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PRO FOOTBALL

San Diego's Darren Sproles turns size deficit to his advantage

One of the smallest guys in the NFL -- 5-foot-6 and 180 pounds -- is its biggest story, leading the Chargers to the second round of the playoffs with a phenomenal game.

January 06, 2009|BILL DWYRE

FROM SAN DIEGO — In a game of brutes and behemoths, the biggest story in pro football right now stands 5 feet 6, weighs 180 pounds and stutters.

It gets better.

He weighed 10 pounds at birth and acquired the nickname "Tank" as a youngster playing sandlot football. His first sport was soccer, and when he tried football at age 8, his mother hated it.

"The first little hit I took, she didn't want me to play after that," he says. "Then, she saw me score and she was more open to it."

Three days ago, Darren Sproles lifted his San Diego Chargers onto his little back and carried them into the second round of the NFL playoffs.

In a 23-17 overtime victory over Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Sproles rushed for 105 yards, returned punts and kickoffs for 178 and caught passes for 45 more. That total of 328 all-purpose yards was the third-best ever in the NFL playoffs.

He also scored the winning touchdown halfway through the first sudden death on a 22-yard run he completed with one final clever cutback that razzled the Colts' defense on a day that it had been dazzled from the start by the smallest player in the league.

When Sproles runs, he is a bowling ball, navigating the Redwoods. He is like tackling Jell-o, roping a mustang.

"Sometimes, when I'm out there," he says, "I hear the defensive guys say things like I'm too short for them to get down low enough to tackle me."

Sproles is the only NFL player who might get rejected for a couple of the rides at Disneyland.

He refers to his running style as that of "a slasher, somebody who makes you miss."

A bigger problem for the defenses is not so much missing him as it is finding him in the first place. If he didn't go into football, he could have been the cartoon Road Runner.

Beep Beep. Gone.

Philip Rivers, Chargers quarterback, smiles when he talks about it.

"I've got the best seat in the house," he says. "I hand him the ball, he heads into the line, it doesn't look good, and then, all of a sudden, he squirts through."

Sproles, 25 and in his fourth season with the Chargers, did not squirt out of nowhere into this NFL spotlight, but he also wasn't on anybody's list as a likely star of the playoffs. That's mostly because he plays behind one of the bigger stars in the game today, LaDainian Tomlinson. For the last several years in Chargerland, Tomlinson has been the straw that stirs the drink.

But he's hurt now, suffering from something the Chargers are calling a groin injury and others are hinting is much worse.

That makes Sproles the likely main man for the Chargers against the Steelers on Sunday in Pittsburgh, and while an opponent normally would be secretly thrilled not to have to face Tomlinson, they now have places in Pittsburgh where game films can be viewed. The Steelers know that, in this case, avoiding Tomlinson may be a double-edged sword.

Sproles was a prominent college player, as much as anybody can be who plays at Kansas State. He has 23 school records, accumulated more all-purpose yards than the stadium lawn crew and led K-State to the Big 12 title in his junior season of 2003.

That gave him enough prominence to finish fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting, the year Jason White of Oklahoma won and Philip Rivers of North Carolina State was seventh. Fifth was fine with Sproles. If anything, that was too close.

"Was I thrilled when somebody else won? Oh, my, yes," he says. "I kept telling everybody, please, please vote for somebody else."

That wasn't based on a lack of recognition of what he had achieved on the field, but a recognition of what he would have to do were he to win. He would have had to stand in front of a room full of people in New York and make an acceptance speech to them, and to a national television audience.

"I'd have rather died," Sproles says.

The speech impediment that has haunted him all his life is much less of a problem now. He has worked at it, gone through therapy, forced himself to meet the press. Still, he says, the hardest thing he did Saturday wasn't making the Colts' defense look like a bunch of guys with fly swatters, but walking to that podium after the game to speak and be interviewed.

"To tell you the truth," he says, "I don't know how I got through that."

He is asked if he would have rather, instead of going to that podium, run head-on into somebody the likes of his 348-pound defensive tackle teammate, Jamaal Williams.

"Yes," he says, without smiling.

His stuttering problem is much improved. One-on-one, he is fine, comfortable, friendly and articulate.

"It is better than in college," he says. "I stuttered. I got nervous."

Instead of ducking the public things he now must do, he sets his jaw and faces them.

"The more I work at it," he says, "the better it gets."

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