PHILADELPHIA -- One thing about Darren Sproles, he never looks quite as fast as he is. Maybe it’s because he takes such small steps. Imagine a tall father and a small son walking fast through an airport. Think of the father’s long steps, and how the son has to take two or three steps to match each stride. Yes. Darren Sproles runs like the son trying to keep up with his father at the airport.
So, the speed always comes as a surprise, no matter how many times you see it before. When Sproles took that final kickoff Saturday night and started to run back it did not seem like he was getting anywhere too fast. His Saints trailed the Eagles by a point, there was less than five minutes left, the night was cold and the field was slick and the Philadelphia crowd seemed to sense victory. Sproles caught the kickoff at the 2. He started to run straight ahead, little step after little step.
And then, suddenly, unexpectedly, he veered right. There was an opening there. Sproles has always leaned toward sunlight. He headed straight into the open field but it did not seem like he had quite enough velocity to get there. Philadelphia’s Cary Williams seemed to be running at an angle to tackle him. But this is the illusion, this is trap, because for a split second Williams was running even with Sproles and then Sproles had run by. Sproles suddenly looked in the clear. It had happened so fast that, like a great magician, nobody had noticed anything until the trick was over.
“I did whatever I could do to get the guy down,” Williams would tell reporters afterward. In an instant, he considered jumping for Sproles legs, but Darren Sproles is well known for kicking his way out of such attempts. Williams considered diving for the waist but, again, Darren Sproles waist can be as elusive as a beam of light. Finally, out of ideas, Williams just reached out and grabbed Sproles by the collar and yanked him to the ground. That’s called a horse-collar tackle, and it’s a 15-yard penalty. Williams knew that. But he didn’t think he had a choice.
“I didn’t want him to score,” Williams said.
And Sproles? He got up and jogged off the field. He’d returned the kick 39 yards. The penalty added 15 more. The Saints had the ball in Philadelphia territory. They would soon kick the game-winning field. He’d done his job again.
“We know what we’re about,” Sproles said after the game ended.
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Here’s kind of a quirky statistic, but there is a point behind it. Only seven players in NFL history have had four seasons with 2,000-plus all-purpose yards. All-purpose yards, you probably know, include rushing, receiving, punt and kickoff return yards and any other kind of yard that moves a football toward the goal line.
Four of the seven players -- Eric Dickerson, Tiki Barber, Marshall Faulk and Walter Payton -- were all-time great running backs. Three are in the Hall of Fame, and Barber figures to be there soon. They succeeded in different ways -- Dickerson was a blur, Payton a battering ram, Faulk a now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t illusionist, Barber a blend of all things -- but they were similar in more ways than they were different. They generally did not return kicks, for instance.
Two of the players -- Brian Mitchell and Dante Hall -- were all-time great kick returners. Mitchell scored 13 kick return touchdowns, Hall scored 12, and in open spaces, each was electrifying. They too were similar. They were brilliant on punts and kickoffs, but neither was quite able to transfer that electricity into the offense,.
That leaves just one. New Orleans’ Darren Sproles.
And there really has never been an NFL player quite like him.
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The first time I saw Darren Sproles run, he was 17 years old and a running back for Olathe North High School a few miles south of Kansas City. A friend and and former college football player called and said: “You need to see this guy. He might be the best high school player I’ve ever seen. I played against Barry Sanders. This kid might be better.”
Better than Barry Sanders? Absurd. I saw Sproles at night, under spotty lights, and it was mesmerizing. Sproles was simply impossible to tackle. He was not only quicker and faster than everyone else and too strong to bring down, he moved like Bruce Lee against an army. He seemed to use the light and shadow as blockers. He disappeared in and out of darkness. He left defenders sprawling on the ground and holding their ankles in embarrassment. I left the game with my jaw dropped.
Sproles was already at his full height of 5-foot-6, and even then, the size was deceiving. Sproles was short but sturdy. He had been a 10-pound baby, and as a boy everyone called him “Tank.” Arms could not bring him down. Often, entire bodies hitting him at full force could not bring him down.
