DENVER — As Floyd Little passes on from this world as we know it, perhaps Broncos Country and his legion of football fans across the nation can be comforted knowing he fully understood the magnitude of living on forever in the bronze bust room in Canton, Ohio.
Little, the first star in Broncos' history, died Friday evening from complications of Neuroendocrine Tumors (NET) cancer at his home in Henderson, Nev. with his wife DeBorah at his side. He had lived 78 years, the last 10 as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. After waiting 30 years for his just reward that is football immortality, it hardly seems possible anyone was ever more grateful for how his Hall of Fame election positively impacted his life.
“Oh, yeah, tremendously,” Little said in the summer of 2016 for the book The 50 Greatest Players in Denver Broncos History. “It’s no longer Floyd Little. It’s Hall of Famer Floyd Little. … “You say, “How did it change your life? Almost 180 degrees.”
I am old enough to have watched Little play for the Broncos starting with his rookie season of 1967. NBC carried the American Football League Game of the Week on Sunday afternoons and while the Broncos usually played the foil to Joe Namath’s Jets, Fred Biletnikoff’s Raiders and Mike Garrett’s Chiefs, Little gained national acclaim as pro football’s most versatile offensive player.
“It was Floyd left, Floyd right, and Floyd up the middle,’’ half-joked Billy Thompson, Little’s best friend and former teammate.
And until Thompson’s rookie season in 1969, Little returned punts and kickoffs, too. “The Franchise” he was called, and not only because he carried an otherwise inept offense – quarterback was always a problem for the early Broncos -- to the occasional upset win.
Here’s how the moniker came about: From their inception in 1960 through 1966, the Broncos had made some nice selections with their first draft selections, most notably Merlin Olsen, Kermit Alexander and Bob Brown. Future Hall of Famers Paul Krause and Bob Hayes were selected in the 12th and 14th rounds of the 1964 draft and Dick Butkus in the second round (first Broncos’ selection) of the 1965 draft.
None of them signed with the Broncos, the perennial doormats of the upstart American Football League. All those players opted instead to play in the more established National Football League.
In 1967, the NFL and AFL combined their drafts and with their No. 6 overall selection, the Broncos took Little from the famed Syracuse running back factory.
Credit Doak Walker, the Broncos scout who had his eye on Little. Walker was the first-ever, three-time consensus All American halfback during his reign at Southern Methodist University from 1947-49. Little was the second at Syracuse from 1964-66. Neither had a chance to become a four-time All American as freshmen were not allowed to play with the college varsity at the time.
As fate would have it, Walker worked one season, 1966, with the Broncos as an assistant in the coaching and football personnel department. He had scouted Little that year and even though Little would be an older rookie at 25 years old, Walker recommended the small, but powerful, bowlegged runner to Broncos head coach Lou Saban. (Floyd was held back one year in high school, and then attended Bordentown Military Institute in New Jersey for two years before he finally started receiving scholarship offers. And college players couldn’t enter the draft until after their senior seasons.)
Not that Saban wasn’t sold through his own pair of eyes. He had coached the year before at the University of Maryland, where his Terrapins were stampeded by Little, Larry Csonka and the Syracuse Orangemen.
Once drafted and signed by the Broncos, Little helped generate enough excitement for a local non-profit group to buy 34,657-seat Bears Stadium for $1.8 million and present it to the city of Denver, which then expanded the capacity to more than 50,000 and renamed it Mile High Stadium in December 1968.
“They were talking about selling the franchise and moving to Atlanta or Alabama and there was a big push to save the franchise,” Little said in 2016 from Syracuse University, where for a time he worked for his alma mater as the special assistant to the athletic director. “That’s how I got the name (“The Franchise”) because I went door-to-door getting support from the people to get a new stadium. By going out and knocking on doors to raise all that support they wound up as one of the top NFL franchises.’’
It was Jim Saccomano, a local radio reporter in the early 1970s, who first called Little, “The Franchise.” Sacco later became the team’s longtime public relations director.
“I remember when John Elway went to the Super Bowl, and won it for the first time,’’ Little said of the Broncos’ triumph in Super Bowl XXXII. “He had a golf tournament and I walked in this room to say hello and he got up there and said, 'Thanks for saving our franchise.' I tell ya, it brought tears to my eyes when he stood up and said this is the reason why the Denver Broncos just won the Super Bowl. Thanks for saving our franchise. John Elway said that!’’
