The Franchise - An Appreciation Of Floyd Little - NFL Hall Of Famer

This article is part of the Broncos Annual 2010 that can be purchased here, or at any book store/convenience store in the Denver area.  I felt, with Little going into the Hall of Fame tonight, I would give you guys a sneak peek into one of my favorite articles in the whole magazine, not because I wrote it, but because many MHR folks were involved.  For that reason, this article will remain at the top of MHR until tomorrow morning - a Training Camp practice means little when compared to the man that single handedly kept the the Broncos 'A Mile High'.  Tonight, Floyd Little gets his due, at the Hall of Fame, and on this Broncos site.  He's that important.  I hope you enjoy the article, and enjoy tonight's induction of THE Broncos Hall of Famer - Floyd Little, The Franchise..  -Guru

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"I have a very simple test that I apply on Hall of Fame voting: Can you write the history of the game without the man? If you can't, then you need to look at him very, very closely." - Hall of Fame Seniors Committee Member

Winning.  It is what all athletes aspire for.  That is why they play the game, the good ones at least.  Sometimes, however, no matter how hard you try, no matter how talented you are, winning evades you.  All too regularly, a player's impact on the game is too closely tied to winning.  Such was the case for Broncos RB Floyd Little.  Perhaps the greatest player in Broncos history not named Elway, Little was keeping the Broncos relevant when there were few reasons for fans to pay attention.  No matter how old you are, no matter how long you have been a fan of the Broncos, you have much to thank Little for.  Nicknamed ‘The Franchise', Little's impact on both a football team and a region stretch off the field as much as on it.  In fact, football in Denver may have never become what it is today without the help of Floyd Little.

To get a feel for what Little meant to the Broncos, one has to go back to before Little joined the team.   The first 6 years in Broncos history were not much to be proud of.  From 1960-66, the Broncos were just 26-69-3.  Even worse, none of the players the Broncos selected early in those drafts signed with the team - Hall of Famers Dick Butkus and Merlin Olsen were among Broncos selections that decided to sign with NFL teams instead of the upstart AFL.  The string of bad luck, and losing, had the Broncos on the verge of relocating in 1967 until Floyd Little, the Broncos #1 selection in the 1967 Draft, signed with the team.  It changed football in Denver forever.  Little's arrival was instrumental in getting a measure passed to expand Mile High Stadium and started a string of sell-outs that continues today.  Denver was now Broncos Country, and much of it was thanks to Floyd Little.

Little's impact was felt on the field as well.  Despite little talent around him, Little dominated the AFL - and NFL - during his career.   

~~~

"When you played the Broncos you played Floyd Little. He was the Broncos. You didn't worry about the passing game. You didn't worry about anything else - except stopping Floyd Little. That's all we ever tried to do."   - Nick Bouniconti, LB - New England Patriots/Miami Dolphins('62-'76)

~~~

To get a sense of what Little became as a Pro, one must first look at Little as a running back at Syracuse.  The Orangemen were churning out running-backs, Hall of Fame running backs, yearly.  From 1956-1966, Syracuse had Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, Floyd Little and Larry Csonka.  Brown, of course, is considered by many as the greatest running back of all time.  Davis was just as highly touted as Brown coming out of college but saw his life cut short by leukemia before ever getting a chance to play in the NFL.  As for Little and Csonka, the spent many of the same years at Syracuse, splitting carries.  That didn't stop Little from putting his name all over the Syracuse record books.

Even today, over 40 years after leaving Syracuse, Little still is at or near the top of several Orangemen records.  He stands 5th All-Time in rushing yards(2,704), 8th in carries(504), 6th in yards per carry(5.37), 3rd in yards per game(90.1), and is still 2nd All-Time in touchdowns with 35. 

Little was a 3-time All-American while at SU and set a Gator Bowl record for most yards rushing with 216 against Tennessee in 1966.  This led to Little being enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983.

For what Little was able to accomplish as a Denver Broncos running back, I could lay out the stats or wax poetic about how truly great he was playing one a bad football team.  For me, however, this wouldn't be completely the truth.  I never saw Little play and I would be rehashing the thoughts of others, or turning the stats into a story.  Effective, but I doubt it would give Little the respect he has earned and deserves as a soon-to-be Hall of Famer.  I wanted to get the story of Little from the people that might love him the most - the Denver Broncos fans that grew up watching him play.  There is a deep love for the Denver Broncos, a love that got you to pick up this magazine.  That love started for many with the arrival of Floyd Little, and it is the fans that planted those seeds that can explain Little the best, at least in my mind.

Humor me, if you will, as we take a walk down memory lane with some of the ‘Veteran' fans in Broncos Country as they remember the playing days of one of the true great in Denver Broncos and NFL/AFL history - Floyd Little. Mixed in will be some thoughts of other Hall of Fame players, on the career of Floyd Little.

