Darren Sproles is supposed to be retired. The plan was to call it a career in 2017 after 13 improbably productive seasons so he could spend more time with his young family.
But there he was, back on the Philadelphia Eagles practice field Tuesday, wearing that familiar green No. 43 jersey that still turns into a blur when he steps on the gas.
There was a long stretch of time when Sproles didn't know if that extra gear still existed. The 34-year-old tore his ACL and broke his forearm on the same play against the New York Giants back in late September. Sproles did not want to finish his career on injured reserve, so he began to rethink his retirement. However, there were doubts that needed to be soothed before he could decide with certainty on a return.
"It probably took me like a couple months," he said. "Was I going to come back the same? Will I still have my quickness? That's the main thing, because I didn't want to get out there and be getting smacked, you know what I'm saying? That ain't the way it's supposed to be."
Slowly, he began to regain his mobility, and the comeback was on.
Following his first practice of 2018, Sproles revealed the two motivations that fueled his rigorous rehab.
"I want to go out with another ring," he said, "and I want to go out No. 5 on the all-purpose yards list."
Sproles (19,155) currently ranks eighth on that list, but Steve Smith (19,180), Marshall Faulk (19,190) and Tim Brown (19,682) are within reach. Some believe back-to-back championships for the Eagles is a realistic goal as well, especially with a group of players who suffered season-ending injuries, including Sproles, Carson Wentz and Jason Peters on the mend.
Once word crept out that Sproles was intending to play in 2018, the push for management to re-sign the free agent began in earnest.
"I think I got the message when Coach [Doug Pederson] would come by my office -- I don't know, maybe once a day or twice a day -- and say, ‘What's going on with Darren? When are we getting Sproles back?’" said executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman. "And I said, ‘I got the message, Coach.’
"But we all wanted Darren back. It was our goal to bring him back. We talked after the Super Bowl with Darren about that it would be a priority for him to come back. He's a freak, you know? The things he's doing in his rehab, it’s amazing."
Sproles believes he's ready to be full-go, but he was only a partial participant at the start of minicamp Tuesday. Pederson said he's "very pleased" with where Sproles is physically, but is taking a cautious approach when it comes to Sproles and the host of others coming off major injury.
When he does get back to full action, he'll be part of a running back committee that includes Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement. Sproles is likely to resume his role as punt returner, and special teams coach Dave Fipp hinted that they might experiment with Sproles as a kick returner as well given the new rules regarding kickoffs, which is expected to give the play more of a punt-return feel.
"For Darren, obviously special teams is huge. Punt returns are huge. The chance to not only score, but to flip the field and put us in some favorable field position situations, so that's a big role for him," said Pederson. "When he's ready to go and he's back out there, he'll be a mix in the rotation of guys, like we've done over the last couple of seasons.
"He's a tremendous third-down back. He's smart. He understands protection, which is a vital part of third down. He does a nice job out in space, route running away from the ball. So we'll see where he's at and try to keep him in that same situation."