HOW UNSURPRISING that an event nicknamed the Underwear Olympics would seem designed, at times, to strip participants of their dignity. When Darren Sproles was measured at the 2005 NFL scouting combine, his 5'6" height was announced to an auditorium full of scouts, coaches and GMs, some of whom made no effort to disguise their amusement—that despite his clocking the best 20-yard shuttle time among all running backs that year. It wasn't a gale of laughter, recalls Darren's father, Larry, "but it was more than a couple guys." Standing on the stage in his briefs, Sproles stared back at them like a Roman legionnaire. Chest out, defiant, dignified.
This is an article from the Dec. 8, 2014 issue
Still, the laughter stung. Afterward, Darren called his father, vowing, "Dad, I'm gonna remember how they did me."
How would you rather go through life: short, or short on imagination? Now in his 10th season, his first with the Eagles, Sproles has spent a career forcing teams to regret their fainthearted, inside-the-box thinking. Equally dangerous as a running back or receiver (between his 482 career rushes and 407 receptions, he's amassed 6,210 combined yards), he's also among the league's elite return men. The 31-year-old's 10,397 career yards on kickoffs and punts are No. 2 in the NFL in that time—befitting a player of whom LaDainian Tomlinson once said, "I don't know if there's a quicker human being."
One of the best players never to rate a Pro Bowl invite, Sproles has become accustomed to such slights. All he'd done, before crushing that 2005 NFL combine, was pile up 6,812 all-purpose yards at Kansas State. Yet there he sat during the draft, languishing on the sofa of his family's home in Olathe, Kans., while 14 other backs were taken ahead of him, including busts-in-waiting Eric Shelton, Maurice Clarett, Alvin Pearman, Ciatrick Fason and Manuel White, who would combine for 422 rushing yards in their brief, forgettable careers. Scanning that list of 14 after a recent Eagles practice, Sproles spotted a name that made him smile. "Frank Gore's still rollin'," he noted. "I like Frank."
No surprise there. While he may have three inches on Sproles, Gore—the 49ers' 5'9", 217-pound feature back, who has 13,557 career yards from scrimmage—is a fellow member of the NFL's fraternity of the vertically challenged, a figurative club whose rolls have swollen in recent seasons. According to data gleaned from Pro Football Reference, 87 offensive skill players (running backs, quarterbacks and receivers) took the field measuring 5'10" or shorter in 2011. By last season, that number was up to 111, before dipping slightly to 102 in '14. Beneath those fluctuations: a gradual but definite trend toward smaller, quicker skill players.
"That's just the pool we're choosing from," says one NFL director of college scouting. "College teams with spread offenses are giving us smaller players because there's such a premium on quickness and agility out in space."
It's also the result of pro personnel types opening their minds. A little. "I think we do, as personnel people, get caught up in size and speed a little too much," the scout adds. "We forget about playmaking and the special qualities some of these guys have. But you are seeing teams become a little more creative, a little more open-minded."
SEVENTEEN YEARS ago Jerome Bettis appeared bare-chested on Sports Illustrated's cover—sucking in his gut so hard, one suspected, that he risked rupturing his spleen—above the billing, PHATBACKS. THEY'RE BIG. THEY'RE BAD. THEY'RE TEARING UP THE NFL.
That was then. The sun has set on the Age of the Big Back, the bell cow who thrived on 25-plus carries a game, who tenderized and demoralized defenses as contests wore on. "And the reason for that is the rule changes," says Bettis, who retired after the 2005 season. The Bus is referring to a series of NFL Competition Committee rulings, dating back at least a decade, that have cosseted quarterbacks and receivers. While those resolutions have served to protect vulnerable players, they've also "put offenses in a position where they have to take advantage of the passing game," he says.
The Bus and his ilk—moundlike men who moved the pile, who made their money between the tackles—seldom excelled as receivers out of the backfield. "There's a benefit to having a smaller, quicker guy who can defeat a big linebacker in space," says Bettis, without enthusiasm. "So the guy who in the past was thought to be too small to play running back, now there's a place for him."
Is the Bus embittered by the direction of the game? "It is what it is," he says. "To make football safer, they're watering it down. You have to learn to love it."
