44 on the Front 44 on the Back

On the eve of his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction, Floyd Little, the Broncos’ first true superstar, returns to Denver

Floyd Little calls to say he’s running late for our interview. In a brief moment of silliness, I picture No. 44 exiting Denver International Airport in an old-school orange Denver Broncos uniform, his bowed legs churning, weaving and speeding past a steady stream of cars on the interstate all the way to City Park Golf Course.

Instead, Little pulls up in a white rental car. He doesn’t need a GPS for directions to City Park. During his playing days with the Denver Broncos Little lived in a home at the corner of Montview Boulevard and Monaco Parkway, three miles from the golf course he played regularly during his many years in the Mile High City.

“When I came to Denver (in 1967) my two best friends were Billy Thompson— ‘B.T.’ still is my best friend—and Nemiah Wilson,” Little says. “We were a threesome. I used to bring them over to City Park and beat their asses—because they had rental clubs and I had my old Burkes.
“They were old clubs, but they were mine.”

With that, Little flashes a huge smile. If you know Floyd Little, you know the smile. It’s a three-time collegiate All-American smile. It’s an All-Pro smile. A Broncos Ring of Fame smile. A Colorado Sports Hall of Fame smile.
And at long last, a Pro Football Hall of Fame smile.

The No. 44 was symbolic throughout Little’s playing career. It was fitting that the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s selection committee announced its Class of 2010 at a Miami hotel on Feb. 6—one day before the 44th Super Bowl was played.
It was a gut-wrenching time during the voting process for Little, who waited at the hotel along with his wife, DeBorah and other family members. “I was nervous because they say it takes about five minutes for the senior committee to make its decision,” Little says. “It took about an hour. I heard they took about 34 minutes (to decide) on me.

“They announced Dick LeBeau’s name first. When they did, my heart went into my throat because they hesitated . . . and then they said my name. I don’t know if it was the sensation of the moment or the denial for so many years. It all hit me in a rush. I just lay on the floor. It was just overwhelming.

“To me, the timing was just right. My son (Marc) turns 44 this year. There were 44 Hall of Fame voters. I wore the number 44 . . . So I had been preparing my speech—because I was going to need to use it. That was my attitude.”

Little promised that if he ever were voted into the Hall of Fame, his only son would present him. Marc Little, who wrote the first letter to the Hall of Fame committee advocating his father’s inclusion, was shot in the leg during a robbery attempt in 1987. The leg had to be amputated. Proudly, he will present his father to the Fawcett Stadium audience at the induction ceremonies.

As the waitress takes Little’s lunch order, my mind flashes back to November 28, 1993. On that day, the Broncos played the Seahawks in Seattle, where until last year Little owned a Ford dealership.

As I waited in the hotel lobby for my ride to the Kingdome, a man I didn’t recognize walked up and said, “Hey baby, have a good game today!” Baffled, I offered a humble “OK.” I turned to a colleague and asked, “When did people start wishing reporters good luck?”

“That’s Floyd Little,” the colleague said. “He thinks you’re one of the Broncos’ players.”

Prior to that unexpected encounter, all I knew about Little came from the backs of football cards. Little had only one 1,000-yard season (1,133 yards in 1971). He finished his career with 6,323 yards rushing, which ranked seventh all-time—and only slightly longer than the yardage from the white tees at City Park, the ones from which Little says he would now play to an 18 handicap.

“It’s been well over 10 years since I’ve played here,” Little says. “But I’ve played here so many times, been on the driving range so many times. I remember one hole where the birds would attack. The crows would come get you . . .”
       
Always the prankster, Little joked that he enjoys shooting in the low 60s “because if it gets any hotter, I don’t play.”
         
The cards showed that Little was born on July 4, 1942, that he tied for the NFL lead in rushing touchdowns (12) in 1973 and finished his career with 54 touchdowns. He was named to five Pro Bowl teams.

What the football cards didn’t tell is how Little lifted the Broncos’ franchise on his muscular shoulders and carried it on sturdy legs for nine seasons. “Most people don’t remember that Floyd was returning punts and kickoffs and playing halfback,” says Thompson, Little’s former teammate, frequent golf partner and friend of 41 years. “If you stopped Floyd Little, you stopped the Broncos. He always had a target on his back.

