(Editor’s note: This story was written before the Chargers’ strong late season run came to an end in Pittsburgh against the Steelers.)
The San Diego Chargers have made an improbable run from a 4-8 start all the way to the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs. One of the team’s most valuable players during their five-game run, and unquestionably their most valuable player in the team’s first round win over the Indianapolis Colts, has been RB Darren Sproles.
Just as the Chargers have overcome intense odds to still be alive in the playoffs, Darren Sproles has overcome odds and challenges of his own to become one of the team’s leaders as they prepare to play the Pittsburgh Steelers. Sproles has overcome the death of his mother and a pervasive stuttering problem to become not only an outstanding professional football player, but most importantly, an inspiring role model for football fans and non-football fans alike.
Tomorrow afternoon at 4:45 the Pittsburgh Steelers will host the San Diego Chargers in the final game of the NFL’s Divisional Round Playoff weekend. The winner of Chargers-Steelers will face the winner of the Baltimore-Tennessee game today in next weekend’s AFC Championship game.
Here is a quick rundown of the particulars and some relevant links to get you ready for the game:
San Diego Chargers (9-8) at Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
- TV Schedule: 4:45 ET on CBS
- Announcer Pairing: Jim Nantz and Phil Simms
- Point Spread: Pittsburgh Steelers -6 1/2
- Over-Under: 38
- Chargers-Steelers Game Canter — (NFL.com)
- Spotlight could find Scifres, Sproles again in Pittsburgh — (Vic Carucci, NFL.com)
As any sports fan not living in a cave knows, Chargers superstar RB LaDainian Tomlinson has been hobbled by an injury that leaves his highly doubtful for Sunday game after limiting him to standing on the sideline during the Chargers’ wild card round victory over the Indianapolis Colts. In LT’s absence, Chargers backup RB Darren Sproles stepped in to produce one of the most impressive individual performances of 2008.
The diminutive and spritely Sproles, a former Kansas State Wildcat, exploded for 328 all-purpose yards, which is the third highest total in NFL playoff history. The Chargers will be counting on Sproles once again this weekend, as the team faces the unenviable task of trying to move the ball against the 2008 version of the Steel Curtain.
James Harrison, Troy Polamalu, and the rest of the Steelers’ outstanding defense will be gearing up to stop Darren Sproles in his swift and agile tracks; but it most likely won’t faze Sproles, who has made an ability to overcome odds and challenges one of his defining attributes.
The most immediately obvious challenge that Darren Sproles has overcome is his size. He is listed at 5’6, 181 pounds, but makes up for it with head-spinning speed and quickness. More importantly, Sproles has displayed heart and toughness throughout his football career, which has allowed him to plow through the roadblocks of questions about his size.
The following is a quick rundown of Darren Sproles’ most impressive football accomplishments. (To see a complete rundown, visit his player page at Chargers.com)
- Named Kansas Player of the year by USA Today as a high school senior in Olathe, Kansas.
- Holds virtually every school record at Kansas State for career, single-season, and single-game rushing and all-purpose yards.
- Big 12 Player of the Year by College Football News in 2003.
- 5th in Heisman Trophy voting in 2003.
- 4th round draft choice by the San Diego Chargers in 2005 draft.
- Multiple selections as AFC Special Teams Player of the Week throughout career.
- Has a yards per carry average of 5.0 during his NFL career.
- Had third highest single-game all-purpose yards total in Chargers’ recent victory over the Indianapolis Colts.
Not bad for a guy that was told at pretty much every level that he was too small to play, huh?
The amazing thing about Darren Sproles is that his football accomplishments pale in comparison to what he has accomplished and overcome off the field.
On April 25, 2004, Darren Sproles’ mom Annette passed away at the age of 41 after battling cancer for five years. Despite his top-5 finish in the Heisman voting, and the certainty of being drafted in the 2004 NFL draft, Sproles bypassed the 2004 Draft to honor his mother and return to Kansas State for his senior year. This allowed to him to complete his degree in speech pathology.
The beautiful irony of Darren Sproles’ degree in speech pathology is that Sproles has dealt with a stuttering problem his entire life. While at Kansas State, Sproles was uncomfortable doing media interviews because of his stuttering, and Kansas State officials arranged for him to work with a speech pathologist to help him more effectively deal with his stuttering and become more comfortable speaking publicly.
