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Sproles Will Let His Performance Do the Talking

K-State Standout Just Wants to Play the Game

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 25, 2004; Page H10

The entire Big 12 conference has started campaigning for him. Opposing coaches think Darren Sproles should win the Heisman Trophy because he runs like Barry Sanders. Teammates think he should win because of consistently gaudy numbers and a legendary work ethic.

But Sproles, well, he thinks the Heisman Trophy should go to someone -- anyone -- else.

Kansas State's Darren Sproles, a 5-foot-8 senior running back, is among the best players in the country, but he's not interested in the spotlight. (AP)

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"If I won the Heisman, it would mean nothing to me," said Sproles, a 5-foot-8 senior running back. "I really don't care about it. I hate the hype."

Sproles will have to learn to deal with it, because his numbers -- a nation-leading 1,986 rushing yards last season -- command so much attention that Kansas State enters this season favored to repeat as Big 12 champion. In a conference littered with Heisman hopefuls -- including last year's winner, Oklahoma quarterback Jason White -- Sproles is the preseason player of the year, the man who garners all the attention. And he can't stand it.

Like it or not, he earned the spotlight last season, when he obliterated the conference record for total yards with 2,735. Running low to the ground and spinning easily out of tackles, Sproles made a habit of leaving opposing coaches slackjawed.

In the Big 12 championship game against Oklahoma, he carried 22 times for 235 yards. He also had 88 yards receiving, including a touchdown, and nearly scored twice on punt and kickoff returns.

"I don't know if I've ever seen any better," Iowa State Coach Dan McCarney said. "He is truly one of the great players in college football."

This year, he's the best, at least according to Kansas State Coach Bill Snyder. In the coach's mind, Sproles's season stats paled in comparison to his offseason numbers: 411-pound bench press, 836-pound safe squat and 320-pound clean -- all personal bests. "I feel way bigger," Sproles said. "I'm pretty huge now."

He's more focused, too. In late April, Sproles's mom, Annette, died of cancer at 41, and she left her son with one last mission. In her final months, Annette told Sproles to return to school, improve on last season and earn his degree.

"He's more devoted than ever," Snyder said. "Darren Sproles will find something in his game over the course of a practice and decide that he needs to be a little bit better at it, and he'll be out there by himself working on it. He's a great Heisman candidate."

But these days, winning the Heisman Trophy has as much to do with marketing as football, and that leaves Sproles with one distinct disadvantage: He stutters.

Sproles runs fearlessly over mammoth linebackers, but he often clams up with nervousness when he talks to the media after games. He hesitates before answering questions and then usually responds with a one-word answer. He has fought the speech impediment since childhood, but it may frustrate him most this season, because the national media will turn to him after every game expecting a good sound bite.

"I don't like all that attention," Sproles said at Big 12 media day last month. "I just love playing football. I don't want to talk to the media. I'm shy."

He would rather see attention lavished on the other compelling stories in the Big 12. Can White repeat last season's Heisman performance? How will Bill Callahan manage in his first year as head coach at Nebraska? How will Colorado respond after an offseason marred with so much controversy that Coach Gary Barnett was placed on probation?

"If it was up to me, people would talk about someone else," Sproles said. "I just want to win games and forget about the hype."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company