Darren Sproles was honored Saturday on the field where he first emerged as a superstar. That’s entirely fitting.
I can in no way claim to be the first who would have predicted that. But I remember the moment I first saw him, and, oddly enough, it was in Lawrence, in the late fall of 2000.
Sproles was a senior at Olathe North. He had racked up ridiculous numbers for the Eagles, but they were facing Manhattan High in the state championship game, played at the stadium over at KU.
MHS had a very good defense, anchored by a middle linebacker named Matt Butler, who had signed to play at K-State. He went on to start for the Wildcats during a period of tremendous success.
My fightin’ Indians were 8-3 going into the game, riding a winning streak, back in the title game where they belonged. They hadn’t been there since 1989, but championships were what this outfit had been about for a generation. Butch Albright was the head coach.
Sproles made everyone — everyone — look like fools. He scored five touchdowns. Five. He ran for 281 yards on 28 carries. If they would have given him 40 carries, he might have run for 500 yards. Nobody could stop him.
I remember watching that game, hoping desperately my Indians would turn it around. It became obvious that wasn’t going to happen, and I just sat there with my jaw on the floor. It wasn’t just that No. 43 was fast, which he was. It’s that he made these cuts human beings can’t really make. They were so sudden and severe they were hard to believe.
After the game, here’s what Coach Albright said: “He’s the best back I’ve ever seen play high school football.”
Let me be clear: Coach Albright is the straightest of straight shooters. He tells it like it is.
He was the MHS defensive coordinator in 1986, when the Indians played Wichita North in the playoffs. The tailback for North? Guy by the name of Barry Sanders.
In 2001, Sproles joined a K-State team that featured Josh Scobey and Rock Cartwright in the backfield, plus big Joe Hall. I remember turning to my dad and brother when Sproles went in the game as a true freshman for the first time, saying: Watch this guy.
His first carry went for 11 yards, a typical cutback-jitterbug run thing that made my eyes bulge. My dad and brother looked back at me. Wow. Next carry: Touchdown.
Then he got hurt in that very first game, a “severely bruised” shoulder against New Mexico State. A person had to wonder: Could the little fella withstand Big 12 football?
Ummm ... the definitive answer to that question came in the 2003 season, when K-State was up against what was being called the greatest college football team in history. Oklahoma was undefeated, with a Heisman winner at quarterback, and ... Sproles made the Sooners look like Manhattan High. They couldn’t tackle him.
He did it everywhere. Against Nebraska. Against Missouri. Against USC. Against Texas. Against Arizona State. Against Iowa. Against Ohio State. Against the Dallas Cowboys, and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Chiefs. The Panthers. The Giants.
He made them all look ridiculous.
I met some friends at a bar the other day, and one of the TVs was tuned to some sort of metro KC station, replaying an old high school game. I recognized the dark blue, with the block M, and I got really interested. And then I realized: This was that game.
Sproles was wearing the white, blue and red of Olathe North. But he was the same guy, still electrifying in a replay 21 years old.
I remember. Guess I had just a little tiny inkling of what was coming. Butch Albright certainly did.