Diminutive 5’6″ jack of all trades Darren Sproles paved the way for smaller players to excel at football’s highest level.
Sproles’ success in the National Football League opened the door for guys such as Maurice Jones-Drew and Ray Rice in the ensuing years.
Behind Sproles’ diminutive stature lay a bull strong and lightning-fast game changer.
Sproles was so strong he once beat San Diego Chargers three-time Pro Bowl linebacker Shawne Merriman in a bench press competition.
Many teams passed up on Sproles in the 2005 NFL Draft because of his height. After a successful 15-year NFL career which saw him earn three Pro Bowl appearances and a Super Bowl ring, he has had the last laugh.
Darren Sproles truly is the epitome of big things coming in small packages in the National Football League.
Darren Lee Sproles was born to parents Larry and Annette in Waterloo, IA on June 20, 1983.
He has a younger brother Terence.
Larry Sproles gave his son the nickname “Tank” after he weighed 10 pounds at birth, per ESPN’s Tim McManus.
Sproles was a former running back at MidAmerica Nazarene University. His passion for the weight room continued long after he played his final down on the football field.
Whenever two-year-old Darren tagged along with his father at the local health club, he waited at the daycare section while his dad pumped iron.
To Larry Sproles’ astonishment, his son wasn’t interested in playing with other kids. Darren stood up and checked on him while he was lifting. It was evident the younger Sproles inherited his father’s passion for working out.
Even when Sproles was a child growing up in Olathe, KS, his name became a household one.
When he was nine years old, Pop Warner coaches enforced a three-touchdown mercy rule and allowed him a limited number of carries per game, per SI.com’s Austin Murphy.
Parents protested after Sproles mustered just three carries after several games. Their complaint eventually gave birth to the Sproles Rule.
— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) June 20, 2017
Olathe North Eagles head football coach Gene Wier recalled his daughter’s story when she was in second grade.
The girl, who was in the same class as Sproles, told her father he said he was going to become the next great running back at Olathe North, per ESPN.
Sproles’ prediction eventually became true several years later.
His bravado on the football field made him learn a valuable lesson at a young age. Sproles, an eight-year-old football player, spiked the football after he scored his first touchdown.
His father Larry reprimanded him severely for his antics. Darren never did it again.
Larry Sproles transferred his ten-year-old son to a youth football league in Kansas City, KS the following year.
Administrators warned him that black football players would pummel his son – who wasn’t accustomed to playing against fellow African-Americans – into submission.
Darren Sproles remained undaunted – he scored an 80-yard touchdown on his very first carry in the new league. It was the first of 49 or 50 touchdowns (as Larry Sproles recalled to SI.com in 2014) he scored that season.
Darren Sproles attended Olathe North High School. He had 5,230 rushing yards and 79 touchdowns in three seasons with the Olathe North Eagles.
Even at a young age, Darren Sproles’ success on the gridiron was the product of his work ethic in the weight room.
As of 2018, Sproles still holds the Eagles’ lifting records for the squat (440 pounds) and bench press (335 pounds) in the 161-170-lb weight division, per The Athletic’s Bo Wulf.
Olathe North principal and running backs coach Jason Herman told McManus in the fall of 2019 about his fondest memory of Sproles on the high school gridiron.
It occurred during a game against Shawnee Mission West. As Sproles was running along the right sideline, he made a sharp cut that made six defenders miss.
Sproles turned on the afterburners on the opposite side of the field and scored a touchdown unscathed. Even back in the day, Darren Sproles’ blazing speed mesmerized the opposition.
Wier told ESPN that Sproles had a serious stuttering problem in high school. He called Herman’s wife, who was an English teacher, and asked her to help him with a speech that he had to deliver in front of the entire student body on local television.
Sproles put in the work and aced the speech.
— Brad Porter (@bradkporter) March 29, 2020
Sproles had high hopes of playing college football for the Kansas Jayhawks – the team he grew up following.
According to Wier, he wanted to go to Kansas so he could stay close to his ailing mother Annette, who was battling colon cancer.
“That’s who he was,” Wier told McManus in October 2019. “He knew the best place for him was K-State, but he wanted to be close to his mom because she was not good.”
Sproles went on an unofficial visit to Kansas after his junior season at Olathe North. Unfortunately, an assistant coach informed him the Jayhawks would not offer him a scholarship – they felt he was too small for the college game.
“I looked at his face and saw how hurt he was,” Larry Sproles told SI.com in December 2014.
