PHILADELPHIA — A setback in his recovery from a hamstring injury kept Philadelphia Eagles running back Darren Sproles out of his team’s first matchup with the New Orleans Saints, and he was hot about it.
“We texted when they were down there in the Dome when they got blown out. He was pissed,” said trainer Todd Durkin of the Eagles’ 48-7 loss in New Orleans in Week 11. “It drove him nuts not playing.”
The Saints are Sproles’ old team, so naturally there’s going to be some extra emotion attached to a game like that. But to fully understand why Sproles’ competitive juices were in overdrive, and why they’ll be bubbling over when the Eagles and Saints square off in the divisional round of the playoffs Sunday (4:40 p.m. ET), you have to understand his relationship with quarterback Drew Brees.
They’re good friends and longtime sparring partners who have been trying to outduel each other for more than a decade. Every offseason for the past 11 years, Sproles and Brees have paired up at Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego for training sessions that have become the stuff of legend.
“Extremely competitive,” said Eagles tight end Zach Ertz.
“They’re pretty intense,” Sproles said.
“Those dudes, they compete like it’s the Super Bowl every darn set,” added Durkin. “It’s crazy. It’s great.”
It all started with LaDainian Tomlinson, who was teammates with Brees and Sproles on the Chargers and the first to work with Durkin in the early 2000s. Tomlinson soon convinced Brees to join him. Sproles, wanting to replicate Tomlinson’s success, followed suit a few years later when he came on the scene. The group has grown over the years and now includes Ertz and Eagles wide receiver Golden Tate, but no matter who is in the gym, Brees and Sproles almost always partner up.
The epic workouts that follow are a result of their like-mindedness. Both players are undersized in a game of giants, and they both made it by outworking everyone around them. Normally, that’s been an attainable goal for each of them. But what happens when your counterpart is equally committed to the same goal?
“Darren doesn’t want to be outdone so he’ll do an extra treadmill sprint. So then Drew will get on. So Darren will get on for an extra sprint again, and then Drew will get back on,” Durkin said. “I have to like literally pull the plug and stop them from running because they’ll just do 20 extra sprints. The other guys, they’ll be done, and Drew and Darren, they’re jockeying.”
“I can’t think of a time he’s beaten me. So go back and ask him. Ask Darren, ‘What is your record against Drew Brees in the Rebounder?’ … I might have lost one. So I’m thinking the record is probably 95-1. No joke. Maybe.”
“The thing is that we don’t like losing,” Sproles said. “So we’re always trying to one-up each other. That can be with a rep or an extra sprint — that’s just how it is.”
When the workout is over, the competition is just warming up.
Durkin finishes his sessions with games for his athletes to test their hand-eye coordination and focus in an exhausted state. The most raucous one is called “Rebounder.” It’s played with a reaction ball, which is like a tennis ball with bumps all over it. When you throw the ball onto this trampoline-like canvas, it takes unpredictable bounces. Working in a defined 5-by-5-foot space, the players go back and forth like pingpong. If your opposition can’t catch it, you get a point. First to 11 wins.
Brees, who beat Andy Roddick three times as junior tennis players, wins about 90 percent of the time, per Durkin. And everybody wants to take him down.
“He’s so uber-competitive. The guy has almost gotten into fights in the game arguing over points because he doesn’t want to lose,” Durkin said. “It’s literally 15 guys against him and everyone’s trying to get him out.”
“Nah, Drew cheats,” Ertz said with a smile when asked about Brees’ prowess. “Drew cheats.”
A reporter tried to get Brees’ goat by asking if it’s true Sproles has his number in Rebounder.
“Never,” he immediately replied. “I can’t think of a time he’s beaten me. So go back and ask him. Ask Darren, ‘What is your record against Drew Brees in the Rebounder?’ … I might have lost one. So I’m thinking the record is probably 95-1. No joke. Maybe.”
Sproles laughed a full-belly laugh when the message was relayed.
“Hey, we’ll be having some good battles,” he said. “But the thing is, the last time we played, I won, so I’m the champ right now.”
There is video evidence of that Sproles win, so we know he has at least one under his belt.
By all accounts, the tempo and intensity of Durkin’s workouts elevate significantly when Brees and Sproles are in the pack. Brees is in his 18th season and turns 40 on Tuesday. Sproles is in his 14th season and is 35. Yet Durkin continues to push the pace on these world-class athletes for three hours a day and upward of five days a week during the offseason.
“When you have two great players like that, the work ethic is going to stand out,” Ertz said. “You don’t become the players that those two have being ‘Average Joe’s’ training. Those two embody the work ethic mentality that you want to have, that you need to have in order to be a great player in this league.”
Added Sproles: “We work pretty hard in the offseason so that we can last. I would say our summer workouts have played a big part in [sustaining our careers].”
The two have grown very close. The mutual respect is obvious when Brees and Sproles talk about each other.
“Yeah, he’s my guy, man. He’ll always be my guy,” Brees said. “He’s a stud. One of the greatest teammates I’ve ever had the chance to play with. I’ve said it before, I think he’s a once-in-a-lifetime player.
“And what he’s been able to accomplish now over the course of his career, for the type of player he was, man, just full speed all the time. That running back position takes a beating and what he was able to do on running the football, catching the football, in the return game. I mean he’s just been the consummate teammate. I love working with him in the offseason. He makes me better. A great friend. So I always root for him.”
But when it’s time to compete, expect those familiar instincts to take over.
“It was tough,” Sproles said of missing the first matchup with Brees and the Saints. “But I get a chance this week.”
Contributing: ESPN New Orleans Saints reporter Mike Triplett