WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — New Orleans running back Darren Sproles doesn’t meet the usual criteria to play in the NFL. But for Sproles, “average” and “usual” doesn’t matter. He ignored naysayers, worked hard, followed his dreams, and never let anyone tell him he couldn’t.
The average NFL player is 6’2” tall. The average height of an NCAA football player is also 6’2”. The average height of an average high school player, including freshmen, is 5’8”.
Darren Sproles is 5’6” tall, a full six inches shorter than the NFL “average,” and the shortest player currently in the NFL – free agent Trindon Holliday is listed at 5’5”, but he is currently not playing. As anyone who watched the Saints – Lions playoff game knows, he is also one of the most gifted athletes in the league.
Sproles was born on 20 June 1983 in Waterloo, Iowa. He went to Olathe North High School in Kansas, and then to Kansas State. Sproles was drafted in the fourth round in 2005 by the Chargers, primarily as a kick and punt returners. He missed the 2006 season after an ankle injury, and saw limited game time in 2007 and 2008. His outstanding showing in the playoff game against the Colts in 2008 earned him strong playing time in 2009, and he won the starting running back position for the Chargers in 2010. He joined the Saints in 2011 as a free agent, and accumulated a massive 2,696 yards, breaking the NFL record for most single-season all-purpose yardage.
Skeptics have always questioned Darren Sproles. Well, not always. When he was born, weighing in at a large 10 pounds, his father nicknamed him “Tank.” That was the only time in his life people thought he was big. When Darren wanted to play youth football in Olathe, Kansas, officials said he was too small to play. After his first 80-yard touchdown, they changed their minds and let him play. In fact, he scored so much, the lightweight league would not longer play him. His father offered to move Darren up to the heavyweight division, but the league did not want to risk injury, so they refused. Father Larry ended up driving Darren to Kansas City to play in one of the larger youth leagues.
In high school, Sproles was outstanding, but was largely ignored by the larger schools when it was time for college. Sproles won the State of Kansas high school player of the year when he was a senior, rushing for 5,230 yards and 79 touchdowns. Larger schools were concerned about his height, but he went to Kansas State where he wanted to play football. At the beginning of the year at Kansas State, Sproles was the sixth or seventh tailback on the team. After he delivered three runs longer than 60 yards against the USC Trojans, Kansas coaches changed their minds and gave Sproles the ball; again, he excelled. He ran for 4,979 yards and 80 touchdowns during his time at Kansas State. In the 2003 Heisman Trophy voting, Sproles came in 5th.
Despite exceptional performance and strong accolades as a high school All-American and coming fifth in voting for the Heisman trophy, skeptics questioned Sproles ability to succeed in the NFL. In the scouting report for the 2005 draft, Sports Illustrated said Sproles, “Lacks the pure speed to run to daylight. Looks small to the point of being tiny on the football field.” Their overall analysis was, “Lacking the size to be anything other then a role player at the next level, Sproles possesses all the intangibles and abilities needed as a third-down specialist.”
They were wrong.
In 2010, Sproles told ESPN, “It’s always fun to prove people wrong. No matter what I do, people are going to say there’s something that I can’t do. I like showing them I can.”
Sproles dealt with the difficult death of his mother, Annette, from cancer in 2004 and overcame a stuttering disability which he had since he was four. He has also silenced critics who question his height, simply by working hard and delivering.
Sproles can do it all. He can rush, receive and return. His two touchdowns against the Lions helped push the Saints to the next round of the playoffs, against the San Francisco 49ers.
Sproles also reminds us that what matters is not whether you fit the ideal image or not. It’s the size of your heart and your desire. Darren Sproles may have a 5’6” frame, but he has 7-foot heart.
Lisa has an undergraduate degree in International Relations from George Mason University and a graduate degree in Foreign Affairs from The University of Virginia. She spent 11 years as an analyst with the federal government. She is part owner of a research and analysis company, C2 Research, LLC, which specializes in complex research and analysis. Lisa is a senior analyst for LIGNET.COM, writing international political analysis. She is also a freelance writer, contributing to Donne Tempo Magazine, and regularly contributes to the Wall Street Transcript.