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5-foot-6 Darren Sproles overcame height, speech impediment

5-foot-6 Darren Sproles overcame height, speech impediment
Sep 8, 2019; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles running back Darren Sproles (43) celebrates after scoring a 2-point conversion against the Washington Redskins during the fourth quarter at Lincoln Financial Field. (Photo: Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports)

PHILADELPHIA (BVM) – Darren Sproles’ height of 5-foot-6 has made many people write him off throughout his life. It’s the reason he didn’t go to his dream school and it’s a major reason why he wasn’t selected until the 130th overall pick of the 2005 NFL Draft despite leaving Kansas State as the program’s all-time leading rusher. 

But his diminutive stature and NFL success helped pave the way for future smaller running backs like Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice and others. Sproles has been recognized as one of the greatest undersized players in league history by NFL.com and has found his way back to the franchise he helped win a Super Bowl with. 

Darren Sproles’ high school career 

Sproles’ name, and nickname – which was Tank, given to him by his father after he weighed 10 pounds at birth – was already a household one as a child growing up in Olathe, Kansas. When he was 9 years old, Pop Warner coaches enforced a three-touchdown rule and limited his number of carries per game. 

Sproles continued to blossom into a star at Olathe North High School where he rushed for 5,230 yards and 79 touchdowns, averaging nearly 8.4 yards per carry, during his high school career. His high school coach, Gene Weir, told ESPN in 2019 that Sproles “had a severe stammering problem. He stuttered real bad.” 

So when Sproles was named The Kansas City Star Player of the Year for the first of two times, it meant he had to give a speech in front of the entire student body for winning the award. It was a live television broadcast and after some help from an English teacher, Weir said “he worked really hard at it. And he did a great job.” 

Sproles rushed for 2,031 yards as a junior in 1999 before rushing for 2,485 yards and scoring 49 touchdowns during his senior campaign as he led Olathe North to a 12-0 record and its fourth Kansas 6A state title in five years.

The Kansas Jayhawks were the team Sproles grew up following and had high hopes of playing college football for. Sproles also wanted to land in Lawrence to be close to his ailing mother who was battling colon cancer. 

But after an assistant coach informed him the Jayhawks would not offer him a scholarship because they felt he was too small for the college game, Sproles turned his attention to Kansas State who offered him a full scholarship soon after. 

Despite Kansas changing their perception of Sproles and pursuing him relentlessly after finding out about the Wildcats’ offer, Sproles went on to become one of the greatest players in Kansas State football history.

Darren Sproles’ college career 

Remarkably, Sproles majored in speech pathology at Kansas State despite his stuttering issues in high school. On the field, he made plays at running back, kick returner and punt returner for legendary Wildcats head coach Bill Snyder. 

After rushing for just 210 yards and a touchdown in six games during his freshman season, Sproles exploded onto the season in an expanded role the next season. He nearly matched his freshman totals in the 2002 season opener – 135 rushing yards and a touchdown – before totaling 1,465 yards and 17 touchdowns overall. 

The 2003 season was special for Sproles as he rushed for 1,986 yards and 16 touchdowns, including 323 total yards of offense and a touchdown in a Big 12 Conference championship win over No. 1 Oklahoma. Sproles led all FBS teams in rushing and finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting. 

After rushing for 1,318 yards and 11 touchdowns as a senior, Sproles finished 11th on the all-time college rushing yards list and with the sixth-most all-purpose yards in NCAA history. Sproles was inducted into the Kansas State Athletics Hall of Fame in 2021. 

Darren Sproles’ NFL career 

When Sproles’ height of 5-foot-6 was measured at the 2005 NFL Scouting Combine and announced to an auditorium full of GMs, scouts, coaches and players, many were amused. There was more than a gale of laughter for Sproles’ height despite him running the best 20-yard shuttle time of all of running backs that year. 

Sproles vowed to his father, “Dad, I’m gonna remember how they did me.” 

The San Diego Chargers selected Sproles in the fourth round (130th overall) of the 2005 NFL Draft but wouldn’t see much of him during his first two years in the NFL. Sproles backed up LaDainian Tomlinson and Michael Turner during his rookie season before spending the entire 2006 season on injured reserve after breaking his ankle in the preseason. 

Sproles began making history in 2007 when he became the first player in league history to return a kickoff and a punt for his first two NFL touchdowns. He etched his name in the history books again in 2008 when he became just the second player in NFL history with 50 rushing yards, 50 receiving yards and 100 return yards in one game, joining Chicago Bears great Gayle Sayers. 

Sproles would spend the next two seasons in San Diego – racking up over 1,200 kick return yards in each – before signing a four-year, $14 million deal with the New Orleans Saints on July 29, 2011. He reached 1,000 all-purpose yards in just seven games as a Saint and finished his first season in New Orleans with 2,696 all-purpose yards, breaking the NFL-single season record previously set in 2000 by Derrick Mason (2,690). Sproles missed 10 weeks of the 2012 season with a fractured hand before playing his final season in New Orleans in 2013. 

The Philadelphia Eagles acquired Sproles on March 13, 2014 in exchange for a fifth-round pick. He played in 15 regular season games for the Eagles that season, was elected to his first Pro Bowl and earned his first All-Pro nod as a second-team All-Pro return specialist. 

2014 began a streak of three consecutive Pro Bowl appearances (2014-16) for Sproles before suffering a broken arm and torn ACL on the same play in Week 3 of the 2017 season. The Eagles went on to win Super Bowl LII but Sproles was never the same. He appeared in just six games in each of the next two seasons before announcing his retirement following the 2019 campaign. 

Sproles was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame All-2010s Team and still holds the NFL record for the most receiving touchdowns (32) by a person shorter than 5-foot-7. Sproles has a net worth of $24 million, according to therichest.com. 

Where is Darren Sproles now? 

Sproles, his wife, Michel, and their three daughters currently live in the Los Angeles area. In 2020, the Eagles hired Sproles as a personnel consultant in the football operations department alongside former teammate Brent Celek. 

One of the greatest undersized players in NFL history is back helping the franchise he won a Super Bowl ring with.