“A lot of guys would have wanted out of Denver. Floyd never got his just due because he played here.”
No Broncos’ first-round draft choice had ever signed a contract to play with the team before Little, who was the sixth player selected overall in 1967. He became an instant gate attraction, and his connection with Broncos fans helped convince the franchise owners not to move the team to Birmingham, Alabama.

In his foreword to Little’s book, Tales from the Broncos’ Sideline, Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway cites Little’s signing as the start of “a love affair between the fans of Denver and the team’s new star, contributing to the expansion of Mile High Stadium and years of sold-out Broncomania. As a result, Floyd aptly earned the nickname, ‘The Franchise.’”

Little’s gregarious personality off the field offered the perfect contrast to the rugged, never-say-die disposition he displayed on it. By the time his professional career ended, Little accumulated 12,157 yards of total offense. And the Broncos steadily moved into the ranks of respectability.

“The only thing Floyd didn’t get was an opportunity to play in a Super Bowl,” Thompson says. “For me, that was the only thing I wanted for him—especially since he played so hard for so long. He retired in 1975, and we went to the Super Bowl in 1977.”

Listed at 5-feet-10 and barely 190 pounds, Little had to play big. And he did—most times like a defensive lineman masquerading in a running back’s body.

“I was stronger than a defensive lineman,” Little boasts, taking sips from a glass of chocolate milk before biting into an egg salad sandwich. “I used to bet my teammates $100 that they couldn’t hold me down for five seconds. I had no takers—not even (offensive lineman) Claudie Minor, and he weighed over 300 pounds.

“I didn’t run ‘angry’, but I had a mean streak. It didn’t come over me unless I was mad. Then I was like Popeye when he got some spinach—you know, when he had all he could stand until he couldn’t stand no more.
“All hell broke loose.”

At Syracuse Little followed a pair of legendary college running backs who also wore number 44—Jim Brown and Ernie Davis—and gained more yards (2,704 rushing, 4,947 total) than either of them. When we spoke before the release of the movie, The Express (based on the life of Davis) Brown says, “Floyd was probably the best of all of us in college. He was a great, great player.”

Little also learned how to play golf while at Syracuse. He worked at a Cadillac dealership and was given his first set of golf clubs—the dealership owner’s used set of Burkes. “I used to hang with him and his general manager at some of the country clubs in Syracuse. He said, ‘Start playing. You’re going to need to play this game one day,’” Little recalls. “That was 1964. I’ve been playing ever since.

“I would hit balls whenever I could. I’d play nine holes, play the par 3s . . . that’s how I learned to play golf.”
         
Now living in suburban Seattle, Little plays bogey golf at Tacoma’s North Shore Golf Course and Country Club. He’s a regular at Syracuse alumni tournaments, where he remembers playing with coach Ben Schwartzwalder.

“One hole, Ben got in a sand trap. You heard a ‘pop-pop-pop’ and nothing but sand came up . . . He was swinging and missing. Next thing you know, the ball comes out—he threw it. I said, ‘Man, he knows all the tricks. Maybe I can learn something from him.’”

Little received more formal—and Rules-conforming—training from Rich “Tombstone” Jackson, a former All-Pro defensive lineman who, like Little, is a member of the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame and Broncos Ring of Fame.

“Tombstone,” who was known for his vicious head-slap, is a former golf coach at Southern University. Every fall he joins Little, Thompson and Larry Brunson for a round of golf during the Broncos’ annual Alumni reunion weekend in Denver.
The competitiveness – and gamesmanship – never ceases among former teammates no matter where the golf is played.
“When the Broncos would play in Seattle, Floyd and I had a standing golf match,” Thompson says. “But I wouldn’t bring clubs because I didn’t think it was too cool to bring clubs on the plane with the team getting ready to play a football game.

