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Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2007 | Darren Sproles, the Chargers’ 5-foot-6 return man, is fearless when very large men rush full speed at him on kickoff or punt returns.
Ah, if only past opponents had known what really scares Sproles.
Then, he might not have set 23 school records at Kansas State. He might not have ranked sixth in the NFL in kickoff return yards as a rookie in 2005 with a 1,528-yard total that is third in Chargers’ franchise history.
And the Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts wouldn’t have lost to the Chargers 23-21 Sunday after Sproles scored more than half the Bolts’ points on two plays. He recorded his first NFL career kickoff return for a touchdown to begin the game and a little later in the first quarter his first NFL career punt return for a touchdown.
“You put a camera in my face, and that scares me,” Sproles said. “You put a microphone in my face, and I get nervous. That’s when it starts.”
He’s referring to a speech impediment that Sproles says began when he was 3-years-old. But Sproles was speaking smoothly in the Chargers’ locker room with a grin from ear to ear.
One reason was his big game. Another was he’s no longer so rattled by cameras and microphones. It’s too late for opponents to sneak them on the field to slow down Sproles.
“It’s just a matter of being relaxed and taking my time,” Sproles said. “I started to work on it in college, and I’m still working on it.”
Sometimes the words come in spurts with pauses — sort of like how he juked his way down the field on his 89-yard kickoff return and 45-yard punt return — but for the most part he’s made great progress at smoothly delivering his thoughts.
He wasn’t able to do that when he was first drafted by the Chargers in the fourth round in 2005 and met with the media on a conference phone call or in the locker room during his rookie year.
But sort of like how he recorded his first two touchdown returns, he says he’s learned to relax on the field in order to find the end zone.
“I was always coming so close, it feels good to finally get it,” Sproles said.
“When you start thinking about it, that’s when it doesn’t happen. You’ve got to go out there and relax and play.”
Sproles is only the ninth player in NFL history — and the first for the Chargers — to return a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in the same game.
The last time a player did it in the first quarter was the Cleveland Browns’ Bobby Mitchell in 1958. The last time a Charger did it in any quarter was Tim Dwight in 2001 in a season-opening win over the Washington Redskins.
That’s the kind of weapon the Chargers now have returning kicks and punts. At Kansas State, Sproles was such a threat he said only had the opportunity to return two kicks the entire season because teams kicked away from him.
“I can’t say enough about Darren Sproles,” Chargers head coach Norv Turner said after Sunday’s game.
On Sproles’ kickoff return, he took the ball to the right sideline before spotting running room in the middle of the field. Then he cut back and shifted gears. One of the key blocks came from backup fullback Andrew Pinnock.
“I was pretty much trying to get outside, but the blocks were blocking them outside,” Sproles said. “I saw the middle was wide open and cut back.”
The Chargers were up 7-0 with just 13 seconds elapsed in the game.
His 45-yard punt return for a touchdown gave the Chargers a 16-0 lead with 5:55 left in the first quarter. The Chargers had the Colts pinned on their own 5-yard line, forcing a short, low punt in the rain from Hunter Smith.
“That was wide open,” Sproles said. “They didn’t even touch me on that one. I just went.”
In youth sports (he was a soccer star) and high school sports, Sproles was the quick, little loveable kid. He could get by letting his feet do his talking.
At Kansas State, he rarely met the media because then-Kansas State coach Bill Snyder didn’t allow many interviews with any of his players.
But now Sproles is in the real world working at improving his speech and returns. Arriving in San Diego, he had the opportunity to work with Bill Walton, San Diego’s basketball Hall-of-Famer that overcame his own speech impediment to launch is broadcasting career.
Sproles is quiet by nature, but now he doesn’t look down to avoid conversations. He’s looking downfield just like he is with a football in his hands.
“It’s something I wish I would have started working on sooner,” Sproles said. “My advice to kids is to get started early. Just relax and learn to take your time.”
That’s sort of like the talking Darren Sproles has long done with his feet and a football tucked under his arm.