Darren Sproles was finally presented with a challenge that he was unable to overcome on his own.
Sproles' unique combination of strength and athleticism has allowed him to carve out a brilliant 10-year NFL career while being listed at 5-foot-6, 190 pounds.
Despite battling players who are over a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier, Sproles has been one of the most prolific players of his generation with over 16,000 all-purpose yards, which ranks 20th in NFL history.
In a profession that is unkind to running backs, Sproles has helped ignite the Eagles' offense and special teams units at 31 years old when most players his age are on the decline. In Sunday's win over St. Louis, Sproles had a 23-yard punt return and leads the league in that category with an average of 15.9 yards per return. Sproles registered an 82-yard punt return touchdown in San Francisco, the longest punt return of his career, and earned NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors. In Week 2, Sproles set new career highs with 152 yards receiving and 178 yards from scrimmage to earn NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors for the first time. Against Jacksonville in his Eagles debut, Sproles scored the team's first touchdown of the season on a 49-yard touchdown run, again the longest of his career.
But with all of his gifts and talents, nothing would prepare him for the news that was delivered on October 17, 2012 - that his wife, Michel, was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 28.
"That's my best friend. It was tough for me to see her going through that time. It was rough for me, but I knew I had to stay strong for her," Sproles said. "There were times when I would cry, but I wouldn't let her see me."
Darren and Michel met in 2006, while he was a member of the San Diego Chargers. It was Sproles' second season in the league, but he was placed on the Injured Reserve list after injuring his ankle in the preseason. He was training in Los Angeles and was introduced to Michel through a mutual friend. Michel, who was an athlete in her own right as she earned a track and field scholarship to UNLV, called Sproles a "breath of fresh air."
"He was just the total opposite of your average athlete, especially being a professional athlete when I met him. I expected him to really be a jerk. But he was so different," Michel recalled. "He was attentive. He was a gentleman."
They talked on the phone for two months before meeting for the first time. The two complement each other perfectly. In addition to everything else he has overcome to be a star in the NFL, Sproles has a speech impediment which is one of the main reasons why fans know so little someone about him. On the other hand, Michel describes herself as someone who is very "vocal and outgoing."
"Sometimes when people communicate with him they often get frustrated because he can't get his thoughts out quick enough for other people. For me, I showed patience, and even though I talk really, really fast and I communicate really fast, I was patient with him and I made him comfortable being himself," Michel said. "I wasn't trying to force him to be anything other than what he was. I think that was one of the things that kind of drew him to me more so."
Darren and Michel were married in 2010 and have two daughters - Devyn, 5, and Rhyan, 2. Shortly after Rhyan was born, Michel noticed that an area of her left breast was thicker than the other. There was no lump, but Michel just knew something wasn't right. She finally went to her primary physician, who sent her for an ultrasound. The results showed obstructed milk ducts, but the initial thought was that it was leftover milk from Rhyan's birth. However, Michel didn't breastfeed so that made no sense to her.
Not satisfied with the result of her ultrasound, she visited her OB/GYN in New Orleans and pleaded for a referral to get a mammogram. After discovering calcifications on the mammogram, Michel underwent another ultrasound and a biopsy. Even though Michel bore none of the typical warning signs, she was diagnosed with DCIS - ductal carcinoma, a form of breast cancer. Since the discovery was made while still in Stage 0, Michel underwent a bilateral mastectomy a week later to rid herself of the disease once and for all.
The news was difficult for Darren to bear because he already had lost his mother, Annette, to brain cancer. But he was the rock for Michel, even helping her snap out of depression following the surgery.
"He was very, very supportive. He allowed me to lean on him and cry in front of him and be vulnerable in front of him, but during that period I did slip into a depression. I lost a ton of weight, not from an illness or anything, but from being stressed out about it and my mind going 100 miles an hour," she said.
"But I remember him coming in the room one day and I was just out of it, it was dark in the room, and he was just like, 'You've got to snap out of this. It is what it is. "You experienced it, it's over, it's done with. The test is over. Whatever reason God had you go through this we may not know now. We may find out later, we may never know, but it's over. You're fine, you're healthy, the doctor said you're healthy, you're not about to die, you're not going anywhere. I need you to snap out of it.'
"And that was the turning point for me."
Two years later, Michel was the one who stood up for Darren when the Saints had reversed course from their plans to release him and instead trade the dynamic playmaker. The part of the business transaction that Michel took umbrage with is that Darren found out the team's plans through social media, not from the team.
"I was physically sitting there with Darren when (Saints head coach) Sean (Payton) and (Saints general manager) Mickey (Loomis) called him and basically told him that if he didn't take a pay cut, they were going to release him, which is totally different than trading someone," Michel said. "If he would've been released, he would've had the option to go where he wanted to go, and spend his last year or two, or three, in the league on his own terms and on a team of his choice."
The Eagles had pursued Sproles in the past. Back in 2011, Sproles chose to go to New Orleans to reunite with former teammate and close friend Drew Brees instead of signing with Philadelphia. Instead of getting into a bidding war this time around, the Eagles secured Sproles' services by trading a fifth-round draft pick.
They showed how much they wanted Sproles by signing him to a contract extension after the trade was consummated.
All offseason, Eagles fans waited with anticipation to see how head coach Chip Kelly would deploy his new offensive weapon. Sproles has done it all for the Eagles as he's second on the team in rushing yards (172), tied for fourth in receptions (16) and second in touchdowns (3). Sproles' success is not a surprise to safety Malcolm Jenkins, who played with Sproles for three years in New Orleans before signing with the Eagles this past offseason.
"He may not be a vocal leader, but he's somebody who people are drawn to because of his work ethic, because of how consistent he is," Jenkins said. "He takes care of his body. He's paying attention in meetings. He's going hard in the weight room. In practice, he's full speed. Things that when you watch him on Sundays, you know why he's successful. That's something that people try to emulate. You always gravitate to those people who have success especially when you see why they're successful."
Sproles is relishing his early-season success because the Eagles have started fast out of the gate with a 3-1 record. With all that he's accomplished in his career, there is one thing missing.
"I still want to get a Super Bowl ring. That's why you play this game, to get that ring. That's what we're all working for right now," Sproles said.
Does he think this team can win it?
"Yes, I do. The way we're so close and the way we're playing, Chip makes it fun for us," he concluded.