Incredible heights: Darren Sproles’ journey to NFL greatness – Philadelphia Eagles Blog


Editor’s note: Philadelphia Eagles running back Darren Sproles announced he would retire at the end of the season. Here is the story of his journey into the NFL.

PHILADELPHIA — Safety Malcolm Jenkins was asked for a favorite memory of running back Darren Sproles, and instead offered a striking thought.

“Every time I think about Darren, it’s really one thing that constantly pops into my head,” Jenkins said of his Philadelphia Eagles teammate. “He makes you reconsider if you want to be great.”

He makes you reconsider if you want to be great.

Jenkins has seen Sproles’ meticulous approach up close for nine years now — first as his teammate with the New Orleans Saints and now in Philadelphia. He knows how hard Sproles trains. How he takes care of his body. How he always goes full speed at practice, even at age 36. That he habitually finishes every rep, not stopping until he’s in the end zone. That he has done this day after day, year after year, without complaint. Jenkins, like most who have come into contact with Sproles, marvels.

“Not many people can emulate that, which is why he is where he is,” Jenkins said.

Sproles moved into fifth place all-time in NFL all-purpose yards, jumping over Tim Brown (19,682) and into the company of Jerry Rice (23,546), Brian Mitchell (23,330), Walter Payton (21,803) and Emmitt Smith (21,564).

Not bad for the 5-foot-6 Kansas State product, whose only goal was to prove his critics wrong by lasting more than one year in the NFL. And there have been many critics along the way, dismissing Sproles primarily because of his height.

“It was mainly my parents. They always told me, ‘Don’t ever let somebody tell you that you can’t do anything,'” Sproles said. “And if they do tell you that, you work hard to prove them wrong.”

From fighting through preconceptions to overcoming a speech disorder to carrying on after his mother Annette’s passing, here is Sproles’ story, as told by some of those who helped shape him:

Former Olathe (Kansas) North High School coach Gene Wier: “My daughter and he were in the same grade. She talked about him all the time, and she came home one day in the second or third grade and said, ‘Daddy, Tank is moving.’ [Sproles’ father gave him the nickname Tank because he weighed 10 pounds at birth, and it stuck.] She said, ‘He is going to Rolling Ridge,’ and I said, ‘Well that’s good honey, some day he’ll go to Olathe North.’ And she said, ‘That’s what he said he was going to do: He was going to be the next great running back at Olathe North.’ That was like second grade.

“If you’ve ever seen the photos [from Pee Wee football], it’s hilarious because he was a little bitty guy. He was just like a little bug scooting through there.”

Olathe North principal and former running backs coach Jason Herman: “Darren was so fast that they said, ‘You have to run between the tackles.’ If he ran a sweep, he was gone. There was nothing anyone could do about it so they said he had to stay between the tackles to make the game more fair. Well, that didn’t work.”

Wier: “The infamous one was his daddy, the first time he ever scored a touchdown, his daddy just reamed him because he spiked the ball. He was in like second or third grade and his dad got after him, and he never did that again.

“The talk, of course, was that when he gets to junior high the kids will catch up to him because they’ll get bigger and he’s little.”

Sproles rushed for more than 5,000 yards, averaged more than eight yards per carry and scored 79 touchdowns at Olathe North, and led the team to three state titles.

Herman: “He was a tiny dude, he was a little guy out there among men, but once he hit the edge, he was gone. The greatest memory has to be against Shawnee Mission West. He’s going down the right side, they over-pursue, and he makes a cut and you literally see six guys go to the ground, he cuts up the other side of the field and then untouched, gone.”

Wier: “He had a severe stammering problem. He stuttered really bad. … And he had to give a speech in front of the whole school for winning an award as the outstanding player in Kansas City. So we had to practice that.”

Herman: “It’s a live television broadcast and the winner has to speak in front of the entire student body. Coach Wier called my wife, who is an English teacher, ‘Hey, will you help Darren with his speech?’ Because he never spoke in front of people. Darren hopped up in front of our community, in front of our kids, in front of the TV camera and did his speech. He worked really hard at it. And he did a great job.”

Wier: “It was brief. Very brief. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but it took a lot of courage.”

Herman: “I remember telling my buddies who weren’t at Olathe North, ‘Wait [til] you see this kid at Kansas State. And they’re like, ‘Yeah, he’s too small, he’s not going to do anything.'”

Wier: “What they got confused with him was his height is what makes him small but there’s nothing small about him. His nickname’s Tank and that’s for a reason: That guy is strong. He was one of the strongest guys in high school, college, and everywhere else. He’s a bodybuilder kind of guy and he runs people over. He’s not little, he’s just short. I just got tired of it. It was the same question every time. And nobody ever considered him to be a running back in college. Never a thought.

“I would get these calls and they would say, ‘What’s he going to be? A third-down guy? Punt returner? And I would say, ‘One, he was our third-string punt returner.’ He tried. And he would go out every day. We would set up a jugs machine for him to practice returning punts because that’s all we kept hearing, that he was going to have to be a punt returner in college. So we did that. He couldn’t catch them. But he kept going.”

Of note, Sproles’ nine career return touchdowns (seven punt returns, two kick returns) are tied for sixth most in NFL history.

Source : ESPN