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A hero of their own

Posted May 14, 2009

Darren Sproles spent Thursday morning encouraging approximately 30 youngsters who, like the star running back, battle stuttering issues.

When Alex Scharnitzky, a sixth grader at San Diego’s De Portola Middle School, shook hands with Darren Sproles Thursday morning, it wasn’t just about meeting his favorite athlete.  It was about finding common ground with someone who has faced and overcome similar obstacles.

“I didn’t know anyone else who stutters and my dad told me that there was a famous football player who stutters, too,” Scharnitzky said.  “It was cool to know that I’m not the only one.”

As part of National Stuttering Awareness Week, Sproles visited roughly 30 San Diego students who also struggle with the speech disorder.  The students gathered at Morse High School where Sproles answered many of their questions, signed autographs and mingled with the group for approximately an hour. 

“I was nervous at first, but I’m glad I got to meet these kids,” Sproles said.  “Hopefully I encouraged them a little.”

Sproles, who has stuttered throughout his life, sat in front of the room as students asked him not only about life in the NFL, but also about his personal speech struggles.

“Sometimes when I talk, I try to go too fast, and that’s what gets me in trouble,” he explained.  “If you put a camera in my face, I get nervous.  That’s when it (stuttering) comes out the most.  Once I get relaxed, I’m fine.  I’ve got to stop and breathe and just try to talk slower.  That helps.”

The students’ questions were pointed.  They asked if he was picked on at school because of his speech and were eager to hear how he’s overcome his struggles. 

“They got right to the point,” Sproles said.  “I told them that I never really worry about it.  If you let something bother you, it can get in your way.  It’s like football.  You just have to work at it.”

Thursday’s event was set up by The Stuttering Foundation, a non-profit organization that works towards the prevention and treatment of stuttering.  Sproles became acquainted with the group through San Diego native and former NBA star Bill Walton.  Sproles has formed a friendship with Walton, and Walton has helped Sproles with the running back’s speech issues.  

Sproles now serves as a national spokesman for The Stuttering Foundation, and his image is featured on a large poster that each student received Thursday.  The poster contains the message, “Stuttering didn’t keep him out of the game.”

“It’s wonderful for these kids to have a role model like Darren,” said Jennifer Taps, Senior Speech and Language Pathologist for the San Diego Unified School District.  “It means so much because in a lot of ways, they feel like they’re alone, that they’re the only ones that have this kind of challenge.  To see someone with the same challenge that is so successful, it’s really encouraging to them.”

Taps was impressed that despite his nervousness, Sproles engaged the students as a group and carefully answered each question. 

“As he said, this kind of a group environment is a challenge for him, yet he was outstanding,” Taps said.  “It would have been easy for him to just sit down and sign autographs, but he didn’t ask for that.  He was outstanding.”

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