Sproles had been an athletic savant. His father, Larry, had been a good little college running back himself. Darren’s first sport was soccer, and he scored eight goals in a single game. He loved football more, though. Before he was old enough to play, he would stand in front of a mirror and pretend to be Barry Sanders. When he was old enough for pee-wee football, he was so good the league had to change the rules. In his first two games, Sproles scored a touchdown every single time he ran the ball. No, really. Every single time. The league finally outlawed Darren Sproles sweeps. Later, they limited the number of times he was allowed to carry the ball.
His genius for football, I think, was fueled in part by his size and also by an intense stutter that made it difficult for him communicate, especially when nerves strangled him. Football, he said, was the best way he knew to express himself. When he ran the ball, he let his natural instincts take over -- “I never know what I’m going to do,” he has said -- and he did things that even he didn’t understand when he saw them on film. He thrived on being underestimated. And he was always underestimated.
Sproles went to play football at Kansas State -- there were more than a few people who thought he might be too small for high-level Division I football. Yeah. As a junior, he ran for 1,986 yards -- most in the nation -- scored 18 touchdowns and probably deserved more Heisman consideration (he finished sixth). In the Big 12 championship game, he ran for 235 yards, caught three passes for 88 more yards and led Kansas State to a shocking destruction of No. 1 Oklahoma. As a senior, he went back to Kansas State because he promised his mother -- who had recently died -- that he would get his diploma. He did in speech pathology.
Sproles was drafted in the fourth round of the NFL Draft by San Diego -- there were more than a few people who thought he might be too small to play in the NFL. Yeah. He spent a year on the bench and another with a broken ankle, but in a game against Indianapolis in 2007, he returned the opening kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown. Later in the quarter, he returned a punt 45 yards for a touchdown. Those were his first two NFL touchdowns, which set some sort of NFL record. Later in the year, in a game blowout against Detroit, he was given his first real shot as a running back. He ran 25 times for 122 yards and two touchdowns.
The next year was the first of four straight seasons with 2,000 all-purpose yards.
In an age of specialization, Darren Sproles isn’t any one thing, which is what makes him one of the most dangerous players left in these playoffs. The Seahawks know -- like everyone knows -- that to beat the Saints you must slow down Drew Brees and find a way to bracket Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston and slow down the running game that was surprisingly active against Philadelphia.
But what about Sproles? When he came to New Orleans in 2011, coach Sean Payton and his assistants had one goal: Find a way to get him into space. It really did not matter how. So they designed running plays for him -- he averaged a remarkable 6.9 yards per carry and scored two touchdowns. They set him up with all sorts of screens and short crossing patterns, and he caught 86 passes for seven more touchdowns. He scored once on a punt return, and he was fourth in the NFL in kickoff returns. His 2,696 all-purpose yards not only led the league that year, it is the NFL record.
They’ve reduced the load a bit for Sproles -- but he’s essentially the same guy in the same role. He catches. He runs. He returns. He blocks. And he waits. When Sproles was at Kansas State, he held an obviously special place in the heart of Wildcats coach Bill Snyder, which is not an easy thing to do. Snyder’s not an openly sentimental man -- Snyder’s not particularly open about anything -- but Sproles brought out something in him. And it wasn’t Sproles remarkable moves or his deceptive speed or even his overwhelming work ethic.
I think it was because Sproles does whatever is needed, whenever it’s needed, and he does it with no complaints, with no celebration of self, with nothing driving him but a deep love of football and his teammates. That sounds corny, of course, but these are the corny things football coaches talk about all the time. And Darren Sproles represented them. Snyder once told me, “He’s just different. Every player is different. But Darren, I’ll just leave it at that. He’s different.”
That has never changed. Saturday night, against the Eagles, people were expecting Sproles to get a lot of carries with the injury to No. 1 running back Pierre Thomas. It didn’t happen. Instaead, former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram ran the ball beautifully. So did rookie Khiry Robinson. Sproles played his part when called. He ran the ball four times for 29 yards, caught four passes for 31 more yards, returned three punts and four kickoffs.
It was the last kickoff that made all the difference. That’s the thing with Sproles. You never really see him coming until he’s already run past.