It wasn’t the last time Darren Sproles felt slighted because of his diminutive stature during his gridiron career.
When Sproles got home, he received a letter from the Kansas State Wildcats – they offered him a full scholarship.
When the Jayhawks found out about the Wildcats’ offer, they changed their perception of Sproles. Jayhawks head football coach Terry Allen pursued him relentlessly.
One day when Larry Sproles returned home from work, he saw Allen parked in front of his residence. The older Sproles asked him why the Jayhawks were suddenly interested in a small running back.
Legendary Kansas State Wildcats head football coach Bill Snyder’s take on Sproles was completely different from the Jayhawks’.
“Coach Snyder never cared about size,” Sproles told the Topeka Capital-Journal’s Arne Green on the eve of his induction into Kansas State’s Athletics Hall of Fame in October 2021.
There was no looking back from there on out. Darren Sproles was a Kansas State Wildcat.
Sproles also excelled in track at Olathe North. He had a personal record of 10.6 in the 100 meters and 21.6 meters in the 200 meters.
Coaches and scouts wondered what position Sproles would mainly play when he entered the college football ranks.
Sproles was the Olathe North Eagles’ third-string punt returner. Experts thought Sproles would excel at that position when he entered Kansas State.
Eagles head football coach Gene Wier and his coaching staff set up a jugs machine for Sproles so he could refine his punt return skills. He struggled at first. However, he persevered and eventually felt comfortable returning punts.
Darren Sproles would eventually become one of the greatest players in Kansas State Wildcats football history.
College Days With The Kansas State Wildcats
Darren Sproles attended Kansas State University from 2001 to 2004. Remarkably, Sproles, who had stuttering issues in high school, majored in speech pathology.
Sproles played for legendary Kansas State Wildcats head football coach Bill Snyder.
He played running back, kick returner, and punt returner for the Wildcats.
Sproles had just 210 rushing yards and one touchdown on 28 carries for Kansas State in 2001.
The Wildcats won just six games that year – it was their worst showing in five seasons.
Kansas State lost to the 18th-ranked Syracuse Orange in blowout fashion in the 2001 Insight Bowl, 26-3.
Sproles took his game to the next level in his sophomore season in 2002. He had 1,465 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns on 237 carries.
Sproles consequently earned his first Second-Team All-Big 12 selection in 2002.
The sixth-ranked Wildcats won eleven of thirteen games that year. They beat the Arizona State Sun Devils in the 2002 Holiday Bowl, 34-27.
Darren Sproles enjoyed the finest year of his college football career in 2003.
— Darren Sproles (@DarrenSproles) March 28, 2019
He had a school record 1,986 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns on 206 carries. He also had a combined 462 yards on kick and punt returns.
To nobody’s surprise, Sproles earned First-Team All-American and First-Team Al-Big 12 honors following his junior season.
Behind Sproles’ resurgence, the Wildcats won eleven games and the Big 12 title in 2003. Unfortunately, they lost to the seventh-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes in the 2004 Fiesta Bowl, 35-28.
Tragedy marred the beginning of Darren Sproles’ senior season in Manhattan, KS.
His mother Annette succumbed to colon cancer on April 25, 2004.
According to Wildcats running backs coach Michael Smith, Snyder organized a bus convoy so the coaching staff and his teammates could attend her funeral in Kansas City.
“We were there for Darren not only as coaches and teammates but as brothers,” Smith told ESPN in 2019.
Sproles told the Topeka Capital-Journal in the fall of 2021 that one of the things that lured him to Kansas State was the brotherhood and camaraderie Snyder had fostered. This was a perfect example of that team culture he had encouraged.
Amazingly, Sproles took the field for the Wildcats just two or three days after his mother’s funeral.
Sproles racked up 1,318 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on 244 carries as a senior in 2004. He also had a career-high 492 kick return yards.
He earned Second-Team All-Big 12 honors for a second time following his senior season.
Regrettably, Kansas State fell from the ranks of the college football elite in 2004. The Wildcats won just four games and saw their 11-year bowl streak end in heartbreaking fashion.
Darren Sproles finished his college football career with a school-record 4,979 rushing yards and 45 touchdowns on 815 carries. He also had 378 punt return yards and 846 kick return yards from 2001 to 2004.
Smith sang Sproles’ praises – he considered him the best player he had ever coached in the college football ranks.
“The dude was unbelievable,” Smith told ESPN fifteen years after Sproles’ senior season at Kansas State. “I tell people I’ve been fortunate to coach a lot of unbelievable players, but by far the best player I’ve ever coached was Darren.”