“So Floyd would rent clubs for me, and you know he would rent the worst clubs he could find. One time he got me clubs that were so short that I asked, ‘Who are these for, Tattoo, man?’ – referring to the diminutive character on the TV show Fantasy Island.

During their playing days, Little, Thompson and Wilson would have a regular game at City Park. According to Little, he and Thompson have had only one argument during their long friendship. It occurred on Christmas Day at City Park.

Thompson claims it was “raining like cats and dogs, it should have been called off because of lightning and flooding” and that Little was losing. Little suggests the weather was  “nice” and that he was ahead—and profiting. “I used to take their money,” Little says. “I’d say, ‘You have to pay to learn.’”

And so it goes. “We’re on the green and it’s flooded. I can’t move my ball,” Thompson says. So he grabbed a wedge. “You can’t use a wedge on the green,” Little screamed. Thompson used his putter “and the rooster tail goes all the way across,” he says. “I say, ‘No way. That’s not fair.’”

But to Little’s ‘pay to learn’ way of thinking, it was very fair. “Man, we argued,” Little says. “Of course, he 4- or 5-putted and lost about $35. I don’t think he’s ever forgiven me. And now Billy plays in the 70s.”

And according to Thompson, Little “has never won again. He had the experience on me because I was a rookie. But now, I dominate him.”

“I am a great putter,” Little says.

Little’s pending enshrinement has prompted invitations “to so many outings now that I’ve had to cut down the appearances,” Little says. “My schedule has been incredible—my wife (DeBorah) couldn’t handle it any more. The scheduling of events, golf, appearances, autograph signings . . . the flood gates have opened. It’s been unbelievable. And I can’t do them all.” Little already has played in charity tournaments for his fellow Hall of Fame classmate, Emmitt Smith, and his former Syracuse teammate (and current New York Giants head football coach) Tom Coughlin.

It’s a problem Little waited a long time to have, so he’s not complaining. The August 7 enshrinement will mark the end of a long journey to football immortality that began in New Haven, Conn., where he came off the bench as an unknown sophomore to score four touchdowns in his first game for Hillhouse High School. 

“I haven’t sat the bench since,” Little says. “And never let anyone do what you do, because they might do it better.”
Family, friends, fans, teammates and opposing players will tell you than in his day, no one did it for the Broncos better than Floyd Douglas Little. His greatness will be validated with a bronze bust on display in Canton.

Hopefully, that bronze bust will feature Little’s all-too-familiar smile.

“This is an honor that should be enjoyed by that person while he’s alive, so his family and fans can enjoy and appreciate it,” Little says, beaming. “It’s no good for me if I’m not here.”

RUNNING MATE

Denver Post Broncos beat reporter Jeff Legwold says he is blessed with insomnia. That explains why he spent countless hours doing research to enhance his presentation for Floyd Little to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s senior selection committee.

“Everybody understood it was (Little’s) one chance,” Legwold says. “The list of players for the senior committee to consider gets bigger every year, so it’s real difficult.” For the first time in the 30 years he had waited just to receive a nomination, Little finally was up for discussion amongst the selection committee.

“I always was intrigued by him from a distance,” Legwold says. “When the Hall of Fame asked me to represent Denver I decided to take a closer look. So I got tape from people I knew in television, the Broncos and guys in the league . . . then I put a DVD together.”

Legwold spent hours viewing footage of a running back who often made the most out of bad situations. Legwold also analyzed play-by-play statistical sheets from all 117 games Little played in his professional career.

“Of the plays I saw, there was first contact behind the line of scrimmage 25-30 percent of the time,” Legwold says. “And that was one of the things being held against Floyd, that he averaged only 3.9 yards-per-carry for his career. Well, all the all-time leaders ahead of Floyd when he retired had at least one Hall of Fame lineman blocking for them. Some had two—and one had three.

“So they hold 36 inches against Floyd. If he had lined up behind two Hall of Fame linemen, his average wouldn’t have been 3.9.”

So how does it feel to help Floyd Little get into the Hall of Fame? “I didn’t get Floyd Little into the Hall of Fame,” Legwold insists. “Floyd Little got himself into the Hall of Fame. I just took the time to read the story.”


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