Even as they concede that small can be beautiful, the league's gatekeepers have overseen a countervailing trend whose meta message might as well be: All right, so size isn't everything. But it's still really important. Over the last four or five seasons, with the proliferation of the back-shoulder fade, "the bigger wide receiver has become more valuable," says NFL Network draft savant Mike Mayock, a former safety with the Giants. That pass, deliberately underthrown to counteract cornerbacks intent, first and foremost, on taking away the deep ball, is more easily completed to a taller—or, to use the faintly ridiculous descriptor now in vogue among draftniks, longer—receiver. That, Mayock believes, is why wideouts Mike Evans (6'5", 231 pounds) and Kelvin Benjamin (6'5", 240) were snapped up in the first round of last May's draft, by the Buccaneers and the Panthers, respectively. Both have been immediately productive, beacons of hope on bad teams, "because they don't have to learn a lot of routes; they're using their big bodies."
Like tectonic plates grinding against one another, this trend toward tight-end-sized wide receivers exists alongside (and has partially offset) the drift toward smaller skill guys, who tend to congregate in the slot and in the backfield. "If you look at the league right now," Mayock notes, "closer to the ball is where it's O.K. to be short."
What's up with that? Why are there so few short edge rushers? Why is Baltimore's Elvis Dumervil, a sub-six-foot sack artist, such a rarity? "The league hates them," says Mayock. "If you're short, you better be explosive as hell, or you're going to get eaten up by those long-armed tackles. For every Dumervil [5'11"] or James Harrison [6 foot] or LaMarr Woodley [6'2"], there's a boatload of pass rushers that don't make it."
HOW ON earth did 5'7", 180-pound Andrew Hawkins make it as an NFL wideout? Dude couldn't get a sniff in Arena ball! Undrafted out of Toledo, where he was the school's first two-way player in 40 years, at receiver and cornerback, Hawkins accepted the Browns' offer to try out for their rookie minicamp in 2008. They soon told him, Thanks, but no thanks, as did various Canadian Football League teams, as did—this was the unkindest cut—the Cleveland Gladiators of the Arena Football League. He caddied, assisted at his alma mater, then worked in a wind turbine factory, stocking shelves, operating a forklift, sweeping floors.
Ultimately, Hawkins's dream was defibrillated by an invitation to participate in 4th and Long, a reality show, hosted by Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin, in which a dozen NFL wannabes competed for a single spot in the Cowboys' training camp. Hawkins believes he was the best, "but once again," he recounts, with a marked absence of bitterness, "my size became a factor." He was one of three runners-up. (The winner, 6'2" Jesse Holley, caught just seven passes over three years in Dallas.)
But the TV exposure helped Hawkins land a gig with the CFL's Montreal Alouettes, who won the Grey Cup both seasons he spent with them, in 2009 and '10. (A minor irony: The coach of both of those teams, Marc Trestman, now leads the Bears, who trot out an epically tall set of receivers.) And that stint got Hawkins a tryout with the Bengals, who took a pass on him, which turned out to be O.K., because—hallelujah!—the Rams signed and invited him to their '11 training camp.
"I was there for one day and they cut me," says Hawkins, who didn't even get the bad news from then coach Steve Spagnuolo. "The only time he addressed me was to yell at me to tuck my shirt in during a scout-team walk-through."
The Bengals signed Hawkins off waivers the same day. Then—because nothing can be easy for this guy—they cut him, only to re-sign him and stash him on the practice squad. Two weeks later (cue the Mormon Tabernacle Choir), he was promoted to the active roster. After three seasons in Cincy, this ex--Toledo Rocket, ex--Montreal Alouette, would-be Cleveland Gladiator, who until recently had been lugging golf bags and sweeping a factory floor, signed a four-year, $13.6 million deal (including a $3.8 million signing bonus) with the team whose initial rejection set his long, international journey in motion, the Browns.
"He actually put on quite a show," says Phil Savage, Cleveland's GM at the time of Hawkins's initial tryout (and now the executive director of the Senior Bowl). "But in the end, our coaching staff said, He's small; what are we going to do with him? And our receiving corps was pretty set. So we let him go. But I promise you: If Andrew Hawkins was 5'10" instead of 5'7", he never would've left [Browns headquarters] the first time around."
Yes, he's short. But in the absence of receiver Josh Gordon (who returned in Week 12 from a 10-game suspension for violating the league's drug policy), he has come up large as Cleveland's leading pass catcher, with 52 grabs for 718 yards and two touchdowns. "You find ways to adapt," he explains. "Usually a shorter receiver is a little quicker, [has] a little more speed in and out of breaks. Everyone has different gifts. Some animals use the sounds they make, others use their speed. Porcupines use their spikes to keep their enemies at bay."
Prickly. That's a fair characterization of how Steelers receiver Antonio Brown felt about being lumped into this story. The fifth-year veteran out of Central Michigan goes 5'10", 186, but seemed annoyed to be included in a piece celebrating undersized players. (Or maybe he's still miffed at not being selected until the sixth round of the 2010 draft, when the Steelers plucked him.) Asked if his lack of size has made it more challenging to battle for jump balls, he bristled: "I'm not just some little guy, getting pushed around. I'm a star wideout in the NFL. I'm an All-Pro guy."
