Chargers' Sproles: 'I'm just playing'

At 5-6, San Diego running back Darren Sproles is the NFL's smallest player. "When you see those little legs going a thousand miles a minute, it's amazing," Chargers GM A.J. Smith says of Sproles. Icon SMI

They got little baby legs
And they stand so low
You got to pick 'em up
Just to say hello ...
Don't want no Short People
'Round here

-- Randy Newman, "Short People"

When Darren Sproles was delivered into this world, his father, a little giddy over the unexpected girth of his 10-pound son, nicknamed him "Tank."

In retrospect, Larry Sproles -- a 5-foot-5 running back at MidAmerica Nazarene University -- may have been thinking wistfully.

Darren eventually grew (modestly) into a 5-6, 180-pound running back. After encountering challenges at every level, from youth football in Johnson County, Kan., to Kansas State to the San Diego Chargers, last Saturday night Sproles slammed into the consciousness of NFL fans, not to mention the Indianapolis Colts.

Replacing the injured LaDainian Tomlinson, himself one of the league's most electrifying players, Sproles, the shortest man in the NFL, dominated the Chargers' 23-17 overtime victory:

• He rushed 23 times for 105 yards and two touchdowns, including the 22-yard score that ended the game.

• He returned four kickoffs for 106 yards, three punts for 72 yards and caught five passes for 45 yards.

• On 35 touches, he produced 328 all-purpose yards, No. 3 on the all-time playoff list.

This scintillating, 25-year-old diminutive stick of dynamite is the NFL's latest example that size isn't the only measure of a man. Since he began making an impression back in college, Sproles has always answered the cynics of size the same way: It's all about the size of your heart.

"I honestly don't think about it," he said Thursday. "People always think that it's on my mind, but it's really not. People ask me about it all the time so I have to answer it, but I really don't worry about it.

"When I'm out there, I'm just playing."

Chargers coach Norv Turner, who has been fascinated with Sproles' speed and unnatural acceleration since he arrived last year, couldn't resist a variation on the short jokes that have dogged Sproles his entire life.

"We've got him packed in ice back in the training room right now," Turner told reporters Monday. "We'll let him out on Friday."

The Chargers will need a similarly muscular performance Sunday when the Chargers visit the Steelers for a divisional playoff game. Tomlinson's groin injury is actually a detached tendon and likely will keep him on the sidelines.

Sproles was, in Turner's words, "absolutely exhausted" after beating the Colts. Height, statistically speaking, gives you an advantage in life. The taller man tends to get the job, the girl and, generally, a higher social status. It's not fair; it's just the way the world is.

The NFL, a roiling vat of testosterone guided by the principles of social Darwinism, is no different. When there is a collision, the larger man usually wins. Still, a few undersized players possess rare combinations of fast-twitch muscle fibers and kinetic energy, and are exceptions to the applicable rules of physics.

There are 27 players listed on current NFL rosters at 5-8 or shorter, about 1.6 percent of the league's 1,700 players. Bob Sanders, the Colts' sensational strong safety; Jets kick returner Leon Washington; and running backs Maurice Jones-Drew and Kevin Faulk of the Jaguars and Patriots, respectively, are on that exceptional short list.

They survive on talent, buttressed by guile and guts. On Sunday, the 180-pound Sproles will be trying to run through a Steelers defensive front three that averages more than 300 pounds per man. How is that humanly possible?

"Darren is not small," Chargers general manager A.J. Smith told ESPN.com earlier this week. "He's really just short. I would also say strong and powerful.

"Usually, we judge players by height and weight, but Darren is exceptional. He has that initial quickness and the ability to change direction on a dime and maintain his speed and explosiveness. When you see those little legs going a thousand miles a minute, it's amazing."

They got little noses
And tiny little teeth
They wear platform shoes
On their nasty little feet

The French emperor Napoleon, like Sproles, stood 5-6. Though he was actually slightly taller than the typical Frenchman during his reign in the early 19th century, his perceived lack of height and insatiable drive to succeed gave us the term "Napoleonic complex."

The NFL's long, proud history of vertically challenged players suggests that it isn't an inferiority complex in play, but something bordering more on denial.

Watching game films on Monday, former Giants running back Joe Morris used to ask, "Who's that short guy in the huddle?"

"When I played, I thought I was a normal-sized guy," Morris said recently from his New Jersey home. "I never gave it another thought. Bill Parcells used to tell me, 'Blockers block, runners run. You're a runner.'"

Morris was, in fact, 5-7. He was the Giants' leading rusher from 1985 to '88. His 21 touchdowns in 1985 still stand as the franchise single-season record and his 1,516 yards the following year were a big reason the Giants won their first Super Bowl.

He wasn't crazy fast, but weighed 195 pounds and was one of the strongest players in the league. He worked out with his offensive linemen in the weight room and legitimately bench-pressed 420 pounds -- and squatted 700 pounds.

At 5-8, former Redskins cornerback Darrell Green, along with Barry Sanders, is the shortest player enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He came into the league in 1983 weighing a scant 173 pounds. The Redskins' famous offensive line, "The Hogs," called him "Pee-Wee." It was a term of endearment.

