Darren Sproles’ season ended early Sunday when football dealt the tailback a broken arm and torn ACL on the same play. It prevented his typical productive afternoon: one that has buoyed teams and more oft than not thrilled fans for 13 seasons.
And though Sproles told ESPN before this season that it would be his last, there's hope we may yet see more of the mighty mouse from Kansas State. Monday after news of the severity of his injuries broke Sproles tweeted “#TheComeBackWillBeReal.” So don't consider this article a finished journal of Sproles’ career, just a greatest hits album released while the band is still together.
Sproles burst onto the national consciousness during the 2003 Big XII title game, thought by most to be a coronation for number one Oklahoma, closing a season where they had been ranked first wire to wire. Amid features describing the 5-foot-6 tailback’s time in pee-wee football (he had been given a carry limit, as the other teams could not tackle him) Sproles accounted for 323 total yards on 25 touches, including a 60-yard receiving score and his team won 35-7. He finished his junior season with 1,986 yards rushing.
A year later the Chargers drafted him in the fourth round and he began his career quietly, buried behind LaDainian Tomlinson and Michael Turner. With the backfield that crowded, it would be as a return man Sproles made his mark in San Diego, and he began a career of highlights on November 11, 2007 against the Colts when he returned a kick and a punt for touchdowns, his first NFL scores, as the Chargers won 23-21. He would strike against the Colts again a year later in the playoffs. With Tomlinson injured, Sproles rushed for 105 yards and two touchdowns, the second of which was a 22-yard dash to win the game in overtime.
When Sean Payton saw in Sproles the perfect cog for the Saints offense at its peak and brought him to New Orleans, it resulted in career highs across the board for Sproles: 603 rushing yards (at a 6.9 ypc,) 86 catches for 710 yards and seven touchdowns, and an NFL record 2,696 all-purpose yards.
When the Saints traded Sproles to Philadelphia, Drew Brees said: “a Darren Sproles only comes around once in your lifetime.” Brees had originally been the quarterback in San Diego during Sproles’ rookie season. So, in a way, the running back did come around a second time for Brees.
In Philadelphia, despite the presence of LeSean McCoy, Sproles wasted no time making an impact. He ran for a 49-yard touchdown in his first game as an Eagle, a comeback victory against Jacksonville. In his second appearance he tortured — who else — the Colts with seven catches for 152 yards and a 19-yard rushing score in a 30-27 victory. His first two seasons in Philadelphia saw his first two Pro-Bowl appearances and his first two All-Pro Teams. It was the prime of his career, not the twilight.
Sproles has been remarkably durable at the running back position. Since 2006 he has missed only seven games. When the Eagles traded McCoy and signed DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews to much fanfare it was Sproles who endured while the other two were injured or ineffective. In 2016 he was named the Eagles starting tailback.
Whatever Sproles' intentions to return in 2018, his contract with the Eagles will have expired after this season. The team will have an equal say in whether or not his days in midnight green are over. Of Sproles, Doug Pederson this week said, “He's a great man. 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.”
Whenever the time does come, Darren Sproles will certainly be hard to replace.