October 18, 2015
Larry Sproles laughs, because he can remember that morning in Lenexa, Kansas well over 20-some years later. A muted figure had just dashed through his garage in a blur. It moved so fast that Larry couldn’t see the clear shape of the face, but something gave it away. And within seconds, it was too late.
His son Darren was in pit bull mode and he lifted the kid who lived across the street over his head and slammed him to the ground, pummeling him. The kid was 11. Darren was 9 and had lost his tolerance.
Darren Sproles used to be ridiculed. By the kid across the street he beat up that day. By kids in his grade school. By ignorant teachers who didn’t understand or never bothered to look past a struggle he waged through much of his formative years.
Words came out of Darren’s mouth in halting starts and stops. Sometimes so forced his face would twitch, which incurred the wrath of children too young to comprehend. So he learned to stay quiet and not say much at all.
The Eagles’ star return man was not only considered tiny by major college football and NFL standards, he also had to deal with a speech impediment that made him stutter. There were times in his youth when the stutter was so pronounced he couldn’t get a word out. It’s why you may not see the 5-foot-6, 190-pound dynamo -- who Chip Kelly calls the hardest working player he’s ever been around -- do many post-game TV interviews or be quoted after he’s had a great game — and he’s had many in his 11-year NFL career.
The stutter is a part of him, and in addition to his size, and why he carries a Grand Canyonesque chip on his massive shoulders. It’s what makes Darren Sproles who he is and it’s a reason why he’s endured for so long as one of the greatest return men in NFL history, tied for eighth all-time with six punt return touchdowns, three of them with the Eagles. It’s a reason why Kelly always notes Sproles runs out everything in practice. Why he’s all-go and no-stop.
“There are a lot of things I can laugh about now, because I don’t think about the size thing and stutter as much anymore as when I was younger,” admitted Darren, who has a degree in speech pathology and speaks smoothly in comfortable settings. “I knew I can always depend on my family and the people around me growing up to support me.
“It feels good knowing the respect I have from my coaches and teammates, because I was always told throughout my life that I wouldn’t make it. It’s what makes me go as hard as I do today. It first started in grade school that I was too small to play in high school, because of my size. There was always something in the paper, because of my size. I went out and did that. Then, because of my size, I wouldn’t be able to play in the NFL after college. I went out and did that. It’s always followed me.
“The stutter is frustrating sometimes, because I have to stop. I’ve learned to slow myself down and just breathe. That’s the main thing I watch for, my breathing. What I still have problems with sometimes is when there’s cameras or when I get nervous. That’s when I stutter. Around my family and friends I don’t stutter at all. When I was young, my family was always strong with me about my stutter. Kids would say stupid things and tease me. I tried not to be bothered by it. Sometimes it was hard, because I would get into fights over it. I would take it, to a point, and then get real angry.”
He would take it, and take it, and take it. And then burst. Like he did that day when he was 9.
“You don’t want to get ‘Tank’ angry. It’s pretty hard to get him angry unless you do something directly to him,” says Larry Sproles, Darren’s father, who refers to his son as Tank because he was 10 pounds when he was born. “He’s been that way his whole life. I just remember that one day with Tank because it’s probably the angriest I’ve ever seen him. He ran through the garage so fast I didn’t even know it was Tank. He saw the kid across the street and he snapped.
“I even had a tough time getting Tank off him. And the kid was a few years older. Tank kept telling me, ‘Dad, the kid was messing with me every day in school, and I told him to stop.’ I said, ‘Son, you’re scaring me. I’ve never seen you like this.’ The next thing you know the kid’s mother comes out -- and uh, oh, now I have to deal with this. I told her what happened and she said her son probably deserved it.
“Kids made fun of Tank when he was young, and because of that, he never talked outside of home. He only spoke among his family and closest friends. Luckily, he was good at track, soccer and football. That eased the pain and other kids wanted to really be like him. But it was a struggle, because on top of that, Tank was short. One time he came home crying; the kids were being mean to him because they weren’t picking him for basketball or football. Tank was upset, so he used to go and play with older kids. That’s how he got over that.
