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Small players coming up big in the NFL this season

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New England running back Danny Woodhead jokingly asked if he could have a step-stool the next time he was required to speak at a podium.

It's a question that could be asked after just about every NFL game this season with diminutive dynamos like Woodhead, Darren Sproles, Jim Leonhard and Antoine Winfield coming up big week in and week out.

Despite a nation of fans and fantasy owners putting them on pedestals, all of these players have to look up at the average American male, who stands 5-foot-10.

Yet, these petite players are anything but puny when it comes to their performances and impact.

In an era where bigger, beefier bodies and muscular mayhem rule the trenches like never before, some of the biggest plays are coming from the league's littlest players.

They dart across the football fields every weekend, delivering some of the biggest hits and best highlights with running, receiving, returning and tackling skills that counter their critics and even seem to defy physics.

Maybe the best of the bunch is Sproles, San Diego's 5-foot-6 tailback who turned a short pass into a 57-yard touchdown that put away the Denver Broncos on Monday night, a fitting finish to a Week 10 dominated by the wonderful wee.

In Foxborough, Mass., Woodhead, a running back from Chadron State who's just shy of 5-foot-8, overshadowed the annual Tom Brady-Peyton Manning duel. He ignited the Patriots' 31-28 win by scoring on a weaving 36-yard burst in which he displayed a masterful mix of power, speed and agility and then made a sensational tackle on the ensuing kick return.

"I do everything to make the play, whether I'm a runner, a receiver or on a kickoff," Woodhead said. "Maybe (I carry) a little chip, but I'm not too worried what everybody thinks about my size, weight or height. My worry is about doing my job, whatever that might be."

Woodhead has company in New England, where receivers Wes Welker and Deion Branch are both 5-9.

"They've got big hearts, I'll say that. What they lack for in size, they certainly make up for in competitiveness and determination and their work ethic," Brady said. "All three of them have probably been underdogs, but they all play their best in the biggest games."

Just like Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders (5-8) and Hall of Fame hopeful Sam Mills, a 5-9 linebacker, did in their day.

Many of the NFL's littlest players say they were teased or even bullied as kids about their short stature, and oftentimes they were admonished to give up football for fear they'd get crushed, either emotionally or physically.

"It was always something where everybody would tell you what you can't do because of your size. It's always been my attitude to prove them wrong," said Arizona Cardinals second-year pro LaRod Stephens-Howling, a 5-7 speedster who has two kickoff returns for TDs this year.

Stephens-Howling got his start in pee wee football when he was 8 even though his mother didn't want him to play because she was worried he would get hurt.

"Since then it's always been the same story," Stephens-Howling said. "It's always been the same attitude also."

Which is that he'll run full speed into a brick wall if he has to, so why would bigger players scare him?

"I really don't think about it. That's just football to me. I really don't see all the size difference and everything," Stephens-Howling said. "You've got to have a lot of heart just to step out on the field."

That's the thing these players cling to: the notion that while you can measure size, height, weight, speed, intelligence, you can't look inside a man's chest and measure his moxie.

Probably the best tackling cornerback in the NFL is Minnesota's Antoine Winfield, who packs a ferocious punch that magnifies his speed and belies his 5-9 size.

"He's a small guy, so a lot of people probably underestimate him," teammate Adrian Peterson said. "But he has the heart of a lion."

Michael Adams, a 5-8 cornerback in his fourth season with Arizona after making the team as an undrafted free agent out of Louisiana-Lafayette, said he's been told his whole life that he was too small for this game.

His is a typical tale of overcoming both the odds and bigger players alike to win over doubters.

"Since I've been playing ball. Seven years old, little league, I tried out for the Steelers, the Oak Cliff Steelers, but I wasn't big enough," Adams said. "I didn't weigh enough to play, so I tried to put rocks in my shoes and my underwear so I could try and make the weight but I still didn't make it. Man, I wanted to play bad."

The torment only increased as he got older.

"My high school coach he kept telling me I wasn't big enough to play, talked bad about me a lot. Real crazy," Adams said. "I believe in myself. I've always been pretty athletic. Around the houses and the apartments that I lived in I was always one of the fastest and quickest guys, so people wanted me on the team."

He made the team and he made sure his coach played him.

"He had no choice to. I mean, I had nine interceptions in six games. He had no choice but to play me."

College recruiters didn't break down his door, though.

His cell phone never buzzed on NFL draft weekend either, and again he set out to prove people wrong.

Now, he's tackling players who are the biggest, fastest and strongest in the world.

"What do I have to lose? Everybody's expecting me to not do it anyway, so when I make the plays it's that much better for me," Adams said.

The lightest player in the NFL is Washington Redskins kick returner Brandon Banks, an undrafted rookie from Kansas State who stands 5-7 and weighs 155 pounds.

Banks returned a punt 53 yards the first time he touched the ball in an NFL game and he has a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

No small feat for a man with such small feet.

"To be his size, you've got to be a hard-nosed football player, because he's not the biggest person on the planet," said teammate Mike Sellers, a 6-3, 272-pound fullback. "But his speed does everything for him. He's probably the fastest person I've been around.

"When I first saw him, I said he looked a little fragile. But he's hard-core. He doesn't let that size thing affect him. You're not going to get a clean hit on him. He's phenomenal."

Every NFL team has players who are undersized. The very fact they made the roster shows they have a multitude of skills that make up for their lack of height.

"They're much quicker," Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson said. "If you're a small guy then you have something that's very unique. There's something special about a smaller guy. A smaller guy has to have something different because this is a big guys' league.

"For one thing, they've got to be tough. For another, they've got to be quick. Slow little guys aren't going to make it in this league."

Some of the smallest players are the game's biggest hitters.

Tennessee's leading tackler, Stephen Tulloch, stands 5-11, pretty short for a middle linebacker.

Like many of the league's smaller players, Tulloch spends his Sundays getting lost on the sideline but not on the field, then he can leave the stadium unrecognized.

"I can walk around anywhere in the street, and people won't think I play professional football," Tulloch said. "When people doubt me, it makes me play harder. I appreciate people doubting me. If they didn't, I probably wouldn't be where I'm at."

On top of the world, even without a step-stool.

___

AP Pro Football Writers Howard Fendrich and Barry Wilner and AP Sports Writers Teresa M. Walker, Bob Baum, Howard Ulman, Doug Tucker and Jon Krawczynski contributed to this report.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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