And Sproles has turned his challenge with stuttering into an opportunity to help and inspire others who are dealing with the same issue. An article at FanHouse by Ryan Wilson discusses a comment to a post about the Colts-Chargers game that was left by an inspired fan. Follow the link to view the complete comment, but here is an excerpt:
I have stuttered my entire life and I can not tell you how proud I am of Darren Sproles for not being afraid to speak his mind to others, no matter how the words come out. I watched his interview after he scored the winning touchdown at last week’s game – that was awesome by the way – and when I heard hiim speak, I almost lost my breath. It is not every day we see someone as successful as he is stuttering on TV and it was refreshing to see. He has no idea how many people he has inspired and how great of an example he is to the thousands of kids and teens who stutter who are afraid to speak because of their stutter.
–Cathy O, from comment at FanHouse
Below is the interview that Cathy O is talking about:
Like Wilson explains in his article, I also saw this interview immediately after the game and did not necessarily think a lot of it. I was peripherally familiar with the fact that Darren Sproles had dealt with stuttering, and honestly my first reaction was to be feel bad for him while being simultaneously impressed by willingness to at least do the interview.
But after reading Cathy O’s comment and some of the other stories about how Sproles has inspired other people who stutter, I realized that the last thing Darren Sproles needs or deserves from me is pity. What he does deserve is both admiration and exposure.
Darren Sproles is a shining beacon of hope and inspiration in so many different ways while playing in a league in which he gets overshadowed by players who run their mouths, feed their own egos, and get into trouble off the field. Something is wrong when Pacman Jones is more famous and exposed than Darren Sproles.
If the NFL is smart, it will do more to market that amazing stories of guys like Darren Sproles, while putting more safeguards in place to keep the Pacman Joneses out of the headlines.
While researching for this post, I came across an article about Darren Sproles on the website for the Stuttering Foundation, an organization with a simple goal: to help those who stutter. I do not know if Sproles has an official affiliation with the Stuttering Foundation, but the article includes quotes that provide insight into who inspired Sproles on his journey to overcome stuttering:
Sproles said he learned to take his time while answering questions during an interview. â€œI donâ€™t have to be in a hurry to say something.â€
â€œI remember a long time ago my grandpa told me â€œdonâ€™t ever let anybody tell you that you canâ€™t do anything because you stutter.â€ Sproles said. â€œI always remembered that and worked hard at improving my speech.â€
To read the entire article, and to find out other famous people who have dealt with stuttering problems (like Bill Walton, for instance), follow the link to the Stuttering Foundation article about Darren Sproles.
(Update: Just found this after posting, but the Stuttering Foundation also has a Q&A with Darren Sproles
on their website. Sproles was also featured on a poster distributed by the Stuttering Foundation during National Stuttering Awareness Week, May 12-18.)
If you read this site regularly, you know that I am a die-hard Cleveland Browns fan, and also root for the Miami Dolphins. Obviously the Browns fell flat on their faces this year, while the Dolphins’ magically surprising 2008 season came to end last weekend against Baltimore. I figured I would just be watching the remainder of the playoffs with the general interest of a football fan, hoping for good games but not really having a team to root for.
After deciding to sit down an explore this story as a post idea, and then writing this post, I can emphatically say that my mindset has changed. Not that I really needed more reason to root against the Steelers, but I will be a full-fledged San Diego Chargers fan this weekend and for as long as they are in the playoffs.
Stories like Darren Sproles are what make sports such a wonderful form of entertainment, and such a wonderful source of inspriation. The injury to LaDainian Tomlinson has allowed Darren Sproles to step onto a national stage and prove that neither size nor stuttering are challenges too difficult to overcome.
He has inspired me, and I’m sure many others; and I’m hoping that the journey of Darren Sproles continues to inspire football fans, athletes who face challenges because of their size, and people who struggle with stuttering, all the way to the biggest stage of them all: the Super Bowl.
I do think that the Chargers will get a step closer to the Super Bowl this weekend. The Steelers have a great defense, but their offense has struggled thanks to injuries to, and inconsistent play from, Ben Roethlisberger and Willie Parker. The Steelers O-line is going to have a hard time blocking a Chargers defense that harassed NFL MVP Peyton Manning all game long last week. With Philip Rivers playing the best football of his career, and Darren Sproles providing a multi-purpose threat in LT’s absence, the Chargers have what it takes to pull off the upset at Heinz Field.
I think they will.
Prediction: Chargers 24 | Steelers 20
What do you think?