When Floyd Little was a child, he would tie his legs together with belts. His bowed legs were a source for adolescent teasing, so out of necessity it became a bedtime habit, as routine as putting on his pajamas or brushing his teeth.
“I had belts around my thighs, belts around my knees, belts around my calves so I could wake up one day and my legs would be straight,” Little said. “I hated being bowlegged.”
Little never grew out of his condition but did over the years grow to appreciate his legs. In fact, he used them to succeed two legendary running backs at Syracuse, bring credibility to – and help save — a struggling professional football franchise, and carve a Hall of Fame career for himself.
Little died Friday at the age of 78 after battling cancer since May and being placed in hospice care in November. He is survived by his wife DeBorah and three children: Marc Little, Kyra Little DaCosta and Christy Little Jones.
“Floyd Little was not only a Hall of Fame running back, he was a Hall of Fame person. Faith, family and football were the pillars of his life,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in statement. “I was so fortunate to know Floyd and witnessed first-hand the impact he had on others. Whenever he represented the Broncos at the annual NFL Draft, others immediately sought to greet him and his genuine excitement of being with his fellow Legends and his pride and passion for the Broncos was unmistakable.”
Pro Football Hall of Fame president and COE David Baker announced that the Hall of Fame flag in Canton will be flown at half-staff in Floyd’s memory.
Growing up in the projects of New Haven, Connecticut, Little had little reason to believe he could reach the heights he eventually did. Besides the bowed legs, he wasn’t exceptionally tall for an athlete, or fast or strong. In the classroom he struggled, too.
In his Pro Football Hall of Fame speech at his induction in 2010, he talked about how “the road was not always so easy and clear,” how it led to him becoming an “angry young man” who used it to his detriment, eventually getting kicked out of Hillhouse High School in New Haven.
He was at a crossroads in his life, but with the help of “those who saw good in me,” he enrolled at Bordentown (New Jersey) Military Institute, at the behest of BMI headmaster Dr. Harold Morrison Smith, who wanted to integrate the predominantly all-white private military prep school. Little thrived at BMI, where as a senior he became class president and the most coveted halfback recruit in the nation.
In all, he had 47 scholarship offers, including from all the top schools at the time, but three interested him most: Notre Dame, Army and Syracuse.
In 1963, the Irish were selling him on an ascending football program and their Heisman candidate (and eventual winner), quarterback John Huarte. West Point sent in their biggest gun, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who assured him he could become the first African-American to ascend to the rank of general by committing to the service academy.
Syracuse? The Orangemen had an ace of their own: Ernie Davis, who in 1961 became the first African-American player to win the Heisman. Unlike MacArthur, who met with Little in a suite at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, Davis visited Little at his third-floor apartment in the projects of New Haven.
“He was well-dressed, he was very articulate, and he was sharp,” Little recalled in a 2008 interview. “He sat on the couch between my mom and my sister, said, ‘What’s up?’ and put his arms around them. He had just won the Heisman, just signed the contract with Cleveland, and just signed a contract with Pepsi. And there he was, at my house in the ghetto of New Haven, Connecticut, talking to me about going to Syracuse and what it did for him. All my mom and my sisters could say is that if they could produce someone like that, then you have no alternative as to where you ought to go.”
The two ended up going to dinner where Davis made his pitch in the bathroom of the restaurant. By the time they were finished, there was little doubt where the much sought-after halfback was headed and Little gave his promise to Davis of his intent to attend Syracuse.
Davis died from Leukemia at age 23, three months after his visit with Little, who would be played by the late actor Chadwick Boseman in “The Express”, a movie about Davis’ short but impactful life. Little kept his promise and signed with Syracuse.
Little followed in the Syracuse running lanes of Jim Brown and Davis before him, even wearing the famed No 44 jersey both of those legendary Orangemen adorned. And he did no disservice to it. Over a three-year stretch (1964-’66), he finished fifth in the Heisman race twice and was an All-American three times. Hs 2,704 career rushing yards at Syracuse surpassed both Brown and Davis and still stands as the sixth-most all-time at the school.
In the 1967 NFL Draft – the first common draft to include the AFL — Denver selected Little sixth overall. Two years earlier, the Broncos nearly left Denver, but a local ownership group stepped in to keep the team in the Mile High City. Little — the first rookie to ever become a captain of an NFL team and who was nicknamed “The Franchise” — became the Broncos’ first real superstar. His success on the field, along with his willingness to drum up financial support to expand the team’s stadium to meet NFL standards, was instrumental in keeping the team in Denver.
“He fit right in with those other two backs from Syracuse,” said Gil Brandt, who was the Dallas Cowboys’ director of player personnel during Little’s time in Denver. “He didn’t get the notoriety Jim Brown and Ernie Davis did (in the NFL) because he played at Denver. He was a beacon of light on some very poor teams.”
In his nine-year career with the Broncos that ended in 1975 — two years before Denver reached its first Super Bowl — Little played on only two winning teams and never sniffed the playoffs. It wasn’t for a lack of effort on his part.
He made five Pro Bowl appearances and rushed for 6,323 yards in his career, which at the time of his retirement ranked No. 7 on the NFL’s all-time list. He was one of the league’s most versatile players, as adept at kickoff returns and receiving as he was at running the ball.
The Broncos used him as an inside runner, despite being only 195 pounds. But his strong leg drive and balance were too much for defenders to handle.
“He was short in stature, he wasn’t the fastest nor the strongest, but his vision and balance were superior,” Brandt said.
Ironically, Little often credited his bowed legs for being able to keep his balance after being hit. He said he would break tackles because his wide stance made it difficult for defenders to wrap up and get both arms around his legs.
He overcame much in his 78 years, often turning negatives into positives. His early struggles in school didn’t stop him from earning a law degree from the University of Denver in 1975 or become a successful businessman. And when he received the bad news from his oncologist in last May, he vowed to beat the cancer in his body; in June it looked as if he was winning the race, but it caught him from behind in the same month he saw his friend, Joe Biden (they attended Syracuse at the same time) win the presidency.
“Because of those that encouraged me in those early years, I am here today,” Little said in his Hall of Fame speech a decade ago. “So, I want to encourage you, every student, every athlete, every person who will hear my voice, don’t listen to the naysayer. I had plenty of those. Don’t listen to those that will judge you for your rough edges. Don’t focus on your weakness so you won’t become a victim. Find the goodness in you that says, Yes, I can be a good student. Yes, I can be a good son and daughter. Yes, I can be a positive role model. Yes, I can, because the good in you is better than the worst in most. The choice is yours. Be the best that you can be.”
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