Tales from the Broncos' Sidelines
One of my most memorable moments as a sports writer was joining Little and his son Marc for breakfast on the morning Floyd would be formally inducted into football immortality. I got to know Floyd during his renewed journey toward Hall of Fame election. It started when I received his published memoir, “Floyd Little’s Tales from the Broncos’ Sidelines,” in 2006, a book written by an ardent fan-turned-close friend Tom Mackie.
Little’s primary inspiration behind the project was to recall so many of the forgotten players from the Broncos’ first 15 seasons. The Broncos as a team may have been down-and-outers through the first 13 seasons, but they had some excellent players. They just didn’t have enough of them.
The book also reminded the football world that Little somehow had not yet been elected into the Hall of Fame – and sparked momentum for his eventual induction four years later. There were two pieces of statistical data that should have made Little a no-brainer selection soon after the mandatory five-year wait from his retirement following the 1975 season.
One, he was the 7th all-time leading rusher at the time of his retirement while the six ranked ahead of him – Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson, Joe Perry, Jim Taylor, Leroy Kelly and John Henry Johnson – were all elected into the Hall of Fame by 1994.
And two, in the six-season period from 1968 through '73, Little led all NFL players in both rushing and yards from scrimmage – rushing and receiving – with 6,940, or 1,157 yards per 14-game season.
Yet, by the time Little was eligible for the Hall, the NFL had expanded its season from 14 games to 16. Little’s numbers during the 14-game era didn’t seem as impressive next to what players were compiling in 16-game seasons. His remarkable career had fallen into a forgotten abyss.
His book in 2006 – 31 years after his retirement – re-ignited awareness and he started getting Hall of Fame consideration from the Seniors Committee in 2007 and 2008, only to not receive a nomination. One time, I was the one who broke the news he didn’t make it. He immediately vented his disappointment and I helped talk him through it. A bond between us formed. Finally in 2009, there was good news to share (this time Floyd received the news before I did, as it should be) as he and former Lions cornerback Dick LeBeau were the two senior nominees.
And so on the morning of August 7, 2010, I sat down as a Broncos beat reporter for The Denver Post with Floyd and his son for the Hall of Fame Parade breakfast in some makeshift cafeteria in Canton, Ohio. Floyd was so nervous he couldn’t eat. That night, he and his football career would live on forever in the Hall of Fame.
”It’s so surreal when you have grandkids,’’ Little said when asked if he had considered the magnitude of football immortality. (Read Mike Klis’ story on the day Floyd Little was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on August 7, 2010.)
In the 10 years since his induction, whenever Little and I talked, which was once or twice a year, he would always begin by saying, “Thanks for getting me in the Hall of Fame.” That was hyperbole, of course. I occasionally raised awareness by writing a story bestowing Floyd’s Hall of Fame virtues. But it was sports reporting colleague Jeff Legwold, who formally pitched Little’s case to the Hall of Fame voting committee, and Mackie, who started the Floyd campaign with the book, who were chiefly responsible for Little’s election. That is, besides Little’s many accomplishments.
Little was a Hall of Fame-caliber player, whether a voting bloc recognized it or not.
But Floyd was always so gracious. Uncommonly so.
“After he got into the Hall of Fame, he mailed me 44 thank you notes over a 44-day period,’’ Mackie said. “So I decided to do the same. Since I got the news about him being in hospice care, I’ve been sending him a card a day just to tell him how much I love and admire him and to thank him for being such a great friend.
“Floyd is the epitome of a role model and football hero. I picked a good one.”
Mackie wound up sending cards for 39 straight days (and started doubling up until he passed 44) and kept sending them.
'Strong but angry young man'
Befitting his larger-than-life persona, Floyd Douglas Little was born in 1942 on the Fourth of July, the grandest of America’s 365 days, in New Haven, Conn. Little was so extremely well-spoken in private and such a moving and eloquent public orator when the opportunity presented, it’s difficult to believe he struggled academically as a child.
“I remember being a strong but angry young man in school,’’ Little said in his Hall of Fame speech at Fawcett Stadium in Canton, Ohio on August 7, 2010. “After being kicked out of school, I reached an impasse in my life. … With the help of those who saw good in me, I was re-enrolled back in school with determination.”
