth Sports, and also did some work there to earn money for his restitution, McConnico said. That allowed the two to develop a close relationship.
“Living in Vegas, there’s all these outside influences that can pull you in the wrong direction,” McConnico said. “Maleek has always been a really good kid.”
Eventually, Barkley began staying with McConnico, his wife Kim and their two daughters.
As Barkley was about to enter the ninth grade, Josh McConnico sold his company and decided to move his family away from Las Vegas. After exploring several different areas of the country, the family chose to move to Austin, Texas, and into the Lake Travis area.
The McConnicos met with Barkley’s mother and offered to bring him to Austin with them, believing it was in his best interest.
“They thought it’d be a good idea to get me out of there,” Barkley said. “There’s drama up there. I thought about it. At first, I didn’t want to be away from my family, but it’s the best decision I’ve ever made in my life.”
Although the transition was at times difficult, Barkley flourished at Lake Travis High, becoming a star football player and attracting interest from dozens of major college football programs.
Then he went home to Vegas for Christmas in 2015, after his junior season ended. Once there, he felt the pull to go back home and be closer to his mother. He enrolled at Bishop Gorman High School and began to prepare to play his senior season with some of his former Elite Gators teammates.
It was only a couple weeks after he got back to Vegas that he began asking McConnico if he could come back.
“He started to realize that she was fine and he didn’t really like the environment there,” McConnico said. “He wasn’t a Vegas kid anymore. He’s a Texas kid. He grew up in Texas during the most important time of his life as a young adolescent.”
Barkley said, “I was missing all my friends. There’s no other place like this high school. The tradition is just crazy. We’ve got 15,000 people at a normal game here on Fridays.”
McConnico discouraged him from coming back — initially, at least — for one big reason: College recruiting. Lots of coaches backed off of Barkley after he moved to Las Vegas, believing there must be something off there.
Arkansas was not one of those schools.
“I knew him well enough not to be worried,” said Arkansas wide receivers coach Michael Smith. “That’s where the kid was originally from. His mom was back there. I think some people forget that mom is mom. I don’t care who it is. He wanted to be back around his mom.”
Barkley committed to the Razorbacks while in Las Vegas, but called Smith and asked his advice before choosing to move back to Texas. Smith advised him to go back.
“I thought Lake Travis was a better fit for him,” Smith said. “I was like, ‘Why’d you do that?’ Then he made the decision to go back, and it was the right move.”
It wasn’t easy, though, because now that Barkley was transferring into a Texas school, he had to go before the UIL board and receive a waiver to be eligible for his senior season. It was granted and Barkley switched from wide receiver to running back.
Barkley rushed for 1,336 yards and 17 touchdowns while also recording 613 receiving yards and 7 scores. His performance helped Lake Travis win the Texas Class 6A Division I state championship.
“Maleek has some exceptional ability,” said Lake Travis offensive coordinator Michael Wall. “He’s one of the fastest and most athletic kids that we’ve ever had.”