Don’t Sleep on the Little Guy

Share
Share
Darren Sproles, Running Back / Philadelphia Eagles - The Players' Tribune

You’re an NFL scout, and you need a running back. The draft is approaching when a scouting report comes across your desk, and it looks pretty impressive.

Heisman Trophy finalist. Led the nation in rushing as a junior. Averaged over six yards per carry in college with over 5,500 total yards and 47 touchdowns. All-time leading rusher for a Big 12 school. Ran a 4.37 in the 40-yard dash.

Sounds like a guy you’d have near the top of your draft board, right?

Now, what if I told you he was only 5-foot-6? How far would you let him slide?

That’s the dilemma teams faced when I entered the draft out of Kansas State in 2005. The only number scouts cared about was the one number I couldn’t control: my height. “If you were 5-foot-9, you’d be a top-five pick,” they said. But I wasn’t. I was 5-foot-6, which meant only one thing to scouts.

I was too small.

Darren_Sproles_AP_TPT02

Durability was the main concern. Scouts thought because I was so small, I wouldn’t be able to withstand the hits I’d take at the NFL level. I never missed a game in college, and I was getting the ball over 20 times a game, plus returning kicks and punts. Durability? That shouldn’t even have been a question.

Going into the NFL Combine, I knew my height was gonna be something I’d have to overcome, but I knew I’d ace the Combine drills, and I hoped that my performance along with my college resume would be enough to make scouts look past my size. I was definitely wrong. Even at the Combine, my size was all anyone talked about when my name came up.

When they measure height at the NFL Combine, they use a laminated sheet of paper taped on the wall at about head level — well, the average player’s head level. When it was my turn to get measured, they had to un-tape the chart from the wall and move it down just so I could reach it. I heard giggles throughout the room. It was just one more reminder to scouts of what they already had written next to my name on their clipboards.

Too small.

So instead of being a top-five pick, I was projected as a fourth-round pick.

sproles

When the draft came, I knew I wasn’t going on the first day, so I didn’t even want to watch. Instead, my dad and I went to go play basketball. I needed something to occupy myself and take my mind off the fact that I was being overlooked by all 32 NFL teams.

I wasn’t a big fan of having a draft party, so on Day 2, when I finally watched, it was just me and my dad. I was confident I was gonna get drafted, I just didn’t know when — third, sixth, seventh, I really had no idea.

It was tough seeing running backs getting drafted in the third round knowing I had a better resume.

I remember my dad telling me, “You just gotta get on a team. Once you get drafted, you’re gonna be fine. So don’t worry about where you go. You’ll prove you belong once you get there.” I knew he was right, but it was tough seeing running backs getting drafted in the third round knowing I had a better resume. I had watched 14 running backs come off the board and the fourth round was winding down fast. I was starting to get frustrated.

Then the phone call came. It was coach Marty Schottenheimer. He asked me if I was ready to be a San Diego Charger, and I said, “Hell yeah!”

The Chargers took me in the fourth round with the 130th overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft. I was the 15th back off the board, and I had a chip on my shoulder. I knew I could play in this league, and just like my dad said, all I needed was a chance to prove it in an NFL camp.

The next day, I was off to San Diego.

Darren_Sproles_Ap_TPT_07

The rest is really history. I had the opportunity to learn under an all-time great in LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego, and when I got my chances to shine, I took advantage. I’ve used what LT taught me in every game I’ve played in, from the Chargers to the Saints to the Eagles.

The irony is, I actually think my height has been an advantage in my NFL career. I have linemen and linebackers tell me all the time that they have a hard time seeing me over the offensive line, especially after the ball is snapped. And when they do find me in the scrum, I’m already past them.

I like to think I helped open the door for some of the shorter players today.

I have to see the field a little differently as a running back because of my size. I rely on looking at my offensive linemen and watching the blocking develop rather than looking ahead at what the defense is doing. It’s like being in a maze, and all the walls are taller than I am and I can’t see over them, so I’m just trying to find the holes, and when I see a hole, I hit it. I can’t get ahead of myself and look too far downfield, so I’m very aware of what’s right around me on the field.

When you’re an NFL prospect — even if you’re a top-five talent — you never think you’re going to get into the league and just light it up. You’re confident in yourself, of course, but you know you still have to prove yourself once you get there — otherwise you’ll be out the door quick, no matter where you get drafted. I knew I could play in this league, but even when I was watching the draft with my dad, I never dreamed I’d be able to have a 10-year career. I never thought I’d make the Pro Bowl. I definitely never thought I’d set an NFL record for all-purpose yards in a season. You don’t plan on that. It all just comes from hard work.

Darren_Sproles_AP_TPT_05

It’s a different game now than it was in 2005 with coaches like Sean Payton and Chip Kelly, who I’ve played for, spreading things out. Teams and scouts see how I’ve been used and now they’re trying to get guys like me — smaller guys who can make noise in space — instead of passing on them because of their size. I like to think I helped open the door for some of the shorter players today.

For the first time ever, three running backs went in the top five in that 2005 draft. I wasn’t one of them. I was the 15th running back drafted, and of the 26 running backs taken in that draft, only me and Frank Gore are still active 10 years later.

So, to all you undersized NFL prospects, don’t worry about when you get drafted. The draft doesn’t define you. It’s when you get to camp that you make a name for yourself. Take advantage of that opportunity. If you’re drafted in the seventh round, you still go to camp and compete next to the guy who went in the top five. And the best man — not the highest drafted — always wins.

And to all you folks watching the draft, don’t sleep on the little guys.

How to Survive the NFL Combine

We wanted to know what it’s like to go through the NFL Combine first-hand — not as a glory-boy wide receiver, but as a grunt. So we asked New York Giants offensive guard and former seventh-round pick Geoff Schwartz.

Read More