Still, his grades weren’t good enough at Hillhouse High School to receive any scholarship offers. He attended Bordentown Military Academy, where for two years he flourished both in the classroom and on the football field. The result was 47 scholarship offers. Syracuse running back great Ernie Davis personally recruited Little. Not wanting to hurt Davis’ feelings, and wanting to get back to his dinner, Little committed to Syracuse.
In truth, Little was more interested in going to Army or Notre Dame but when he learned Davis had died in May 1963, he remembered he had given his word. Little chose Syracuse, where he was given the famed No. 44 previously worn by Jim Brown and Davis. (In the movie, "The Express" about Ernie Davis' life, it was none other than Chadwick Boseman, who later gained fame in Black Panther, who portrayed Little. Boseman died of cancer in August 2020 at age 43).
Little partnered with fullbacks Jim Nance in his sophomore year; Csonka as a junior and senior. All three became AFL-NFL greats.
With the Broncos, Little wasn’t just a great player. He was a highly popular player. Whenever the Broncos would bring back their alumni – whether for a Ring of Fame ceremony or reunion of some kind – and introduced them to the crowd before a game or at halftime, Little always got the loudest ovation.
Two games represented his popularity. One was “Floyd Little Day” in 1972 and the other was his final home game at Mile High Stadium in 1975.
From the mid-1960s to mid-1970s – a time when athletes didn’t draw multimillion-dollar contracts -- one of the more popular marketing promotions was for a team to give its star player his own day. Testimonies and gifts would be showered upon the guest of honor.
On October 29, 1972, the Broncos’ game against the Cleveland Browns was declared “Floyd Little Day” by team owner Gerald H. Phipps. While such celebrations were not uncommon for active players in Major League Baseball at the time, it was the first – and last – of its kind by the Broncos. It was Little’s rushing title with 1,133 yards in the 14-game season of 1971 that inspired the day in his honor.
Little got letters of proclamation from Governor John Love and Denver Mayor William McNichols. A Chevy Blazer was among his gifts.
Fittingly, Floyd Little Day turned out like so many other days in the honoree’s career -- he played extremely well, but the Broncos lost.
Little was that game’s top rusher with 79 yards on just 14 carries. His 5.6 yard average suggested Little should have got the ball more. Little also turned a short pass from quarterback Charley Johnson into a 19-yard touchdown, and he had a 23-yard punt return.
To this day, Little is the most versatile offensive player in Broncos history.
Yet, the Broncos lost to the Browns, 27-20. Inside the 2-minute warning, Little came through with a 25-yard run to the Cleveland 18 but Johnson was picked off with 1:12 remaining.
A fitting conclusion to Floyd Little Day? After nine seasons, all with the Broncos, Little was the NFL’s seventh-leading career rusher with 6,323 yards. He added another 2,418 yards on 215 receptions and 3,416 yards on punt and kickoff returns.
Little’s 12,157 all-purpose yards held as a Broncos record for 30 years, and remains second in team history to Rod Smith’s 12,488. But to reiterate Little’s versatility, Smith got 91 percent of his yards as a receiver; Little got 52 percent of his yards as a rusher.
Yet, in Little’s nine seasons, the Broncos’ average yearly record was 5-8-1. If it’s unfathomable to think any player on such dreary teams could be so popular, understand that prior to Little’s arrival, the Broncos’ average record was 4-10 through their first seven seasons from 1960-66.
“It was a time when the Broncos were going through those growing pains,’’ Thompson said.
As NBC brought AFL games to America’s households in the late-1960s, Little nearly single-handedly brought pride and relevance to Colorado’s major city near the Rocky Mountains.
Make no mistake, Little’s biggest disappointment was playing on so many losing teams. It used to bother him that two years after he retired, the Broncos with many of his former teammates played in their first Super Bowl. But Little felt like a champion when the Bronco fans carried him off the Mile High Stadium field following his final home game in 1975.
“That’s a memory that resonates with me,” Little said for the book, Mile High Magic. The 25 Greatest Moments in Denver Broncos History. “It’s still a little bit emotional.”
Little was going to retire after the 1974 season, but coach John Ralston asked him to stay on for one more year to continue mentoring a talented young running back named Otis Armstrong. Little agreed and began his final season content with returning kickoffs. Through the first four games, he had just 15 carries for 53 yards.
