10 Short Men Who Made NFL History
In honor of this year’s Super Bowl Championship, we’re doing a tribute to 10 short guys who stand tall in NFL history.
Trindon Holliday 5’5”
The shortest man to play professional football in the modern era, Holliday was state champion sprinter in high school. He didn’t join the football team until his junior year, but his wicked speed served him well because his high school stats totaled 3,080 rushing yards and 60 touchdowns. Because of his size, he wasn’t recruited by LSU, but his coach brought him along to the LSU camp, where he ran the 40 in 4.28 seconds. According to his coach:
They asked me if Trindon could run it again. He didn’t even get in a track stance. He ran the second 40 in 4.27. He’s one of those little freaks of nature.
Even so, it took the persuasion of holdover offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher to convince head coach Les Miles to honor Halliday’s scholarship. At LSU, Halliday reached the semi-finals on at the United States Olympic Trials for track, and eventually made his name as a star returns specialist for the LSU Tigers. From 2010-2015, he played in the NFL for the Broncos, Giants, Buccaneers, 49ers, and Raiders. He still holds the record for the longest punt return in postseason history (90 yards, against the Ravens in 2013), and remains the only NFL player ever to score a punt return touchdown and a kick return touchdown in the same postseason game.
Tarik Cohen 5’6”
Another track-star turned running back, Cohen won all-conference honors in high school, but struggled to draw the attention of college recruiters, who were skeptical of his height. North Carolina A&T was the only Division I school to offer him a scholarship, but since he rushed for 1,148 yards as a freshman, winning MEC Rookie of the Year in 2013, and Offensive Player of the Year in 2014, 2015, and 2016…they never had reason to regret it.
Cohen was a round 4 draft pick for the Chicago Bears, and has since scored 12 touchdowns, rushed for 814 yards, completed 124 receptions for 1,078 yards, and returned 1,288 yards. Although the Bears lost to the Eagles in this year’s playoffs, Cohen was acknowledged as a First-team All-Pro and invited to the 2018 Pro Bowl.
Darren Sproles 5’6”
When Cohen first appeared on the NFL scene, everyone wondered whether he would be “the next Darren Sproles,” but Sproles is still more than holding his own as one of the most successful running backs in NFL history. At Kansas State, he scored 45 touchdowns, and completed 4,979 all-purpose yards, which makes him the 6th highest yard-earner in NCAA history. Sproles has been playing in the NFL since 2005, but the veteran player just keeps getting better. He was honored as the first-team All-Pro in 2014 and 2015, played in the Pro Bowl from 2014-2016, and ran the Eagles to a Super Bowl championship in 2018. He’s scored 23 rushing touchdowns, 32 receiving touchdowns, and 9 return touchdowns, running 19,529 all-purpose career yards. At present, he holds the #6 spot for total all-purpose yards in the NFL, but one more season will pit him against the standing records of Tim Brown, Emmitt Smith, and Walter Payton.
Nickell Robey-Coleman 5’7”
Like so many of the NFL wide receivers, Robey-Coleman doubled as a football star and a track star. Recruited by the Trojans, Robey-Coleman’s USC career won him recognition from the All-Pac, in both 2011 and 2012. Skipping his final year of college, Robey-Coleman was recruited by the Bills as a free agent following the 2013 NFL Draft. By the seventh game, Robey-Coleman recorded his first NFL interception, and launched a six-year NFL career that led him to yesterday’s Super Bowl. Although the Rams lost, Robey-Coleman added to the game’s early drama by forcing an interception. That quick maneuver brought his total NFL career stats up to: 253 tackles, 5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 41 pass deflections, 6 interceptions, and 2 defensive touchdowns.
Bob Sanders 5’8”
Although he was widely acknowledged as an up-and-coming star from high school, Sanders launched his career as a running back as well as a safety. And, apparently, his high school kickboxing career added to the power and precision of his hits; in college, Sanders became the “Hit Man” strong safety for the University of Iowa Hawkeyes. The nickname followed him into the NFL after he was recruited by the Colts in 2004, where coach Tony Dungy also called him “The Eraser” because of his ability to compensate for his teammates’ mistakes. Sanders battled serious injuries in 2005, but made a serious comeback in 2006, when he made several pivotal plays that pushed the Colts into Super Bowl. Then Sanders blocked a critical pass in the last three minutes of the game, forcing the Patriots to punt and giving Manning a chance to drive for the game-winning touchdown. In 2007, Sanders went on to win Defensive Player of the Year and signed a contract for $37.5 million, making him the (then) highest paid safety in the history of the NFL. Over an eight-year career, Sanders racked up a total of 303 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 3 fumble recoveries, 6 interceptions, and 1 defensive touchdown.
C.J. Anderson 5’8”
Almost 4,000 high school rushing yards led Anderson to numerous accolades and brief season at Laney College, before he was recruited away by California. In his two years with the Golden Bears, Anderson went on to rush for 1,135 yards, scoring 12 rushing touchdowns, and two receiving touchdowns. And that track record was good enough to land him a 2013 contract with the Denver Broncos. An injury put him out of play for several weeks, but he recovered and, as a rookie, went on to run 23 yards for the Broncos in the 2013 Super Bowl. While the Broncos lost Super Bowl 48, the team was running strong. Two years later, Anderson’s final touchdown run was pivotal to the Broncos decisive victory over the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50. Although he was injured for the end of the 2016 season, Anderson returned as a powerhouse for an otherwise disastrous team in 2017, when he claimed over 1,000 yards, a personal best. Anderson was recruited by the Rams in December of 2018 and played a critical role in advancing the team through the playoffs and into the 2019 Super Bowl.