Darren Sproles wouldn’t let his short stature hinder him from embarking on a sensational 15-year career in the National Football League.
Pro Football Career
The San Diego Chargers made Darren Sproles the 130th overall selection of the 2005 NFL Draft.
The diminutive 5’6″, 190-lb. Sproles was the butt of jokes at the 2005 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, IN.
When the stadium barker announced his 5’6″ height to the coaches and executives in attendance, some of them burst out laughing.
Larry Sproles, Darren’s father, told Murphy in December 2014 “it was more than a couple of guys” who laughed.
Darren, who bested all rookie running backs in the 20-yard shuttle at the combine, felt the sting of their insults. He called his father and told him that he would remember how they treated him that day.
NFL teams drafted fourteen running backs ahead of Sproles in 2005.
A good number of them – including Maurice Clarett, Eric Shelton, Alvin Pearman, Ciatrick Fason, and Manuel White – were busts who combined for a grand total of 422 rushing yards in their short and forgettable pro football careers.
Only one running back drafted in 2005 closely matched Sproles’ career all-purpose yardage – Frank Gore.
Almost a decade after the Chargers drafted Sproles, he noticed the league’s take on short guys has changed dramatically.
“It feels like they’re actually giving short guys a chance now,” Sproles told SI.com in December 2014. “When I was coming out it was hard. They didn’t really want to take anybody short.”
Darren Sproles taken in the 4th round of the 2005 NFL draft, 130th overall to the San Diego Chargers pic.twitter.com/nEcQJUZJ7W
— Clint The K-State Fan (@Thekstatefan2) April 28, 2022
Sproles remembered the slight from the coaches and executives at the combine. He proved all of them wrong during his memorable 15-year NFL career.
Sproles relied on his two main assets to prove the naysayers wrong: strength and speed.
While Darren Sproles was just 5’6″, he had Herculean strength. In 2005, he challenged fellow rookie and teammate Shawne Merriman, an eventual three-time Pro linebacker to a lifting competition.
Sproles and Merriman competed against each other to see who can crank out the most 415-lb. bench reps.
The 6’4″, 261-lb. Merriman – who stood ten inches taller and weighed 70 pounds heavier than Sproles – couldn’t lift a single rep.
Sproles, whose passion for lifting dated back to his days as a toddler watching his father Larry work out at the local gym, had two reps, per Murphy.
Sproles could also squat 818 pounds. For comparison’s sake, eight-time Mr. Olympia winner Ronnie Coleman, who stood 5’11” and weighed 300 pounds, could also squat the same resistance.
On the other hand, Sproles’ blistering speed mesmerized Pro Football Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson, his San Diego Chargers teammate.
“I don’t know if there’s a quicker human being,” Tomlinson referred to Sproles in Murphy’s SI.com article in December 2014.
Chargers trainer Todd Durkin seconded Tomlinson’s motion. He compared the intensity of Tomlinson and Sproles’ training sessions to those of boxing heavyweight legends Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier’s, per ESPN.
Sproles spent most of his rookie year in San Diego as a kick return specialist who racked up 1,528 yards on 63 kick returns in 2005. He also played behind Tomlinson and Michael Turner at running back.
Despite winning nine games in the 2005 NFL season, the Chargers missed the postseason for the ninth time in the past ten years.
Sproles sat out the entire 2006 NFL campaign because of a broken ankle. San Diego won a franchise-record 14 games that year but lost to the New England Patriots in the AFC Divisional Round in heartbreaking fashion, 24-21.
Sproles returned with a vengeance and had at least 1,008 kick return yards for the Chargers over the next four seasons.
He also became a versatile threat for San Diego – he had six rushing touchdowns and 11 receiving touchdowns from 2007 to 2010.
The Chargers averaged ten wins during that time frame. They made the postseason three times but never made it past the AFC Championship Game.
Things were also looking up in Darren Sproles’ personal life – he met his future wife Michel, a former UNLV track star, through a mutual friend in 2007.
Michel Sproles expected Darren to act like a typical athlete jerk. To her surprise, he was the complete opposite, per Chris McPherson of the Philadelphia Eagles’ official website.
Darren and Michel got married in 2010 as his career in sunny San Diego was winding down.
One of Sproles’ most memorable postseason outings was his performance against the Indianapolis Colts in their 2008 AFC Wild Card Game matchup.
Sproles had 105 rushing yards, 45 receiving yards, and 178 return yards for a total of 328 all-purpose yards. He scored the game-winning touchdown in overtime.