No one is saying you're not a star, he was assured. We're wondering how you became a star, despite your lack of height. "I can't give you that," Brown continued. "I can't be saying, 'I'm an undersized guy, and this is what I gotta do [to overcome it].' I'm the best in the league. This [job] entails more than height. There are guys 6'5", 6'6"—they can't do what I can do." While they may excel at jump balls, "they can't catch it short and go long. They can't run away from someone and go get it."
He was cranky. He was temperamental. He was correct. Brown is coming off an All-Pro season. He is the best in the league; the numbers back him up. Brown leads the league with 96 grabs for 1,258 yards, and his 11 touchdowns leads NFL receivers. By refusing to acknowledge that his lack of stature is a problem to overcome, Brown shows us how he overcomes the problem of his lack of stature. "I never deemed myself a smaller guy. I think I play big, and that's what it's all about: playing big and having a big demeanor."
Here, he touches on another trait common to little guys who make it big in the league. They're shape shifters. When 5'8" Bears corner Tim Jennings was presented with a request to be interviewed for a story on short NFL players, he objected reflexively: "I'm not short!" By which he meant, "I don't play short!"
Nor does Golden Tate, the 5'10" Lions wideout who is often told, upon making new acquaintances, "I didn't realize you were so small; you play so big." A fifth-year pro whose 80 catches this season trail only Brown, Demaryius Thomas, Julio Jones and Emmanuel Sanders, Tate knows it's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the dog's ... catching radius? "Coaches and quarterbacks I've been around say my catching radius is bigger than normal for a five-ten guy."
Yes, he ranges laterally to snag balls thrown wide of him. But, dating back to his days at Notre Dame, Tate has also shown a flair, rare in a shorter receiver, for elevating to snag high balls too, a skill refined (though he's too polite to say it) by the overthrows and underthrows of his Irish quarterback, Jimmy Clausen.
And yes, the balls he's leaping to catch are passes that taller receivers could simply run under. "By understanding who I am and high-pointing every ball," he explains, "I then become that six-three, six-four player."
While it's fine for the members of this diminutive tribe to pretend they're bigger than they are, there remains one stark reality they can't escape: As Lilliputians in a Brobdingnagian league, they've already got one strike against them. Where a taller player might get the benefit of the doubt—call it Height Privilege—coaches are just looking for a reason to send a short guy packing.
"When you're our size," says Justin Forsett, the 5'8" Ravens running back who leads NFL backs with 5.6 yards per carry, "you always have to continue to work, you never give [coaches] a reason to replace you." By which he means, of course, another reason. "When they see those big bodies coming in, those younger guys, it's like they're looking at a new car."
How to divert coaches' attentions from the bright, shiny new model? "Don't give 'em a choice," replies Wes Welker, Denver's 5'9", 185-pound slot receiver and the NFL's leading pass catcher over the last decade. "Don't even let that possibility enter their mind." Catch so many balls, make so many downfield blocks, be so effective on special teams, is his point, "that they can't cut you."
If you're short, they'll cut you anyway. In 2004 the Chargers released Welker, an undrafted rookie who'd just set the alltime D-I record with eight punt-return TDs at Texas Tech. Then-coach Marty Schottenheimer later called it the biggest personnel mistake he'd ever made. Welker latched on with the Dolphins, proceeding to pile up more all-purpose yards in his first three seasons (6,216) than any player since Gale Sayers. Weary of watching this waterbug carve up his defense twice a year, Patriots coach Bill Belichick traded for Welker in '07. With Tom Brady targeting him, Welker caught 672 passes over the next six seasons.
Does he see himself now as a pioneer who blazed a trail for sawed-off slot men to follow: Randall Cobb (5'10" and third in the NFL with 10 TDs), Julian Edelman (5'10"), Danny Amendola (5'11") and others? Is it easier, in his opinion, for a short player to get a foothold in today's NFL?
"Don't know. Haven't researched it," replied Welker, who in a brief phone interview never did warm to the idea of a story celebrating short guys, because, in large part—and here he spoke for every player in this story—"I don't think of myself that way."
Sproles, for his part, sees evidence around the league that once-closed minds have opened. "To me," he says, "it feels like they're actually giving short guys a chance now. When I was coming out it was hard. They didn't really want to take anybody short."
