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Changing Direction
What’s next for Eagle Darren Sproles?
By Dave Spadaro

There is this story that is well known inside NFL circles about Darren Sproles. Before the start of the 2005 Scouting Combine – a week-long event in Indianapolis where draft prospects undergo all kinds of mental and physical tests – players strip down to be officially measured for height and weight. Sproles, the story goes, stepped up to be measured, but teams couldn’t get an accurate measurement on his height because the chart didn’t go lower than 5 feet 6..

“I didn’t pay any attention to it,” says Sproles, who started his 13th NFL season – and possibly his last – this year. “Kinda been that way my whole life.”

Sproles has proven time and again that his can-do attitude doesn’t waver. Even after a season-ending injury in a September game against the New York Giants – Sproles suffered a broken arm and a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his knee – his admirable reputation remains.

“He is unique, extraordinary, amazing, all of those words,” says Eagles running backs coach Duce Staley. “He works harder than anyone else. He pays attention to every detail. He’s been gifted with the best COD I’ve ever seen.”

COD?

“Change of direction,” says Staley. “Now you see him, now you don’t. How are you going to tackle someone you can’t see?”

This is the story of Darren Sproles, the Little Engine That Could, who from the time he was 9 years old played football against players a head taller than him, who had been told at every level of his football life that he was too small. He ignored all of it, and he kept quiet and he just balled.

Blessed throughout his career with extraordinary lower-body strength – he has leg pressed more than 500 pounds – plus incredible foot quickness, vision on the field and anticipation, Sproles became one of the greatest yard producers in the history of the NFL. He is the only player in the NFL ever to score 30 receiving touchdowns, 20 rushing touchdowns and at least one touchdown on punt returns and kickoff returns. As an Eagle, Sproles has made the Pro Bowl in each of the three seasons he’s been here.

“Darren was dynamic with the football in his hands. He was so quick, like a blur. When I watched him on film, I saw someone with great balance and the ability to make big, tough, fast defenders miss,” says Eagles special teams coordinator Dave Fipp. “I’m like a fan watching him. Sometimes, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. He is truly special and has been for a long, long time.”

Sproles has always been a quiet man, who was never comfortable in the glare of cameras and reporters, so he was rarely quoted. He was seen, not heard. And he liked it that way. His love of football came from his father, who started Sproles in the world of pee-wee football in his hometown of Olathe, Kansas. Sproles was the star of a high school team that won the state championship, and he scored a ridiculous 49 touchdowns in his senior season, but the big schools stayed away because of his height.

Plus, Sproles’ mother was ill and he wanted to stay close to home, so Sproles played at Kansas State, was a star there and entered the NFL, despite the fact that he didn’t measure up, literally, at the NFL Combine.

That was 13 years ago. Since then, Sproles has made believers of anyone who watched him play.

“I just tried to work hard every day and do the little things,” he said at the start of the season. “I love the game of football. It’s just always been fun for me.”

“The size thing, I never let that bother me. I just go out there and play. It’s worked pretty good for me, I guess.”

No matter how the 2017 season ends for the elite athlete, the legend of Darren Sproles will live on in the NFL, because the league has never before seen someone like him. Small guys aren’t supposed to beat big guys. Not in this arena.

But maybe that’s the beauty of Sproles, and why so many fans identified with him: He made it seem like anything and everything was possible.

“I grew up watching him. On TV, he was like a blur and you couldn’t figure out how he was able to get so much space and make so many defensive guys miss,” says Eagles running back Wendell Smallwood. “Then I was drafted by the Eagles, and he was the one guy I wanted to meet. I was in awe of him. He used his size to his advantage. He knew all the angles. He saw things other players didn’t see because he was so low to the ground.”

“But what made him special is how he approached the game,” Smallwood continues. “Everything was full speed. Everything. He didn’t slow down. We’d be walking through a practice, and he’d be going full speed. He studied the game. He lived the game. I’ve been here for a year, and I learned more from him than I ever learned from anything. He’s an amazing person, and he’s an amazing player. He’s a one-of-a-kind guy.”

Sproles had said before his injury that he was likely to retire at the end of this season – “I’ll see how I feel at the end of the year” – now many fans wonder if the injury has made that decision for him, and many recognize the hole his absence will create in the NFL.

“If you had an entire team of Darren Sproles,” Staley says, “you wouldn’t lose a game. It wouldn’t be close. There has never been a guy like Darren Sproles.”

 

 

Will Sproles be back?

At the start of the season, Darren Sproles announced this might be his last year of play, saying he would “see how he felt” at the end of the season and possibly consider retirement.

But in a September home game against the New York Giants, the running back suffered a broken arm and a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his knee. It was a devastating sequence on a running play that ended Sproles’ 2017 season.

Since the injury, Sproles underwent surgery on his arm and his knee, and has been doing his rehabilitation away from Philadelphia and the team’s NovaCare Complex. He has Tweeted sparingly to his 205,000 followers, with his most telling Tweet coming the day after his injury.
So will he come back?

 

 

“We’ll see,” says head coach Doug Pederson. “I hope he tries to come back and play at his high level. It’s tough to see a guy like that, someone we all admire so much, go out like that.”
There has been no indication from Sproles’ on his plans. As the Eagles roll toward the playoffs, Sproles is remembered as a leader who made – and continues to make – a difference to the entire team.

“Never count out a guy like that,” says running back LeGarrette Blount. “He’s a special, special football player and person.”

– Dave Spadaro

December 2017
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