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.”