Below is just a sample of the letters and memories I received regarding Little from fans who saw ‘The Franchise' play.

~~~

I have written many times on the contribution of Floyd Little to the Denver Broncos. I have written about his versatility. He was elusive but also ran with power. He could catch the ball and run perhaps better than any who played the game and he played on special teams until the day he retired.

But Floyd was more than that.

To really understand the contribution of Floyd Little one has to understand the psyche of the City of Denver and the entire front range in the 60's. We were thought of by the rest of the country as hicks. Denver was characterized  as a dusty cow town and all the residents were unrefined cowboys. Our football team was laughed at. To this day I still wince at the name "Denver Donkeys". But Denver and the Rocky Mountains grew to love the Broncos. They were tough. They were men of character. They did not quit. Yes, we lost a lot of games, but we fought hard in every one. One of the first times an NFL team played an AFL team was Detroit against the Broncos in pre-season. Alex Karras was an all-pro lineman for Detroit and before the game he stated that if Detroit lost to Denver he would walk back to Detroit. We kicked their ass and in Denver you would have thought we won the Superbowl which wouldn't even be thought of for almost a decade.

The Broncos may not have been a very good team, but they were our team and we loved them. Things changed when Floyd Little signed with the Broncos. He gave us a threat we had never had and a legitimacy we had lacked.

Yes, Floyd was exciting. But he was more than that. He gave validation and credibility to an entire region of the country. People were a little more proud to be from Colorado. Arrogant linemen didn't threaten to walk back to Detroit. Talk around the water cooler all through the region turned to the Broncos. All of the Orange Madness and Bronco Fever came slightly later but it was born with the presence of Floyd Little.

Floyd Little was indeed a great player and deserving of the Hall Of Fame, but really, he was more than that.

Don F., Alaska

~~~

"Floyd should have been in the Hall of Fame a long time ago. It's shocking he is not in there. Really, why isn't he in, because he didn't win any championships?  That's not his fault. He carried that team. Floyd was a triple threat and a consensus Pro Bowler. I think he opened the doors for a lot of smaller guys and teams looking for multi-dimensional players like him. Floyd was a trailblazer, a really special player."  - Mel Blount, DB - Pittsburgh Steelers('70-'83)

~~~

In 1972, Floyd was already looking at the end of his career in football and planning for the next step in his life. He enrolled in a master's degree program in management at the University of Denver offered by the law school (Master of Science in Judicial Administration or MSJA). Some sportscasters at the time said he was a law student. He was not. It was a management program like a masters in business administration (MBA), but geared to manage legal systems like courts, law firms, or government legal offices. He was in one of my classes. He was funny, studious, and dedicated. In fact, one class met on Monday and Wednesday nights, but Denver was scheduled to play its first Monday night football game against the Oakland Raiders. As conscientious as he was, Floyd did not want to miss class, but he had to play a game the same night. So, he took the entire class to the game. And it was a great game, with the underdog Denver tying the heavily favored Raiders before a national audience. Floyd had a lot to do with that result, as he always did.

The following Spring, our class had a picnic and we chose up sides to play softball. Floyd came and played softball with us. I watched him hit what should have been a single even for good athletes, but he had rounded first base and was on his way to second before anyone realized it. Standing on the first baseline and watching him go by me elicited an expletive like "Holy *#+*". When I was in college, I ran quarter-mile hurdles and I have been around world class sprinters. But Floyd still got my attention. He was just super quick and explosive. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be a linebacker or defensive back trying to stop him. Watching him on the football field, you could see him go through an opening before it closed even if it was open for only a split second.

Floyd Little was old reliable. Looking at him, you were amazed that he could run at all with those bow legs, but run he could. He could also catch and throw. If you looked at his hands, they are extensively scarred. He could tell you when, how, and who did it for each scar, e.g., an opposing player stepped on his hand while he was down after a play. I have heard a few players referred to as carrying their team on their backs. Well, Floyd Little not only carried the Broncos on his back, he carried the entire city and suburbs of Denver on his back.

For us Denver fans back then, Denver was not a bad team. It was just a player or two away from being a really good team. It was always "wait until next year." Unfortunately, the players Denver needed did not come until a few years after Floyd retired. My son grew up during the John Elway years and had an Elway shirt that he wore on game days. Well, Floyd Little was to me what John Elway was to my son. Indeed, if John Elway had Floyd Little in his prime, he would have won at least three more Super Bowls. It just illustrates the fact that football is a team sport and individual talent alone is not enough to have a championship team or even great individual statistics.

Floyd Little is a great story. In this era of players seeking to pad their personal statistics and break individual records, its hard to remember the players that put their team first. Floyd Little did and he still excelled..

Bill O.,
Golden, CO.