"It was in fun, but only those big guys could call me that," Green said Thursday. "Maybe as a kid it bothers you -- kids are really cruel -- but as an adult self-confidence based on performance takes away that insecurity.

"I feel great being a midget and being able to kick all their butts."

Green's equalizing talent was speed. As a sophomore at Texas A&I University he ran 100 meters in a world-class time of 10.08. In the Redskins' 1986 training camp, he said he was clocked at 4.15 in the 40-yard dash -- one of the fastest 40 times on record. He won the NFL's Fastest Man competition four times and was the only undefeated multiple winner. At the age of 40, incredibly, he was clocked at 4.24 in the 40.

Back in 1929, Jack "Soapy" Shapiro played fullback for the Staten Island Stapletons. He was listed at 5-2, 126 pounds and is believed to have been the shortest player in NFL history. Of course, the way program heights and weights are supersized, he might have been 4-11.

It's a delicate subject because some short players are sensitive about their height. Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie was always listed at 5-10, but he looked shorter as he played for nine professional teams in 21 seasons. How tall is he really? It's long been one of life's great mysteries, like who built Stonehenge or the statues on Easter Island.

Reached earlier this week, the ESPN college football analyst finally admitted he was not as tall as his program height. No, Flutie said in a text message, he actually was 5-9 -- and 7/8.

They got little hands
And little eyes
And they walk around
Tellin' great big lies...
Don't want no Short People
'Round here

At first they said Sproles was too small for youth football back in Olathe, Kan.; they were afraid he'd get hurt. His first carry went for an 80-yard touchdown. After three games they changed the lightweight rules because they couldn't catch him.

Sproles was forced to run between the tackles -- something he relishes to this day -- and after scoring three touchdowns he had to come out of the game. His father, Larry, offered to play him in the heavyweight division, but league officials said no. The two wound up driving to the bigger league in Kansas City. They couldn't catch him there, either.

He was the Kansas state player of the year as a senior at Olathe North High School, rushing for 5,230 yards and 79 touchdowns, but he was largely ignored by the major colleges. He was sixth or seventh on the depth chart, a scout team tailback, when Kansas State was getting ready to play Southern California in the 2001 season opener. When Sproles broke three runs for 60 yards or more against the well-regarded USC defense, all of them touchdowns, the Wildcats found a way to start getting him the ball. He ran for 4,979 yards and 80 touchdowns at Kansas State and finished fifth in Heisman Trophy balloting in 2003. He remains, by broad consensus, the greatest player in school history.

Scouts say today that if he were 5-10, he might have been a first-round draft choice. As it was, the Chargers took him in the fourth round of the 2005 draft, 130th overall.

"We wanted him in three areas, one, a return guy, two, a spot player in the regular offense and, three, third down," explained the Chargers' Smith. "When you draft a guy and think he can be special in three areas and he ends up doing those three things, well, as an organization we're thrilled."

Sproles was described by one effusive writer this week as a "wisp of vapor," but he is deceptively strong. At the 2005 scouting combine, Sproles, weighing 187 pounds, bench-pressed the required 225 pounds 23 times. Shawne Merriman, a 272-pound linebacker who was drafted 12th overall, managed only two more reps.

He runs a swift-but-not-searing 4.48 and was primarily a kick and punt returner his rookie year before missing the 2006 season with an ankle injury. In the past 15 months under Turner, Sproles has been a revelation. On Nov. 11, 2007, he became only the ninth player in NFL history to return both a punt (45 yards) and a kickoff (89) for touchdowns in a game. Five weeks later on Dec. 16, he carried a career-high 25 times for 122 yards and two touchdowns against Detroit. On Jan. 13, 2008, he caught a 56-yard screen pass for touchdown in the divisional playoff victory over Colts. In the last regular-season game of 2008, he ran 14 times for 115 yards and one score against the Broncos.

And then, after fumbling late in the third quarter at the Colts' 2-yard line in Saturday's wild-card game, Sproles was vindicated when he dashed 22 yards for the winning score. This has prompted quite a buzz in San Diego.

"Everyone asks me the question: Can he be an every-down back?" Smith said. "For 16 games, is he that back who carries 28 to 31 times? I don't know how to answer that."

Smith has about two months to make that determination. Sproles becomes an unrestricted free agent after the season and some folks wonder whether he can command the kind of money that Michael Turner received when he left the Chargers last year after backing up Tomlinson. After signing a $34.5 million contract with Atlanta, Turner ran a punishing total of 376 times and finished second in the league with 1,699 yards.

When the 2008 season began, the average weight of an NFL player was 247 pounds. Most teams had at least 10 players on their roster weighing 300 pounds or more. The Chargers and Steelers, for example, have 13 each. Most scouts believe Sproles does not have the build to be an every-down back. Like the 6-0, 203-pound Reggie Bush (who just underwent surgery on a troublesome knee), they say he should be used relatively sparingly.

Sproles has already overcome the loss of his mother, Annette, in 2004, and a severe stuttering disability. He makes a living in a league where better than 98 percent of the players are bigger than he is. Of course he thinks he's an every-down back.

"It's always fun to prove people wrong," Sproles said. "No matter what I do, people are going to say there's something that I can't do.

"I like showing them I can."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com