As Darren Sproles lay on his back during the second quarter of Sunday's game at the Linc, and as trainers rushed to him and his teammates kneeled around him, it was already too late. His ACL was already torn. His forearm was already broken. His season, and maybe even his career, was already over.
Then Sproles did the most Sproles-like thing ever. He got to his feet, pressed his broken right arm against his body and walked off the field, down the sideline, through the tunnel and into the Eagles' locker room on a torn ACL.
He looked pissed off the whole time.
When news about the extent of Sproles' injuries surfaced Monday morning (see story), my first reaction was pretty simple: It would be a shame if that's how his career ended. That's still true.
On Monday night, Sproles took to social media to thank folks for their support and hinted that a comeback is in his future.
Great news for fans, though at the start of next season, he'll be a 35-year-old free-agent running back coming off two major injuries.
So if Sunday was indeed the last time we saw Sproles as an NFL player, it would be pretty fitting. That will be a big part of his legacy. He was talented, sure. He was dynamic, absolutely. The numbers and the accomplishments are incredible, no doubt.
He just also happened to be one of the toughest little mother f'ers to ever step on the field, too.
If Sproles got a dollar for every time he was asked about his height, he could have played the game for free. At 5-foot-6, Sproles always understood the height questions and he was still getting them this season as a 34-year-old in his 13th NFL season. It sort of goes against what people expect from an NFL athlete. They're supposed to be Greek Gods, after all, bigger than life. Not the height of your teenage nephew.
In a way, Sproles' height (or lack thereof) became a secret weapon. Do you want to underestimate me because I'm short? Go ahead.
Sproles, eighth all-time in career all-purpose yards, isn't just extremely well-respected and liked within the Eagles' locker room. He's that well thought of around the league as well. In fact, when Odell Beckham Jr. entered the field Sunday, the first thing he did was find Sproles. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone in the league who doesn't like Darren Sproles. If you found someone, he'd probably be a linebacker who had once been on the receiving end of one of his punishing blocks.
Because although Sproles is just 5-6, he's also 190 pounds and packs a hell of a punch. And throughout his career, he has always been more than willing to take on guys who weigh way more than he does.
Sproles and I have always seen eye-to-eye and I'm not talking about some common understanding. We're pretty much the same height. So last year, when he was flagged for a chop block in Detroit, we both got a chuckle out of it. The next day, after Doug Pederson's press conference, I was standing outside to tape a segment with coworker Reuben Frank when Sproles walked out of the NovaCare Complex toward his car. He stopped for a brief chat and, of course, the first thing we talked about was that chop block. He wasn't trying to chop block of course; he's just short. It was arguably the toughest loss of the 2016 season but Sproles couldn't help but laugh, too; he basically got flagged for not being tall enough.
Then the conversation rolled into his general enthusiasm for blocking and how he's always understood how important it is for him. And it got me wondering a little bit … when linebackers see a 5-6 running back about to block them, they probably don't know what's coming, do they?
Sproles' eyes widened and the corners of his mouth lifted into a sheepish grin.
"They're never ready for it," he said. "That's fine with me."
This will be the first time in his lengthy career Sproles will play fewer than 13 games in a season. In 10 of his 13 seasons, he's played at least 15 games, proving to be as durable as he is talented.
The Eagles are going to miss Sproles for the last 13 games of the 2017 season. There's no way to sugarcoat it and there's no reason to. They're going to miss him on offense, where he's a uniquely dynamic player in the run and pass game. They're going to miss him on special teams, where he's become one of the best punt returners in NFL history.
And they're going to miss him in the locker room, where he's about as well-respected as any player on the roster.
"He's a great man," Pederson said Monday. "He's a great leader, well-liked on this team and in this locker room and in this community. He's a lot of energy, and that's hard to replace. It's hard to replace. And so guys are just going to have to rally and pick up that spot and move forward. But, it's unfortunate. It is part of the game, and it's unfortunate that an injury has to happen, and sometimes it happens to great people and great men. It's just the unfortunate side of the business."
Well before the start of the 2017 season, Sproles was preparing for this to be his final NFL season. In June, he softened on that, saying, "We're gonna see" and to ask him after the Eagles made the playoffs. Despite growing pressure from his family to hang up the cleats, Sproles seemed genuinely rejuvenated by the opportunity to teach younger players like Wendell Smallwood, Donnel Pumphrey and Corey Clement. During last season, he even lived next door to Smallwood.
Sproles will have a decision to make eventually. He'll need surgery on his arm and his knee and the recovery process won't be an easy one. It sounds like Sproles wants to come back but he won't have to make that final decision for a while.
If Sunday ends up being his final NFL game, his 13-year career will have ended on a fluke injury, followed by something that probably just shouldn't surprise us anymore. When the injury happened, it didn't sound good — "Ahh s---!" was heard from the microphone on the field. But Sproles collected himself, saved the cart a trip, and marched his beat-up body off the field.
That's one tough little dude.