Darren Sproles was ready to retire after last year and finally look back on a spectacular career that one day could warrant an induction into the Hall of Fame.
However, those plans were delayed by at least a year when he tore his ACL in Week 3 and missed the remainder of the 2017 campaign. The proud veteran of 13 seasons in the National Football League wanted to leave on his own terms and refused to do so prematurely due to an injury.
So, he returned for the 2018 season, but his plan nearly went awry again. Sproles suffered a hamstring injury in Week 1 and missed the next 10 straight games. At one point during rehab, he feared he’d never return and would have to face the devastating reality that his playing days were over.
The adversity he has faced over the last two seasons is was why his performance in the Eagles’ thrilling 32-30 win over the Texans on Sunday, which kept the team’s playoff hopes alive, was a moment he will soon not forget.
“This means a lot to me,” the soft-spoken Sproles said after the game. “To have the role I had tonight, it felt great.”
Sproles was a central component in the team’s offense and finished with three catches for 76 yards, including a 37-yard touchdown, and added another 32 yards on the ground.
“He is an incredible player and an incredible teammate,” Eagles center Jason Kelce said. “He is one of the best guys I have ever played with so I am always happy when he is out there. For him to continue to do things the way he’s doing them with the injuries he’s had the past year and a half is just awesome.”
By the time the game was in the second quarter, the running back was in a zone and he knew it. The camera caught Sproles uncharacteristically asking his coaches to target him.
“When you are feeling it, you just want the ball in your hands,” Sproles said. “I was excited. I wanted the ball because they kept running a lot of man [defense], and I knew I could get open.”
That is exactly what he did on his touchdown in the first quarter. On fourth-and-1, Sproles sped past linebacker Zach Cunningham on a wheel route and displayed the breakaway speed he still possesses and patented elusiveness while slipping through a tackle inside the five, en route to the end zone for his third touchdown in the last four games.
“Even at 35, he is still a mismatch for linebackers,” guard Brandon Brooks said. “You just can’t cover him.”
The Texans learned that the hard way.
During a second-quarter scoring drive, Sproles danced for an 11-yard gain on second-and-12 before being brought down by linebacker Benardrick McKinney and safety Justin Reid for a first down.
After the play, the broadcast showed Sproles having his conversation with the coaching staff. They apparently listened because, on the next snap, he got under the coverage and hauled in a 31-yard pass inside Texans’ territory.
“That is what you expect him to do,” wide receiver Alshon Jeffery said. “He makes plays out there in the passing and the run game. Sproles caught an eight-yard pass in the third quarter and saved his best run of the day for one of the biggest plays of the game.
After the Texans took a 30-29 lead with 2:04 to play, the Eagles marched down to the Houston 35. After seven straight pass attempts, they ran a draw to Sproles, who cut right and then left, to dodge a defender, and shimmied 16 yards to the 19.
From there, it set up the game-winning 35-yard field goal by Jake Elliott as time expired two plays later.
“He’ll do anything you ask of him,” Brooks said. “He can do it all – and he is beating Father Time.”
Sproles knows he can’t outrun Father Time forever, but that is not his plan. If Sproles announces this season is indeed the end of his long NFL road, he expects to stop running, look Father Time in the eyes and finally go out on his own terms.