~~~

"I do know this: there are people that are competitors that earn the right to go into the Hall of Fame. Then there are people that ride in on the laurels of others. Floyd Little earned every yard he ever gained in the NFL."  Larry Csonka, RB - Miami Dolphins('68-'74, '79)

~~~

Before Floyd there was a "hope" of somehow pulling out a victory. In 1966 when I first became a fan Willie Brown, a CB who was elected into the Hall of Fame as an Oakland Raider was Denver's best player. Unfortunately, Willie was hobbled with a bad ankle.

If I remember right Lionel Taylor was already gone and the QB situation was "Who throws to What...Where?". In other words I basically have little memory of any offense from that team to go with the little hope. I remember at the end of the season hoping Ray Malavasi would continue as HC (he did take the Rams to a SB I believe in 1980). I kept hearing about the Broncos moving somewhere else and although I did not want to see it, I was not too sad about it because the team was lousy and did not seem to be getting any better.

When Floyd Little was drafted and signed with Denver, along with Tom Beer and the other rookies there was a giddy feeling in me. I saw some highlights of Floyd in college and hoped that he would be able to get room behind Denver's porous OL. By the end of the season I was happy and excited and looking forward to 1968. Something that was lacking before Floyd was drafted. Any fan who watched the games back then (I only saw a couple myself in 1967) knew that the rookie Floyd Little was special whenever he got the ball. Floyd quickly became the face and persona of the franchise because of his abilities, personality and will to win. So many times I saw him hit in the backfield and covered my eyes thinking he would be killed only to look up and see a short gain or better yet, a nice, sweet long gain.

Floyd's career is best ingrained in my head when, in his last home game against Philadelphia he WILLED a touchdown on a quick pass. He was hit so many times I thought there was no way on God's green Earth Floyd could possibly score. He did score out of sheer will and right there Floyd was ingrained in my memory forever.

Ed Trivett
Forgan, OK

~~~

"I've said for years that Floyd deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. There's no question in my mind that he's one of the game's greatest players. Just ask anyone who ever played with Floyd. They'll tell you he was a pro's pro and a true legend who probably did more for the team he played for, the Denver Broncos, than any single player did for his own team." - Jim Brown, RB - Cleveland Browns('57-'65) 

~~~

I was pretty little at the time of his arrival in Denver. He clearly was the most exciting player I had ever seen. Floyd, throughout his career in Denver, was not really blessed with the greatest talent around him. But what a joy it was to watch him play. His work ethic seemed incredible looking back on him. He had to fight so hard for every opening he got it seemed. And it was so nice to watch. 

Mark Jones

~~~

"We cherish the moments that you gave us at Denver as a member of the Broncos. A leading member of the community and, of course, a great football player, you probably played a greater role than anyone in the history of the Denver Broncos franchise. Today they average 74,000 fans a game. That wasn't the case before you got there Floyd. -- Pete Rozelle, Former NFL Commissioner('60-'89), in 1983

~~~

I was in my early twenties when Lou Saban took over the Broncos.  I remember Cookie Gilcrest, Frank Trapuca, Gene Mingo and all of the early legends.  Little was the young gun out of Syracuse. The thing about that time period was that long before the Broncos were John Elway's team, they were Floyd Little's team.  If Floyd was in the game we always thought we had a chance.  Somehow Floyd would make something happen that would spark the team.  As fans we all felt we could count on him and trusted him to save the day.  It was crazy what we projected on that man.

At some point the pressure of carrying the team began to take its toll on Floyd.  I remember after one devastating loss Floyd announced he was through, wasn't going to play another game.  Both the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post ran the story.  I felt lost. I couldn't quite believe what I was reading and hearing.  I'm sure the entire city felt that way.  Then came the collective sigh of relief when Floyd recanted the remarks.  It was during this time period that the seeds for mile high magic were born.  We weren't winning many games, but we sure as hell weren't quitting either.   What Floyd brought to this fan base was you might kick the crap out of us, but we're never going to lay down for you. 

Mike, Greeley, CO

