Short Men Doing Big Things In The NFL

A mans heart can never be measured by his physical size. People would be wise to remember that, especially on the gridiron.

How many times have we witnessed greatness in the form of little packages? How many times have the shortest bodies on the field outplayed those with more of an imposing physical stature?

Many times in sports it isnt who has the biggest muscles or who stands the tallest, but rather those with the most heart and will. On many occasions, when a spark is needed, teams turn to those they literally look down to only because of eye level.

When a big play is necessary or when the tide of the game needs to be shifted, their names are called. As I watched 5-foot-8 Branden Oliver of the San Diego Chargers single-handedly dominate the Jets last week (the undrafted free agent out of the University of Buffalo outrushed the Jets by himself 182-150 yards), I was reminded of the fact that a mans skill, will and heart should never be doubted because of his diminutive stature.

According to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, “Short” is “not tall or high” and “Small” is “lacking in strength or influence; without force or loudness.” These men are short, but they definitely are not small.

One of the greatest players of all time is Hall Of Famer Barry Sanders. NFL fans are extremely familiar with the career and performances of the 5’8 Detroit Lions legend. We’ve seen him reverse field at the drop of a dime, shake the shoes off of defenders in the open field and instill fear into the hearts of all defenses before and during the game.

He was a rare player, one that could lose 10 yards on one play, and then break an off-tackle run for 70 yards on the very next. Defenders would seemingly have him wrapped up and in a split second, they would look up to see #20 running towards the end zone. Some of the moves he put on defenders should have been illegal because it looked as if defenders had been victims of a crime.



So what is it that drives these players to play, excel and dominate? Athletes at the professional level must have something extra inside that allows them to overcome what would otherwise hinder others.

Do they possess an internal switch that enables them to play bigger than their physical size? Or does their lack of size fuel their desire to prove the doubters wrong? Former Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme coined a perfect description of what propelled wide receiver Steve Smith on an E:60 special. “Competitive arrogance” is what he called it, and that pertains to all of these men.

“Being fired up is a lot different than playing angry” said Smith in the same special.

Some might say these players suffer from the “Napoleon complex”, the term used by pyschologists to describe overly-aggressive behavior as a means of compensating for another aspect within the subject’s life. Based upon the career of Steve Smith, some of this holds true, even sub-consciously. But, based upon the achievments of these athletes both on and off the field, maybe it’s time we start removing some of the negativity associated with this term.

Steve Smith Sr. is one of the toughest and most passionate players in the League. The 3rd round draft pick from the University of Utah is listed at 5-foot-9 but he plays more like he’s 6-foot-4, with the toughness of a linebacker and a mouth that knows no restraint when aggravated.

Yet he backs it all up once he straps on his helmet and steps on the field. We wrote about him two weeks ago after he vehemently demonstrated to the Carolina Panthers just how much of a mistake they made when they let the 13 -year-veteran go in the off-season.

Through that game, we witnessed how the conviction and belief of a man in himself and his abilities could triumph over obstacles such as size and a teams belief in his ability to perform.



A week before Smith exacted revenge on his former team, we witnessed another special player prove to everyone, yet again, just how valuable he was to an offense and how deadly he could be to a defense. The Eagles’ Darren Sproles, a former Charger and Saint, spent the night of Monday, September 16th, carving up the Colts for 150+ yards, leading his new team to a victory and endearing him to the fans from the City of Brotherly Love.

We explored the impact of Sproles the next day through our Toy Story feature on the little back from Kansas State that could.  

Some might view backs like Sproles as change of pace or situational players, but that would be a simplistic description that detracts from their influence and impact both on, and within, the game. When a defensive coordinator has to devise a plan to stop a single player, that player is special, much more than a third down specialist.

When you have the 5-foot-6 Lionel Little Train James setting records in 1985 for all-purpose yards in a season (2,535), receiving yards by a running back (1,027) and leading the AFC in receptions (86), all in just his second year as a pro, you have more than just a few situations to worry about. You have a problem!

How amazing are those records? It took Marshall Faulk and Derrick Mason, respectively, to break them. Thats incredible company to be surpassed by. Ironically, Darren Sproles went on to break Mason’s record for all-purpose yards in a season in 2011.

