By Mark Schremmer, Special to Sports in Kansas
I predicted Darren Sproles’ greatness the first time I watched him play, and I have a scar to prove it.
OK. Let’s back up a minute.
It was 2000, and I was attending Pittsburg State University and working part time as a sports writer at The Morning Sun newspaper in Pittsburg. I had the night off, and current Kpreps.com editor Matt Gilmore asked me to join him and local sports broadcaster Eddie Lomshek to travel north and watch a rivalry game between Olathe North and Olathe South.
Matt didn’t have a difficult time selling me on the idea. Both teams entered with 8-0 records, breezing their way through Sunflower League competition. Olathe South was ranked No. 1, and Olathe North was ranked third in Class 6A. To make it even better, everything was on the line. Back in those days, only one team from each district advanced to the playoffs in Kansas high school football. So that meant one of the two teams would be a favorite to win the 6A state title, while the other would have to watch from the stands.
If that wasn’t already enough, Olathe South kept Olathe North from the playoffs just a year earlier with a 51-8 pummeling in districts. The wounds were still fresh, and there was no doubt the Eagles sought revenge. The game was such an attraction that the Olathe Daily News published stories almost every day that week leading up to the game, and printed a four-page broadsheet special section dedicated exclusively to the rivalry matchup.
For me, though, the No. 1 selling point was the chance to see Olathe North’s bouncy scatback Darren Sproles. As a backup running back his sophomore season, Sproles ran for more than 700 yards and helped the Eagles win a state championship in 1998. As a junior, he rushed for 2,031 yards in only nine games. Now as a senior, Sproles’ legend only grew.
He ran for 220 yards and four touchdowns in the first half of a 45-6 win over Leavenworth, rushed for 300 yards and four scores in a 57-8 hammering of Olathe East, and he churned his way to 222 yards and five TDs on only 15 carries as the Eagles stomped Shawnee Mission Northwest 51-8.
Through eight games, Sproles compiled 1,592 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns, averaging a ridiculous 10.1 yards per carry. He was already committed to play for Bill Snyder’s Kansas State Wildcats.
“It was so fun watching him run,” said Jim Bradford, who was the sports editor of the Olathe Daily News during Sproles’ prep career. “Honestly, I bet in 10 of his 12 games as a senior he started the game with an 80-yard touchdown run. Toss sweep right. Untouched. If you arrived late to the game, chances were good that you missed his first touchdown and probably his first 100 rushing yards. Coach (Gene) Wier used to joke that he would let the defense know what they would run, but they still couldn’t stop him.”
OK. Now back to the scar.
By the time we arrived at the Olathe District Activity Center, the crowd was already massive. We had to park what seemed like a mile away. Following fans on this pilgrimage to see Sproles and his Eagles take on the No. 1 team in the state, we found ourselves walking through a field. As we approached the stadium, we reached a fence with barbed wire at the top. Too late to turn around at this point, we — as well as many others — elected to climb the fence. Matt and Eddie appeared to have little problem doing so, making it before and after the game without a scratch. I wasn’t as lucky. Before reaching the other side on the way home, I got caught on the barbed wire and sustained about a 2-inch gash on my forearm. The wound didn’t seem to be all that deep, but a scar remains more than 20 years later.
Before cutting myself, however, I enjoyed the opportunity to watch Sproles in person. As you probably guessed, he didn’t disappoint.
Providing support to Bradford’s memory of that season, Sproles exploded around the right end for a 71-yard touchdown run on the game’s first play from scrimmage.
“He was just so hard to prepare for,” former Olathe South coach Mark Littrell said. “He could do so many things. It took three times longer to watch film of him, because you were watching it over and over wondering how he did that.”
Sproles used a mix of speed, power and agility to lead the Eagles to a 49-20 victory that night. The senior running back rushed for 185 yards and four touchdowns on 27 carries.
He continued to lead Olathe North through the playoffs as the Eagles recorded lopsided victories over Shawnee Mission South (49-0) and Shawnee Mission North (54-0) before topping Manhattan 42-7 in the 6A championship.
Sproles finished his senior season with 2,485 yards and 49 touchdowns and his career with 5,230 yards and 79 touchdowns.
As you’re surely aware, Sproles’ success did not end there.
He became Kansas State’s all-time leading rusher with 4,979 career yards and ran for 235 as the Wildcats upset No. 1 ranked Oklahoma in the 2003 Big 12 championship.
Despite not being selected until the fourth round of the NFL draft, Sproles flourished as a pro. A dynamic running back and return man, he accumulated the sixth most all-purpose yards in NFL history. Playing for the San Diego Chargers, New Orleans Saints, and Philadelphia Eagles, he was named to three Pro Bowls and was named a first-team All-Pro punt returner by the Pro Football Writers twice. Sproles also was named to the NFL’s All-Decade team at the flex position.
Riddled with injuries in the final years of his career, Sproles retired in the 2019 season.
More accolades soon followed. Sproles will be inducted into Kansas State’s Ring of Honor during a ceremony on Oct. 1. Then on Oct. 3, he will be inducted into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame along with K-State greats Jordy Nelson and Terence Newman, as well as with several other of the state’s best athletes and coaches. In December, Sproles will go into the College Football Hall of Fame.
The inductions, of course, got me thinking about that night in Olathe, where I witnessed firsthand the talent of one of Kansas’ greatest athletes of all time.
They say that behind every scar, there’s a story. Every time I look at what is now a barely visible scar on my left forearm, I remember the story of the best high school running back I’ve ever watched in person.