OVERLAND PARK — It was an upset for the ages, along with the signature victory during the Darren Sproles era at Kansas State, perhaps the marquee triumph during Bill Snyder’s first turnaround in Manhattan.
In an epic 2003 Big 12 championship game at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., K- State’s 35-7 pummeling of the No. 1-ranked Oklahoma Sooners made a mess of the national championship picture while giving the Wildcats their first conference championship since 1934, along with a berth in the 2004 Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz., against Ohio State.
For Sproles, a veteran NFL running back with the New Orleans Saints, the game is burned in his memory bank. The little-big man riddled the Sooners for 235 rushing yards and 88 receiving yards — all on three screen passes — including a 60-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown from elusive quarterback Ell Roberson at the end of the second quarter, giving the Wildcats a 21-7 lead.
“My crowning moment was when we beat Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game,” Sproles said this past Saturday during the Darren Sproles 5K event. “(The Sooners) were ranked No. 1, so for us to come in and beat them like that, it would be my highest moment in college.”
A decorated high school athlete at Olathe North, Sproles hosted his annual event last weekend to help raise money for the Sproles Empowered Youth non-profit organization he runs with his wife, Michel Hunt, a former UNLV 400-meter track and field sprinter. The Sproles also run annual football camps.
“I always like to come back home because this is where I started at,” he said. “I want to come back home and touch base with the kids here.
“I’m truly blessed, and it just feels like all of my hard work through the years has paid off.”
Turn back the calendar a decade.
Sproles scooted, juked, danced and spun around opposing defenders to the tune of 1,986 yards to lead the nation in 2003. He also finished as the runner-up for the Doak Walker Award, given to the nation’s most outstanding running back, and broke the career rushing mark at K-State during his junior season.
Sproles capped his college career with 4,979 rushing yards in 815 carries, including four games with over 200 yards.
“It’s like all instinct now,” the 5-foot-6, 190-pound Sproles said of finding creases in the NFL. “I can’t explain what I’m doing. I’m just moving.
“I just see the whole field. I don’t hear the crowd or anything like that. I’m just locked in.”
Prompted by his dying mother’s wishes, Sproles came back for his senior year in 2004 and finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy balloting. Annette Sproles died earlier in the year in April after a long bout with cancer.
“A lot of people didn’t realize what he was going through in 2004,” said Larry Sproles, Darren’s father. “That was one of the hardest times that he has had to endure. It’s a terrible thing when you have to raise two kids by yourself.
“I have a younger son, Terence, he is 23 now. But at the time, he was still in junior-high school. It was tough.”
Darren later took it to another level in the NFL. After being drafted in the fourth round by the San Diego Chargers in 2005, he signed as a free agent with the Saints in 2011, becoming the first player in NFL history to accumulate more than 2,200 all-purpose yards in four different seasons (2008-11).
Joining the Saints via free agency before the 2011 season, one year after they beat the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV, Sproles broke the NFL record for single-season all-purpose yardage with 2,696 yards as they finished 13-3 and won the NFC South Division. Sproles had 710 yards receiving and 603 rushing yards — both career highs — and a total of nine touchdowns.
The Saints fell on hard times last season, finishing 7-9, third in the NFC South, and missing the playoffs. Sproles finished with 48 carries for 244 yards and a 5.1 rushing average in 2012.
New Orleans head coach Sean Payton, among others, were suspended because of a bounty scandal. Payton, who missed all of last season, returns to the sideline this fall.
“We’ve got to get back on track,” Sproles said. “Last year wasn’t the year we wanted, but this year, we’ve got to make up for it.”