Speaking of surpassing, last week we witnessed the breaking of a record that carries significance in many different ways; one for the sheer number that it consists of and two, for the types of players who are on the list. At 59, Wes Welker is one of the shortest receivers on the field, dwarfed by 6’3 emerging star and teammate Demaryius Thomas. Two Sundays ago he passed former Bronco Rod Smith (849 receptions) to become the leader in receptions by an undrafted player (now with 855 receptions).

Even more impressive is the fact that Welker, an 11-year veteran, was undrafted coming out of Texas Tech. He is the first receiver in the NFL with at least three 110-reception seasons and the first with five 100-reception seasons. If he stays healthy, he could catch Smiths other records in the near future. Quite a career for a player that received a scholarship to play at Texas Tech only because another recruit reneged at the last minute.

Football fans should not be surprised by little guys dominating a single game. Its been happening for a long time, and on both sides of the ball.

One of the greatest linebackers to play was Sam Mills. A Division III All-American who played at Montclair State University in New Jersey, Mills went undrafted in 1981. After being cut by the Cleveland Browns and the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL, Mills eventually wound up with the Philadelphia Stars in the USFL and became one of the greatest defensive players in the short-lived league (along with the Minister of Defense, Reggie White).

Jim Mora, who would coach him on both the Stars and the New Orleans Saints, once said, Sam Mills was the best player I ever coached.” That statement resonates even louder when you consider that he also coached players like Peyton Manning and the great offensive lineman Willie Roaf.

The 5-foot- 9, 225-pound Mills followed Mora to the Saints, where he anchored the defense and became a key member of the Dome Patrol, the ferocious linebacking core that featured Mills, Rickey Jackson, Pat Swilling and John Vaughan. This intimidating and dominating group made the 1992 Pro Bowl collectively as a unit and compiled 20 Pro Bowl appearances between them while on the Saints. Fans of “Madden ’93” know how dominant this group was, whether they were playing as the Saints or against them.



Mills, the man affectionately known as Field Mouse, would go on to both play and coach for the Carolina Panthers, earning a fifth Pro Bowl appearance in 1996. Mills passed away in 2005 from intestinal cancer, but he made his mark in the world of football. His #51 jersey has been retired by both the Saints and the Panthers, he was elected to the College Football Hall Of Fame in 2009 and his phrase Keep Pounding has inspired many, particularly those fighting the disease which eventually took Mills life at the young age of 45.

Another defensive force in a smaller package was Antoine Winfield. The former All-American and Jim Thorpe award winner from Ohio State had a successful 15-year career in the NFL. At 5-foot-8, Winfield was a first round draft pick of the Bills in 1999, a three-time Pro Bowl Selection and was ranked as the 31st best player in the NFL by Peter King in 2007.

These men, and many others like Giovani Bernard and Maurice Jones-Drew, exert their presence and will on the field, making their measurements irrelevant once the game starts.

Some of their success can be attributed to the system they play in, such as Welker’s performance when he played with Tom Brady and the Patriots. And now playing with Peyton Manning, he’s barely skipping a beat as he has been on the receiving end of two of the greatest passers in the history of the NFL that understand how to utilize their receivers to the maximum.

Other parts can be attributed to the opportunity to learn from those ahead of them. Barry Sanders played behind Thurman Thomas at Oklahoma State, Lionel James played behind Bo Jackson at Auburn and Smith Sr. had Mushin Muhammad at Carolina.

The best example of this comes through the long-time Washington receiver Santana Moss, another standout player in the great lineage of Miami Hurricane receivers. Although he may be overshadowed by names like Michael Irvin, Reggie Wayne and Andre Johnson, Moss is another player whose performance greatly outshines his height.

His infamous post-game statement in 2000 after his Miami Hurricanes beat # 1-ranked Florida State in the Orange Bowl, 27-24, sums up what every single one of these players is about.

Big-time players make big-time plays in big games! Moss said.

And sometimes, those “Big-Time” players just happen to be the smallest guys on the field.

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