The Exception To The Rule EVERYONE SAID HE WAS TOO SMALL TO SURVIVE IN THE LAND OF NFL GIANTS. NOW, TEAMS ARE IN SEARCH OF THE NEXT DARREN SPROLES.

By Alex Smith

Ever since he started playing football, people have tried to tell Darren Sproles “no.” Throughout high school, college, the NFL Draft process – you name it, there have been naysayers telling Sproles that he’s too small to play the game. They told him his body wouldn’t be able to hold up against the much larger defenders bearing down on him. They told him time after time again.

He’s just never listened.

Instead, Sproles has carved out one of the most prolific careers the NFL has ever seen. Today, his résumé is staggering: 19,011 all-purpose yards. Three Pro Bowl appearances. The second player in NFL history with at least 500 receptions, 500 rush attempts, and 500 combined kickoff and punt returns. One of the best pass-catching running backs to ever play the game.

No one is looking down at Darren Sproles anymore. They’re all looking up.

“Darren has been a huge influence on me. His consistent approach to excellence is inspiring"

- Jordan Matthews

Sproles’ journey began in Kansas, where he finished his career with 5,230 rushing yards and 79 touchdowns at Olathe North High School. But despite those lofty numbers, Sproles wasn’t highly recruited on the college circuit, so he stayed close to home by enrolling at Kansas State. There, he set 23 team records with the Wildcats, gaining close to 5,000 rushing yards and racking up 83 total touchdowns, while serving as a team captain in his final two seasons.

At the 2005 Scouting Combine, Sproles showed off his wheels, running a 4.47 40-yard dash, sixth fastest among his position group. Still, NFL scouts doubted his ability to endure the rigors of an NFL season.

There were 20 running backs selected in the 2005 NFL Draft. Darren Sproles was the 14th to come off the board. Today, he and Indianapolis’ Frank Gore are the only ones still in the league.

Sproles admits that the doubters have only fueled his fire.

“When people say things like that, you want to prove them wrong,” Sproles says. “That kind of keeps you going.”

Running back is arguably the most grueling position in the game of football. It demands the most from those who play it – take on a blitzing 250-pound linebacker one on one, power into the teeth of the defensive line, absorb the physical pounding of being hit every time you touch the ball. It’s a position that can wear out even the most talented of players relatively quickly.

According to a study by the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, the average length of an NFL career at the running back position is just two years and five months. Through 12 seasons in the league, Sproles is still going strong.

But he isn’t just treading water at the age of 33. In fact, he’s had three of his most productive campaigns here in Philadelphia, all of them coming after his 30th birthday. In nine NFL seasons before joining the Eagles (eight if you exclude 2006, the year he missed due to an ankle injury), Sproles had 11 rushing touchdowns and five return touchdowns. Yet in just three seasons with the Eagles, he’s scored 11 rushing and four punt return touchdowns (tying the Eagles’ franchise record).

According to Sproles, his longevity has a lot to do with finding new ways to take care of his body. At the same time, his coaches have also used him wisely, getting the most out of every one of his touches.

“When you start getting a little bit older, you kind of have to start watching what you eat,” Sproles says. “But the conditioning part of that, nothing really changes.

“I’ve been blessed, for one thing, and the teams I’ve been with, they really haven’t pounded me. They’ve gotten me in space and doing things like that, and that’s why I think I’m not really tired or anything like that. A lot of running backs when they hit like year four or five, that’s when they start declining.”

When Eagles fans watch Sproles play on gameday, they see a lightning rod who is always the smallest crease away from making something out of nothing, a flash of green and white who often leaves defenders wondering what happened as they see his No. 43 trailing off into the end zone. But what fans don’t see is how much time he’s invested to earn everything that’s come his way during his NFL career.

Whether it’s been in San Diego, New Orleans or here in Philadelphia, Sproles has always been described as not just one of the best teammates inside the locker room, but also the hardest worker. In fact, many of the Eagles spend part of their offseasons training as a group in California. Much of that has to do with Sproles, who welcomes his teammates to his home in San Diego.

“Darren has been a huge influence on me,” says wide receiver Jordan Matthews. “His consistent approach to excellence is inspiring. Ever since I’ve been here, Darren has been the same, day in and day out. I met him in his 30s, so it’s even more of a testament to how long he’s been committed to this type of work.

“It’s to the point now where he doesn’t even look at it as working hard. It’s just looked at as his standard of business.”

That work ethic was instilled in Sproles at a young age, and it’s something he’s carried with him to this very day.

“It came from junior high,” Sproles explains. “The way they told us to work in practice was the way we were going to work in the game. That’s always been me. That’s just the way I work. That’s the way it is with me. There are days when you don’t want to give your all, but that’s just when you have to work through it. You work through it and the thing is that’s what’s going to make you better. You’ve got to fight through it.

“I just try to teach guys to do the right thing. Every year you’re going to have to prove to coaches that you still have it. Just because you made it now doesn’t mean you’ll make it next year. You just have to keep on working.”

Sproles may not be the biggest player to ever suit up and play the game of football, but he helped change the history of the sport. Players like San Diego’s Danny Woodhead, Kansas City’s DeAnthony Thomas, Tampa Bay’s Jacquizz Rodgers – and the list goes on and on – are all players who now fit into that “Darren Sproles mold.” They may have never gotten a chance to play running back at the professional level if not for No. 43.

Once overlooked for being too small to play, teams are now doing everything they can to find the next Darren Sproles – that change-of-pace back who adds an extra dimension to an offense. There’s been a noticeable revolution at the running back position in the NFL, and the man at the forefront has certainly been pleased.

“I’ve seen it happening and I’m actually happy about it now because they’re not really looking at people’s size and stuff like that anymore. If a player can really play football, that’s what they’re looking at now,” Sproles says.

Sproles’ career numbers say a lot. He’s built a résumé strong enough to perhaps see him end up one day in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. They show that a player’s drive to be great can’t be hindered by his size, and that putting in the extra effort goes a long way toward building an unforgettable NFL legacy. In fact, Sproles is even a finalist for the 2016 Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award, with the winner to be announced at the NFL Honors ceremony this Saturday.

But the numbers don’t say everything. As prolific as Sproles has been on the field, he’s been just as great away from it. One of the eight league finalists for the 2016 Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award, Sproles has left an enormous impact on those around him.

Don’t think for a second, though, that Sproles is content with everything he’s accomplished. His ultimate goal is still in mind, one that every Eagles fan is aching to see.

“You always want that ring. That’s what’s keeping me going, and so is proving to people that just because I’m over 30 doesn’t mean I still can’t do it.

“That’s what we need here. If we could get that ring here,” Sproles says with a smile, “that would be huge.”

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