Small players making it big
New England running back Danny Woodhead jokingly asked if he could have a step-stool the next time he was required to speak at a podium.
It’s a question that could be asked after just about every NFL game this season with diminutive dynamos like Woodhead, Darren Sproles, Jim Leonhard and Antoine Winfield coming up big week in and week out.
Despite a nation of fans and fantasy owners putting them on pedestals, all of these players have to look up at the average American male, who stands 5-foot-10.
Yet, these petite players are anything but puny when it comes to their performances and impact.
In an era where bigger, beefier bodies and muscular mayhem rule the trenches like never before, some of the biggest plays are coming from the league’s littlest players.
They dart across the football fields every weekend, delivering some of the biggest hits and best highlights with running, receiving, returning and tackling skills that counter their critics and even seem to defy physics.
Maybe the best of the bunch is Sproles, San Diego’s 5-6 tailback who turned a short pass into a 57-yard touchdown that put away the Denver Broncos on Monday night, a fitting finish to a Week 10 dominated by the wonderful wee.
In Foxborough, Mass., Woodhead, a running back from Chadron State who’s just shy of 5-8, overshadowed the annual Tom Brady-Peyton Manning duel. He ignited the Patriots’ 31-28 win by scoring on a weaving 36-yard burst in which he displayed a masterful mix of power, speed and agility and then made a sensational tackle on the ensuing kick return.
“I do everything to make the play, whether I’m a runner, a receiver or on a kickoff,” Woodhead said. “Maybe (I carry) a little chip, but I’m not too worried what everybody thinks about my size, weight or height. My worry is about doing my job, whatever that might be.”
Woodhead has company in New England, where receivers Wes Welker and Deion Branch are both 5-9.
“They’ve got big hearts, I’ll say that. What they lack for in size, they certainly make up for in competitiveness and determination and their work ethic,” Brady said. “All three of them have probably been underdogs, but they all play their best in the biggest games.”
Many of the NFL’s littlest players say they were teased or even bullied as kids about their short stature, and oftentimes they were admonished to give up football for fear they’d get crushed.
“It was always something where everybody would tell you what you can’t do because of your size. It’s always been my attitude to prove them wrong,” said Arizona Cardinals second-year pro LaRod Stephens-Howling, a 5-7 speedster from Pitt who has two kickoff returns for TDs this year.
Stephens-Howling got his start in pee wee football when he was 8 even though his mother didn’t want him to play because she was worried he would get hurt.
“Since then it’s always been the same story,” Stephens-Howling said. “It’s always been the same attitude also.”
The lightest player in the NFL is Washington Redskins kick returner Brandon Banks, an undrafted rookie from Kansas State who stands 5-7 and weighs 155 pounds.
Banks returned a punt 53 yards the first time he touched the ball in an NFL game and he has a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
No small feat for a man with such small feet.
“To be his size, you’ve got to be a hard-nosed football player, because he’s not the biggest person on the planet,” said teammate Mike Sellers, a 6-3, 272-pound fullback. “But his speed does everything for him. He’s probably the fastest person I’ve been around.
“When I first saw him, I said he looked a little fragile. But he’s hard-core. He doesn’t let that size thing affect him. You’re not going to get a clean hit on him. He’s phenomenal.”