Barry Sanders 5’8”
Perhaps because he began his high school career as a tailback, and only switched to running back in the last few games of his senior year, Sanders was overlooked by most college recruiters. It was a mistake that they would soon regret, when the sophomore Oklahoma State Cowboy ranked first nationally in yards per kickoff return (31.6), rushed for over 600 yards, and scored 8 touchdowns. As a junior, Sanders averaged a jaw-dropping 7.6 yards per carry and over 200 yards per game, then ran for an additional 516 yards on special teams. In 1988 alone, Sanders racked up 3,248 total yards and 39 touchdowns. (Plus an additional 5 touchdowns in the Holiday Bowl.) Heisman Trophy in hand, Sanders signed up for the draft in 1989, where he was the third overall draft pick. From there, Sanders ran roughshod over every statistic in the book. He rushed more than 1,500 yards in five separate seasons (four of them consecutive), and broke 2,000 yards in a single season in 1997. Although the Lions never made the Super Bowl while Sanders was an active player, he was personally invited to the Pro Bowl for every year of his 10 NFL seasons. He was twice awarded the NFL Offensive Player of the Year, and won the NFL Most Valuable Player alongside Brett Farve in 1997. Later inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame, Sanders is still ranked 11th for all-purpose career yards gained (18,308). His jersey was retired by the Lions.
Steve Smith, Sr. 5’9”
Smith’s high school track record as a champion high hurdler would serve him well in his career as a wide receiver, where he leapt (literally and metaphorically) over anyone who tried to stop him. Initially recruited by Santa Monica College, Smith was encouraged by his coach to play well on the chance of getting a better education at a Division I college. In fact, Smith played so well that when the University of Utah recruited him, Smith set the record for yards per catch (20.6) and played for the conference all-start team both years. As a third-round pick for the Carolina Panthers, Smith spent his 2001 rookie season returning punts and kicks. In the first game, he returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, then went on to rack up 1,994 yards, ranking fourth in total yards for the entire NFL. In 2003, Smith helped run the Panthers to the division championship, but his 120 yards and personal touchdown weren’t enough to carry the game against the New England Patriots. In 2005, Smith led the league in catches, receiving yards, and touches, and remains the Panther’s all-time leader in total touchdowns (67) and receptions (836). In the sixteen seasons that Smith played for the NFL, he became known as a reliable powerhouse. He was invited to the Prow Bowl five times, and named All-Pro three times, earning him the title of “one of the NFL’s most productive wide receivers of the 21st century,” with over 1,000 career receptions and 19,000 receiving yards. In the history of the NFL, Smith still ranks seventh for all-purpose yards (19,180) and 25th in receiving touchdowns (81).
Wes Welker 5’9”
Now an assistant coach for the Houston Texans, Welker began his career in Oklahoma. In high school, he won Oklahoma State Player of the Year, switching easily between offense, defense, and special teams, Welker lived up to his nickname “The Natural,” and racked up an astonishing collection of statistics: 190 tackles, 22 interceptions (three converted into touchdowns), 9 fumble recoveries, 7 punt-return touchdowns, 35 field goals, and 165 extra points. However, (like so many of the greats on this list) Welker wasn’t heavily recruited due to his relatively short stature. He eventually landed a scholarship at Texas Tech, after another recruit turned it down. But in spite of their reluctance to let the short guy play, the Red Raiders soon realized that nothing would hold Welker back. In four years, he completed 259 receptions for over 3,000 yards and 21 touchdowns. He earned and additional two touchdowns rushing, and eight more returning punts, a second-place NCAA record. Although he won the Mosi Tatupu Award for best special teams player, he was not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, but briefly signed as a free agent with the San Diego Chargers before transferring to the Miami Dolphins. In 2004, he became the second player in NFL history to make a tackle, return a kickoff for a touchdown, return a punt for a touchdown, kick an extra point, and kick a field goal in a single game. After racking up almost 2,000 yards in net kick and punt returns for the season, Welker inspired Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer to admit that releasing Welker was the “biggest mistake I ever made.” After trading to the Patriots in 2007, Welker proceeded to catch more passes than any other player in the league (earning 500 in just 70 games, an NFL record) and ran the team to two Super Bowls. In 2013, he transferred to the Broncos, defeating the Patriots in the playoffs to reach a third Super Bowl. In his career, Welker racked up 14 NFL records, and remains one of only two players in NFL history to successfully receive a 99-yard pass.
Jack “Soapy Shapiro 5’1”
And a final shout out to the shortest man to play professional football, Jack “Soapy” Shapiro weighed in at 119 pounds, but left a mark on the sport that would follow him for the next eith decades. He may have only played one game professionally, as a blocking back for the Staten Island Stapletons in 1929, but he has since gone down in NFL history.
Never let them hold you back.
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