Sproles signed a four-year, $14 million deal with the New Orleans Saints in July 2011. The move reunited him with his former Chargers teammate and friend Drew Brees.
Sproles continued acting as a threat as a running back, slot receiver, and return specialist for the Saints from 2011 to 2013.
He racked up a career-high 2,696 all-purpose yards in his first year in the Big Easy in 2011.
New Orleans averaged ten wins per year in Sproles’ three seasons with the Saints. They never made it past the NFC Divisional Round from 2011 to 2013.
Sproles’ wife Michel received a stage 0 breast cancer diagnosis in 2012, per The Athletic.
It was another crushing blow to Sproles, who lost his mother Annette to cancer eight years earlier when he was still in Kansas State.
Now, it was his wife.
“There were times when I would cry, but I wouldn’t let her see me,” Sproles told McPherson in the fall of 2016.
Michel Sproles eventually underwent a double mastectomy procedure and is currently cancer-free.
Unfortunately, Darren Sproles left the Big Easy with a bad taste in his mouth.
According to a NJ.com report (via NOLA.com’s Katherine Terrell), Saints head coach Sean Payton informed Sproles the team was going to release him in the spring of 2014.
To Sproles’ astonishment, he found out on Twitter that the Saints had traded him for a fifth-round draft selection instead.
“I felt disrespected there,”a disgruntled Sproles told NJ.com (via NOLA.com).
— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) May 1, 2020
Sproles spent the final five seasons of his pro football career in Philadelphia.
He called for a fair catch in his first game as an Eagle against the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2014. Philly was behind 14-0 and the home fans made their feelings known to Sproles in no uncertain terms.
In a farewell journal, Sproles wrote on the Eagles’ official website in December 2019 that he promised himself he would never call for a fair catch again.
Sproles made good on his promise on his way to three consecutive Pro Bowl berths from 2014 to 2016. He also earned Second-Team All-Pro honors in 2014.
The Eagles averaged nine wins per season during Sproles’ six-year stint in Philadelphia from 2014 to 2019.
Sproles earned his first Super Bowl ring after the Eagles beat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII, 41-33. It was also Philly’s first Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Darren Sproles singled out the Eagles’ Super Bowl championship parade – the Parade of Champions – along Broad Street as his favorite memory from his 15-year pro football career, per PhiladelphiaEagles.com.
After enduring several injuries in the next several years, Sproles seriously contemplated retirement prior to the 2017 NFL season. He also wanted to spend more time with his wife and two daughters.
However, his wife Michel encouraged him to take the field once again.
“She was like, ‘Daddy, when you gonna get back on the field again? Because I love coming to the games watching you,'” Sproles told Wulf in the fall of 2018. “When she told me that, that’s when I knew I had to make a comeback.”
Sproles took his wife’s advice and signed a one-year deal with Philly in the summer of 2019. After he played out that contract extension, he announced his retirement from the National Football League at the age of thirty-six in December 2019.
The Eagles announce Darren Sproles will retire at the end of the season. What a career it’s been. pic.twitter.com/DH9OG64eYB
— Kristen Rodgers (@KristenERodgers) December 21, 2019
Darren Sproles had 3,552 rushing yards, 4,840 receiving yards, 2,961 punt return yards, 8,352 kick return yards, and 64 total touchdowns in his 15- year pro football career.
Sproles’ 19,696 career all-purpose yards currently ranks him sixth in NFL history behind Jerry Rice, Brian Mitchell, Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith, and Frank Gore.
Darren Sproles, his wife Michel, and their three daughters currently reside in the Los Angeles, CA area.
Sproles told D. Scott Fritchen of the Kansas State Wildcats’ official athletics website in the fall of 2021 that they live in the valley area of Los Angeles.
That area is similar to their San Diego, CA neighborhood where they lived for fifteen years before moving north to L.A. in 2020.
All three Sproles’s daughters have followed in their father’s footsteps as rising track stars.
The Philadelphia Eagles hired Darren Sproles to work as a personnel consultant in their football operations department two months after he retired from the National Football League.
Sproles became a member of the Kansas State Athletics Hall of Fame in October 2021.
The College Football Hall of Fame inducted Sproles two months later.
Sproles is also a member of the San Diego Chargers 50th Anniversary Team and the NFL 2010s All-Decade Team.
Sproles told Fritchen in 2021 that he plays golf with former Kansas State Wildcats teammate and NFL defensive back Terence Newman in his downtime.