“My mind was winding down,” he said. “I wanted to be a guy that motivated the club and inspired my teammates, as a captain. Lo and behold, four games into the season, Otis goes down.”
Armstrong suffered a season-ending knee injury in game 4 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The next week, game 5 against the Cleveland Browns, Little had 6 carries for minus-2 yards.
“It took me a couple games to get back in playing condition,” Little said. “It took a couple games because I had mentally checked out.”
But then Little got in a nice running groove over the next six games, rushing for 318 yards on 4.1 yards per carry. Once again, the Broncos were a disappointing 5-7 entering their final home game of the season.
Everyone knew it would be Little’s last game in front of the great Broncos fans. Broncomania was still a year or two off. But there was long-held love and gratitude for Little.
He rushed for 56 yards against the Eagles. He caught a screen pass from Steve Ramsey and took it for a 66-yard touchdown to break a 10-10 tie late in the third quarter. The 33-year-old Little was running like he was 23.
“It was emotion,” Little said. “The emotions really took over. One of the greatest things about that game was (Eagles linebacker) Bill Bergey and the big, tall wide receiver -- Harold Carmichael -- and these guys, who I didn’t really know, came over to me and said, ‘We’re going to miss you. You’ve been a helluva player and helluva ambassador. We wish you all the best.’ It was incredible for me.”
As the clock ticked down to 20 seconds, Little broke down and wept on the sidelines.
“I was just a mess,” Little said. “It was all over. And then the fans picked me up and carried me off. My teammates had already run off to the locker room. The fans came down and swarmed me. They hoisted me up, and carried me off. It was incredible.”
After he had showered and dressed, Little was among the last to leave the locker room. As he got outside, quarterback Charley Johnson, who was hurt and couldn’t play, was wearing a chauffeur outfit, standing outside a stretch limousine, waiting on his customer.
“Unfortunately it was Charley’s last game, too,” Little said. “And he didn’t have that opportunity to have a proper sendoff. I hate that because he was the best quarterback I ever played with. But the way he was involved in helping me with my last game … it was a memorable moment.”
The Broncos retired Little’s No. 44 and inducted him into their Ring of Fame in their inaugural class of 1984. After a much too long wait, Little was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010.
After the Broncos on the strength of their season-best running game defeated the Miami Dolphins, 20-13 on Nov. 22, head coach Vic Fangio awarded one of the game balls to Little.
It had been revealed in May that Little was battling Neuroendocrine Tumors (NET), a rare cell cancer. The cancer had metastasized, meaning it had spread through his body.
“It took me by surprise when I heard and I haven’t gotten over since,’’ Thompson said.
Little sought treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, but on the morning of the Broncos-Dolphins game, Little’s wife DeBorah confirmed on her Facebook page that the treatment had been discontinued and her husband had been in hospice care since Nov. 6.
Broncos public relations chief Patrick Smyth arranged to have Little’s game ball signed by Elway, Fangio and running backs Phillip Lindsay and Melvin Gordon – who combined for 166 of the team’s 189 rushing yards against the Dolphins – then had it delivered overnight to Little’s home in Henderson.
“It’s heartbreaking,’’ Mackie said. “You think that your heroes are going to live forever. And someone like Floyd who is so beloved by so many fans and people and associates. Syracuse, where he grew up in Connecticut, even around me, Bordentown Institute where he went to prep school, people remember him.
“I’m just one of many fans who looked up to him as a kid and he’s one of these rare people where when you finally do meet your idols, they’re even a better person than you thought they were.’’
To finish up his Hall of Fame enshrinement speech that August night in 2010 on a stage in Canton, Ohio, Little borrowed some profound words.
“The great writer James Baldwin said, ‘Naked I came into this world and naked I shall leave,’’’ Little said. “We are bound to leave everything we accomplished in this lifetime behind, passing it on. So leave a legacy that you and your family can be proud.’
“I’ve given you the best that I’ve got.”
Little was preceded in death by his mom and dad and two brothers, Charles and Frederick and one sister, Priscilla. Among his survivors are his wife DeBorah; sisters Betty and Rosalie; son Marc; daughters Christy and Kyra; several grandchildren and Broncos fans everywhere.
“You won’t find anybody better,’’ Thompson said. “As a friend, as a teammate, you wouldn’t find anyone better. I looked up to him and respected him and he was a great teammate. I wouldn’t change a day I had with him.”
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