~~~

"I consider Floyd one of the greatest backs of our era. He was a high impact guy - the same caliber of running back as Walter Payton. He was just an outstanding back.  We only played Denver a few times, but I remember Floyd as a tough, tough back. He was a real challenge to contain and played much bigger than he was. Floyd wasn't a big guy in stature, but he displayed real power and quickness - extremely tough to tackle - Carl Eller, DL - Minnesota Vikings('64-'79)

~~~

I was going to graduate school at the University of Denver in 1966-67 when Floyd Little was drafted.  I had been a Bronco fan beginning in 1963 since we had no local professional teams in Seattle.  I'm still a Bronco fan even though I live in Seattle.  The Broncos had been terrible for years but the drafting of Little brought some life and hope to Bronco fans.  In the summer of 1967 the Broncos couldn't even get into Bears' Stadium to play the Detroit Lions because there was a minor league team scheduled for a baseball game that week.  The Broncos played in the old concrete stadium at the University of Denver.  It hadn't been used for football for years.  I wondered at the time where the players had space to dress.  In any case, the Broncos won the game and became the first AFL team to beat an NFL team. Despite the fact that it was "just" a preseason game everyone there had realized how important it was.  It was amazing that there were only about 4-5 thousand of us there to watch.  I sat behind the Lions' bench and heard the player cat calls against the Broncos.  Alex Karras kept yelling about how bad the Broncos were and finally got tossed from the game for fighting.  Floyd Little ran around and over Karras and the other Lions for the whole game.  I knew he was going to be a great addition to the Broncos and, eventually, the Hall of Fame.

I had a chance to speak with Floyd about his career and that game for a few minutes at the intermission of a play in Seattle just a week before the NFL draft.  He remembered the game and was able to add several inside observations that I hadn't known.  He was and is a gentlemen with lots of class.  I'm excited about his induction to the Hall.

"For as long as I can remember, Floyd was the Denver Broncos.  He was the team's only star for years and years. Seriously, where would Denver be today without him? Offensively, he was the only guy you worried about because there was nothing he couldn't do. He was a complete player. Everyone respected Floyd in a big way. - John Hannah, OL - New England Patriots('73-'85)

Wayne Ehlers, Seattle, Wa.

~~~

I'm 46, so I was a little kid when watching Floyd play.  My folks had been season ticket holders from 61-63, then thought they'd pick them back up again when I got old enough to enjoy going to games.  By then the waiting list had started and TV coverage was pretty good, so that plan fell by the wayside.  We watched every game (well, we just listened on the radio for exhibition games while camping) as long as I can remember.

A few things really stick out to me.  First, Little seemed like one of the toughest guys on the field in every game.  He would usually get lots of carries and a few catches and get pounded by defenders who were much bigger than him.  It was very rare, though, to see him miss a play or appear to be hurt in any way.  Second, in the '72 season the Broncos beat the Raiders for the first time in a very long time.  Little had not had a very good game, but he clearly said it was more important that the team get a big win than that he have a big game.  That was the first time I remember everybody at school talking about the Bronco game on Monday morning.  Third, in '75 a friend found out where Little lived so we rode our bikes by his house pretty often.  One time we saw him in the yard and he gave us a friendly wave.  Being eleven, we were too intimidated to approach him.

Gregg, Denver, CO

~~~

"He was kind of a one-man show there in Denver. Even though he was the star halfback, he returned kicks too. He was always on the field. - Don Maynard, Wide Receiver - New York Jets('60-'72)

~~~

The thing I remember most about Floyd Little is that he was a relentless runner. He would do the most amazing things. I remember one time against the Chargers in San Diego, he ran into a swarm of tacklers and it the camera man thought he was being pushed back, and Floyd squirted out the other side and was ten yards down the field before the camera man realized it. He was always doing things that would wow and amaze the fans.

Although the Broncos never realized a winning season until after Floyd retired, he gave us excitement and a reason to cheer. I became a big fan because of Floyd Little, and will never forget the parting gift he gave us at his final game at Mile High Stadium - a long touchdown run. We all felt it was his personal gift to us for the support we gave him while he was here, and as we found out later, it really was...

Robert G. - Denver, CO

~~~

"As a rookie with the Broncos in 1983 it didn't take me long to learn about Floyd Little and his tremendous impact on the Broncos organization. After all, Floyd retired as the 7th all-time rusher in NFL history. More than that he was the Broncos first superstar, a 5-time Pro Bowler, a great humanitarian who immersed himself in charities on local and national levels, and the main reason the team was still called the ‘Denver Broncos,' not the ‘Birmingham Broncos' or the ‘Chicago Broncos.'

"As the only Denver Bronco to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I am proud to be the first. But there are a lot of Broncos who deserve to be immortalized in Canton. Floyd Little leads that list and is long overdue.

"In my opinion, Floyd Little is the greatest Bronco of us all." - Former Broncos QB and Hall of Famer John Elway('83-'98)

~~~

I saved the best for last.  John Elway considered by many to be the greatest quarterback to ever play in the NFL call Floyd Little the Best of the Broncos.  That is not small statement, and it should speak volumes to a generation of Broncos fans that fell in love with the Orange and Blue because of #7.  I could be included in that group.  We should, however, remember to look further into Broncos History, look past 1983, and learn about the Legends that helped set the foundation for John Elway and the love-affair between team and region unrivaled in Professional Sports. 

Floyd Little is finally getting his due, entering the Hall of Fame in Canton, OH.  There are others, and they too deserve the recognition.  Don't forget about them, don't stop talking about them, and do your part, however big or small, to make sure those Broncos Greats get to where they belong  - right beside Floyd Little.


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