Mighty Mites: 5 NFL players who defied their small stature

Profile Picture: Ashley Anderson

April 13th, 2020

Despite their diminutive statures, these five men packed a serious punch and made a name for themselves on the gridiron.

Here are five of the most successful small guys in NFL history.

5. Trindon Holliday, return specialist, 5-foot-5, 166 pounds

Holliday is one of the shortest players to suit up for an NFL team. The dual-sport athlete played football and was a top-ranked sprinter on the track and field team at LSU.

Selected in the sixth round of the 2010 NFL Draft, he landed with the Houston Texans, where he initially struggled with fumbling issues in the preseason. He didn’t find success until he signed with the Denver Broncos in 2012 and broke the franchise record for the longest play, with a 105-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that season.

In a playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens in 2013, Holliday returned a punt for a 90-yard touchdown, which set a record for the longest punt return in a postseason contest. In the same game, he ran back a kickoff for a 104-yard score (also the longest in postseason history), which made him the first player to put up a punt-return touchdown and kick-return touchdown in the same playoff game.

In the 2013 season, he added one more punt-return touchdown and kickoff-return touchdown to his résumé.

4. Antoine Winfield, cornerback, 5-foot-9, 199 pounds

Longtime Minnesota Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield matched up against receivers much taller, but he still managed to put some of the hardest hits on opponents. Before his 14-year career in the NFL, Winfield collected the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s top defensive back, as a member of the Ohio State Buckeyes.

He joined the Buffalo Bills in 1999 as a first-round draft pick and tallied a career-high 107 tackles in 2003, his final year in Buffalo. He signed with the Vikings in 2004 and made three Pro Bowls in Minnesota.

Winfield retired in 2013 with 1,054 tackles, 116 passes defended, 14 forced fumbles, 27 interceptions, and he is considered one of the 50 greatest Vikings.

His son, Antoine Winfield Jr., flourished with the Minnesota Gophers as a 5-foot-10 safety and has declared for the 2020 NFL Draft.

3. Doug Flutie, quarterback, 5-foot-10, 181 pounds

When it’s all said and done, Heisman Trophy winner and 2019 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Kyler Murray may go down as the greatest short quarterback of all time.

For now, that honor belongs to Flutie. The 1984 Heisman recipient, Flutie is best remembered for “The Pass” during the “Miracle in Miami,” a game Boston College won against the Miami Hurricanes on Flutie’s last-second Hail Mary pass to receiver Gerard Phelan.

His accolades in college didn’t matter all that much to NFL scouts, as Flutie didn’t come off the board until the 11th round of the 1985 NFL Draft. He had already signed with the USFL’s New Jersey Generals on a five-year, $7 million contract, which made him the highest-paid pro football player and highest-paid rookie in any sport. He chose to play for the Generals in 1985 and underwhelmed in his only season, before the USFL unfolded in 1986.

Flutie ended up with the Chicago Bears in 1986, then signed with the New England Patriots in 1987. By 1989, he had left for the Canadian Football League, where he attained unprecedented success. In his second season, he passed for a record 6,619 yards, and he finished his CFL career with three Grey Cups and six Most Outstanding Player honors, the most in league history.

His prosperity in the CFL set him up for a resurgence in the NFL, when he signed with the Bills in 1998. That season, Flutie became the shortest quarterback selected to a Pro Bowl and earned NFL Comeback Player of the Year.

He played for the Chargers from 2001-2004, before his return to the Patriots in 2005, his final pro season. In the regular-season finale that year, Flutie scored an extra point on a drop kick, something that hadn’t been done since 1941.

2. Steve Smith, wide receiver, 5-foot-9, 195 pounds

Despite his stature, Smith seemed to fear no one on the football field. The feisty receiver played for the Carolina Panthers from 2001-2013, then enjoyed a brief stint in Baltimore.

During his 15-year career, Smith achieved the single-season 1,000-yard mark eight times as a receiver. In 2005, he became the third player in the Super Bowl era to top the league in receptions (103), receiving yards (1,563), and receiving touchdowns (12) in one season. Only Jerry Rice (1990) and Sterling Sharpe (1992) accomplished that feat prior to Smith.  

Smith also won Comeback Player of the Year in 2005, one year after he suffered a severe break in his leg during the 2004 season opener.

In 2016, his final NFL season, the five-time Pro Bowler hauled in 70 passes, for 799 yards and five TDs. In Week 4, he passed Andre Johnson as the NFL’s active leader in total receiving yardage. Upon his retirement in January 2017, Smith finished with 1,031 receptions (12th all time), 81 receiving touchdowns, 4,055 return yards, and 19,180 all-purpose yards, the ninth most by a player in NFL history.

His 14,731 receiving yards are the eighth most in league history. Every player ranked above him in that category stands at least at 6-foot or taller, and Smith is the only player under 5-foot-11 in the top 20.

1. Darren Sproles, running back, 5-foot-6, 185 pounds

Barry Sanders, one of the greatest running backs of all time, measured at a measly 5-foot-8, but his 203-pound playing weight put him just slightly under the NFL average for a running back. That takes Sanders out of the running for mightiest mites and makes room for a back from Waterloo, Iowa.

The all-time leading rusher at Kansas State, Sproles entered the NFL as a fourth-round draft pick of the San Diego Chargers in 2005. He played in San Diego until 2010, then joined the New Orleans Saints in free agency before the 2011 season.

In his first year with the Saints, Sproles racked up 168 all-purpose yards in the final regular-season game and broke the NFL record for all-purpose yards in one season (2,696). In 2014, the Saints traded Sproles to the Philadelphia Eagles, where the running back was named to the Pro Bowl from 2014-2016. He also led the league in punt return yards in 2014, with 506.

He snagged a Super Bowl title in 2018 as a member of the Eagles, though he had been placed on injured reserve in Week 3, after he broke his arm and tore his ACL on the same play. He remained in the league until 2019, but injuries limited his playing time.  

Sproles ended his career with 3,552 rushing yards, 23 rushing TDs, 4,840 receiving yards, 32 receiving TDs, 11,313 return yards, and nine return scores. His 19,696 all-purpose yards rank fifth in NFL history, behind Jerry Rice, Brian Mitchell, Walter Payton, and Emmitt Smith.

Sproles is also the first player with more than 2,200 all-purpose yards in four different seasons (2008-2011). He may not have been a brute-force running back, but his agility, football vision, and versatility turned him into an undeniable asset in the NFL.

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