Kansas State Hall of Famer Darren Sproles inspired a generation of small running backs
MANHATTAN — It didn't take long after he arrived at Kansas State for Darren Sproles to become a big man on campus.
As a three-time All-American and owner of most school rushing records, he is widely regarded as the Wildcats' all-time greatest running back.
But at 5-foot-6, 187 pounds, his measurements at the 2005 NFL Draft combine, Sproles also served as an inspiration for a generation of undersized running backs, something that means just as much to him.
"It feels great," Sproles said Friday morning ahead of his induction that evening into the K-State Athletics Hall of Fame. "I'm really happy that short running backs, I gave them confidence to play with these big guys."
Sproles not only proved he belonged with bigger backs at K-State. He dominated.
His 1,986 rushing yards as a junior in 2003 and 4,979 career yards still stand as school record, along with numerous others. For that he credits K-State Hall of Fame coach Bill Snyder, who looked past his physical stature.
"Coach Snyder never cared about size," Sproles said of his decision to attend K-State after a record-breaking high school career at Olathe North. "And then when I came on my recruiting trip, I really saw how the team was like a family. It was a brotherhood and I loved that.
"I loved the way (Snyder) never cared about size and he was always going to push you."
That, in essence was Sproles' message when he spoke to the current K-State team while in Manhattan for the Hall of Fame induction. The Wildcats, 3-1, are coming off their first loss last week at Oklahoma State.
"I pretty much told them, you all need to make a decision, like what do you all want to be?," said Sproles, who also will be honored with the rest of the 2021 Hall of Fame class during Saturday's home football game against Oklahoma. "Do you want to be good, or do you all want to be great?
"And they made a decision that they all want to be great. So to be great, you've got to put that work in, so they all decided that they're going to put that work in."
Sproles also has had private conversations with K-State sophomore running back Deuce Vaughn, who two weeks ago reached 1,000 rushing yards for his young career. Like Sproles, Vaughn stands 5-6, though he's slightly smaller at 173 pounds.
"Deuce is special," Sproles said of Vaughn. "To be so young, he's so focused and locked in already. He's going to be a special player.
"He's really locked into the game. He wants to get better each and every week, and that's a lot like me."
Vaughn has a ways to go to match Sproles' career achievements. After leaving K-State, Sproles played 15 years in the NFL, excelling as a kick returner and as an all-purpose running back with the San Diego Chargers, New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles. And how did he last so long when the career expectancy for running back is much shorter?
"I never got a square shot on me, but also I played a lot of third down and stuff like that," Sproles said. "I feel like that really helped me out.
"The ones that get the ball 25 times a game, that's a short span, because your body can only take so many hits. So for me, playing third down and doing punt return (and) kid return, I didn't have that many hits on me."
Sproles, who now lives in the Los Angeles area, also was chosen this year for the College Football Hall of Fame and will be inducted in December.
"When you were a kid, you never thought about that," Sproles said of the Hall of Fame accolades. "There's so many great college athletes, and for me to go in there is an honor."
No place like home for Jordy Nelson
Jordy Nelson will forever be remembered for his 2007 season at Kansas State, when he shattered the school single-season receiving record with 122 catches for 1,606 yards on his way to first-team All-America honors.
He went on to a Pro Bowl NFL career with the Green Bay Packers and played 11 seasons before retiring in 2019 with 600 career receptions and nearly 8,600 yards.
Unlike other many players, who try to hang on in the NFL, Nelson had no doubts when he left. He immediately moved his family back to Riley County and settled back into old routines.
"I do not miss playing," Nelson said. "I haven't second-guessed my decision to retire at all. It's been a great transition to come back here.
"I think we've been busy enough with everything else — kids and farming, building a house. I've enjoyed every Saturday coming in here (to Bill Snyder Family Stadium), tailgating and watching games."
Nelson spends most of his time on the farm. But he rents the land to his brother, which frees him up to do other things if the mood strikes him. That includes weekly Wednesday morning golf games at Colbert Hills and coaching his children's youth sports teams.
"I was definitely at peace with the decision (to retire) and haven't second-guessed it one bit," Nelson said.
The Class of 2021
Sproles and Nelson were two of the three football players inducted, along with All-American punt returner David Allen.
The rest of the class included women's basketball star Laurie Koehn, baseball standout AJ Morris, volleyball All-American Liz Wegner, basketball All-American Mike Wroblewski, track and field champion Attila Zsiovczky and contributors Marty, John and Mary Vanier, three of K-State's all-time great benefactors.