THEY CALLED it the Sproles Rule. Nine-year-old Darren Sproles was only allowed to carry the ball so many times per game in his Pop Warner league in Olathe. And when he did, he had to run between the tackles. There was a three-touchdown mercy rule, and after Sproles ended several games with just three carries, parents complained. Thus the Sproles Rule was born.
The next season, Larry Sproles put his son in a league in Kansas City, 20 miles away. Early on, one of the administrators warned Larry, "[Darren]'s used to playing with those white boys out there. You come into the city, we got some brothers gonna run his ass down."
On his first touch in the new league, Darren went 80 yards for a score, Larry remembers. On the season, he scored "49 or 50 touchdowns." In three years at Olathe North High, Darren rushed for 5,230 yards and 79 TDs. On an unofficial visit to Kansas following that junior campaign, Sproles stood on the field at Memorial Stadium—he'd grown up a Jayhawks fan—until an assistant coach was dispatched to inform him that he would not be offered a scholarship; he was too small. "I looked at his face and saw how hurt he was," says Larry.
Awaiting Darren at home was a certified letter from KU's rival, Kansas State. The Wildcats were offering a full ride. Once they heard K-State had offered Sproles, the Jayhawks changed their tune. KU coach Terry Allen became one of Sproles's most ardent suitors. Allen was parked in front of the Sproles house one afternoon when Larry returned from work.
"Hey, coach," he said. "Why all the sudden interest in a guy that's too small?"
Sproles was short, but he wasn't small. Ten pounds at birth, he was immediately nicknamed Tank, a sobriquet that his old man uses to this day. Larry, himself a 5'5" running back at NAIA Mid-America Nazarene College, pumped iron long after his playing days were over. Sometimes he'd bring two-year-old Darren to the health club, depositing him in daycare. Instead of playing with the other kids, says Larry, "he'd stand up, looking out to see what I was doing. Even then, he wanted to be working out."
Pound for pound, Sproles is one of the NFL's strongest men. Working out with Shawne Merriman before their 2005 rookie season, he challenged the 272-pound linebacker to see how many times each of them could bench-press 415 pounds. Sproles, whose weight has hovered around 190 as a pro, knocked out two reps. Merriman: zero.
Sproles has squatted 818 pounds; he was, and is, built like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, muscle on muscle. The question was never whether he could handle the physical pounding of the NFL. The question was whether he'd dial down his intensity enough to avoid injuring his teammates in practice.
"I vividly remember when he [entered the NFL draft]," says Savage. "All you heard was, There's a great player at K-State. But he's 5'6"."
Despite graduating ranked No. 5 on the NCAA's alltime all-purpose yards list, Sproles was the 130th player selected. Asked after a recent practice if that slight still smarts, if there's still a chip on his shoulder, he shook his head and smiled. "I was just glad to hear my name called."
Two weeks later, in the Eagles' 45--21 dismantling of the Panthers on Monday Night Football, Sproles scored Philly's first two touchdowns, the second of them an electrifying 65-yard punt return—his second punt-return TD of the season. Right now, Sproles's 480 punt-return yards lead the NFL; no one else is even close. His streak of consecutive seasons missing the Pro Bowl is likely to end this season. He should go as a punt returner.
That promises to be an interesting pairing: the traditionally relaxed atmosphere of the Pro Bowl, with number 43's notoriously aggro approach to preparation. After nine seasons being left off the Pro Bowl roster, Tank may feel like he's got something to prove. I'm gonna remember how they did me. The NFL recently overhauled the format of its All-Star game, eliminating conference alignment and erasing kickoffs. The league may also want to consider adding the Sproles Rule.
LITTLE BIG THINGS
The top NFL runners and pass catchers at each height*, up to 5' 10',' based on career yards
Yanks, Texans, Colts 1,275 yards
Patriots, Falcons 1,298 yards
Oilers 3,277 yards
Giants, Browns 5,585 yards
Lions 15,269 yards
Cowboys, Cardinals 18,355 yards
Bears 16,726 yards
No 5'4" receiver has ever caught an NFL pass
Noland (Super Gnat) Smith
Chiefs, 49ers 57 yards
Eagles, Jets 52 yards
Ravens, Texans, Jaguars 2,129 yards
Falcons, Chargers, Patriots, Jets, Raiders 2,964 yards
Panthers, Ravens 13,012 yards
Titans, Ravens, Jets, Texans 12,061 yards
*Heights based on Pro Football Reference
GIVE THE MAN SOME SPACE
A map of rushing-yard distribution by height* shows where smaller backs do their damage: toward the outside, in open space. Bigger backs make more impact between the tackles
[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]
5'11" and above
5'10" and smaller
Averages culled from the top 10 rushers through Week 12 in each height group
*Heights based on Pro Football Reference