This post sponsored by EA Sports NCAA Football 2011.
At a program like K-State, we rarely see top-rated recruits on campus. Unlike Texas and Oklahoma, who turn away more four- and five-star players than K-State signs, the players who have gone on to become stars in Manhattan were usually the diamonds in the rough, the borderline three-stars or two-stars that couldn't sniff a scholarship offer from a major football power, but were willing to work their rears off for a demanding coach and get everything possible out of their talent. As a result, there are a lot of homegrown stars and other underdogs that tend to be the fan favorites.
For me, this decision came down to a difficult decision between two players who fit the previous description. My choice as favorite K-Stater is Darren Sproles.
Sproles' high school exploits at Olathe North read like the stat line of a video-gamer with an inferiority complex. The line is almost silly: 5,230 yards rushing, 79 touchdowns, USA Today's Kansas Player of the Year, two-time Kansas City Star Player of the Year, and multiple state championships in Kansas 6A. Now for the really silly part: despite all that, Sproles was only a three-star recruit. That's right, a dominant running back on one of the best teams in the Kansas City metro area drew little interest among the elite schools in recruiting.
Being 5'6" and 180 lbs. will do that. But Bill Snyder never wavered, and Sproles went to Manhattan. All Sproles did in Manhattan was amass 4,979 yards rushing (11th all-time in college football) and 45 touchdowns, and lead K-State to its only Big 12 title by gashing Oklahoma for 235 rushing yards (a Big 12 title game record). He owns 23 school records, including most rushing yards in a game, season and career.
But it wasn't just the numbers Sproles rolled up, which are impressive enough in themselves. It was the way he compiled those totals, which has two dimensions. First, his moves were simply difficult to comprehend, his ability to stop and start, move laterally, and sense where the defenders would be and avoid them. The unforgettable "USC shake" is the perfect example of this ability. But Sproles was also powerful in a way you wouldn't expect out of a guy his size. The run in Lincoln where he dragged T.J. Holloway into the end zone or the flattening of a KU defender who shall remain nameless exemplified the Tank's power. All runs are featured in this video:
Beyond the obvious physical talents, Sproles' approach to the game was refreshing. The next time you see Sproles taunt an opponent will be the first. Touchdowns were generally greeted with an I've-been-here-before flip of the ball to the official, followed by saluting his teammates for making the run possible.
Off the field, Sproles' struggles with stuttering are well documented. He majored in speech pathology at K-State so he can help others who share his frustration. Since joining the NFL, he has been active in the Stuttering Foundation of America. Even more painful, Sproles lost his mother as a 20-year-old junior at K-State. To honor her, he came back to college to finish his eligibility and, more importantly, earn his degree. Like his respect for his opponents on the field -- only much, much more meaningful -- it was yet another example of Sproles doing things the right way.
Darren Sproles was the first true star I encountered as a K-State fan. No matter who else dons the purple and white in the future, he will always be the first player I associate with K-State football.
That's my choice. Who are yours?