“The older kids would pick Tank first, because he was faster than everyone else. The kids his age saw that and they started picking Tank to play with them. But it was always a struggle for him, between the stutter and his size. There was one teacher that wanted to put Tank in a special-ed class because of his stutter. We said, ‘Hell no.’ He was an honor-roll student throughout high school and college. Tank just didn’t talk. So it was two-fold with him—and it’s why I’m so proud of him. He’s my son, but there are times, I’ll admit, I get a little emotional watching him play. It’s because no one gave that kid a break.”
The size and stutter stigma followed Darren, 32, into his college career at Kansas State, where he’s been inducted into the school’s Ring of Honor for being a 2003 Heisman Trophy finalist (behind the winner, Oklahoma quarterback Jason White) and where he still holds the school’s all-time rushing record (4,979) and single-season all-purpose yardage record (2,067) before moving on to the NFL with San Diego, New Orleans, and the Eagles.
Darren had a difficult senior year at Kansas State playing with the loss of his mother, Annette, who died of colon cancer in April 2004. Still, he was amazing for the Wildcats, leading the nation in rushing (1,986), and despite the questions about his durability, he toted the ball 306 times (seventh in the NCAA that season). Yet, as strange as it may sound, he didn’t want to win the Heisman —because he would have to make a speech. The world didn’t have to know about his speech impediment. It was only important that those around him knew. When he was inducted into the Kansas State Ring of Honor on Sept. 5 during the Wildcats’ home opener, he had concerns again. But Darren dealt with it well.
“I remember the one time when Tank was at the NFL Combine, and he called to tell me when they announced his measurements, 5-foot-6, 180 pounds, he heard some of the NFL owners and some of the coaches actually laughing at his measurements,” Larry recalled. “He was real hurt by that. He said, ‘Dad, they were laughing at me, and I’m gonna make them pay. They’re going to be sorry they ever laughed at me.’
“When I say he plays with a chip on his shoulder, I mean that. He said, ‘Someone is going to pick me’—and (then-Chargers coach) Marty Schottenheimer did (with the 130th overall selection in the fourth round of the 2005 NFL Draft). It’s why he’s so driven today.
“He still gets upset. It’s a fight. We talk about it all of the time. If someone does something to him, he says, “If I was taller, they wouldn’t say that, or do that.’ He wants the ball more, so he can display what he has. Tank won’t tell you that. He won’t tell anyone that. He just wants more of an even playing field when it comes to touches. If you believe in him, and Chip Kelly and his staff believe in him, he’s going to come through for you.
“But he was bothered by last year (with the Eagles). He wanted the ball more. That’s him. He won’t say anything to anyone — and if anyone gets in trouble, then let me get in trouble for saying that. Tank wanted the ball more last year. He’s about the team first, but he wanted the ball more. He reps 400 pounds on the bench. He still works harder than anyone else.”
Of that, there is no argument.
“I mean there's one speed with Darren, it doesn't matter," Kelly said. "Every time he catches a punt [in practice], he scores a touchdown. There's a very consistent approach to Darren Sproles. I have talked to our players about it. We point it out all the time as coaches.
“I've never been around a guy — and I've been around a lot of guys — that practices as consistently hard as Darren does every single day.”
You can’t help but like Darren Sproles. There’s always a fascination with players like him, because he has more in common with regular people in the real world. They can relate to him, because he could easily be them. It’s probably why his NFL career has morphed into folk-hero status, because of the obstacles he’s overcome. Darren doesn’t want to hear this. He doesn’t want to hear about the many things he’s accomplished that he wasn’t supposed to. He just smiles. He speaks frequently to children about his speech impediment, but he doesn’t need cameras there to validate his genuine involvement.
He’s thinking about playing possibly another two or three years, and maybe getting into coaching after his career is done. Then he’ll let his impact on the game be determined on merit, not stature. He’s arguably a Hall of Famer, because there’s one speed with Darren. There’s never been another.
He’s lifted the defensive cocoon, and it’s rare his left eyebrow will rise, followed by a wary, sideways squint. He’s never let anyone define him. He’s always defined himself. And he’s always been special. You just won’t hear Darren Sproles say that — stutter or not.
Follow Joseph on Twitter @jsantoliquito.