Last week, Floyd was recognized by the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Allstate insurance with a plaque that will forever hang at James Hillhouse High School in New Haven, Connecticut where Floyd played High School ball. (More on that here.) It was because of this honor that I got the opportunity to interview Floyd over the phone.
Rather than get into the same old stuff that seemingly everyone asked him, I tried to go a little deeper and get into the minutiae of his playing days in Denver. I could have talked to Floyd about the old days of the Broncos for hours, but the people who helped put me in touch with Floyd smartly kept me to a strict time limit. I got some really great stuff about the early days and promise that if ever given the opportunity to interview him again, I'll get some scoop on his Hall of Fame induction.
Without further ado.... Jump!
We eased into the interview with his first impressions of Denver, the stadium and the team.
Jess Place: When you were drafted by Denver, what were your expectations for your career knowing very little about the Broncos?
Floyd Little: I thought we'd win a Super Bowl the first year... of course that didn't happen. I didn't know where Denver was when I was drafted. I was drafted with the sixth pick in the first round. When I found out it was Denver I said, "Where is Denver?" I had no idea where Denver was, being on the east coast, being a Browns fan and Giants fan, and now I'm in the midwest somewhere. I didn't know where it was. I had to go to the map to find where it was. I enjoyed it when I first went out to visit. It was a clear day. It was in April. The mountains were unbelievable and the sky was clear. It was one of the greatest days that I've ever had leaving the east coast and going to Denver. I fell in love with it the first day I got there.
Jess Place: There has been much written about how the Broncos started to shed their rinky-dink reputation to become a serious franchise when they drafted you and hired Lou Saban. What are your recollections of that transition?
Floyd Little: I think they stepped up. It was a team that had not won a lot of games. It was one of the ones that was the least favorite in the AFL and it was a team that had lost quite a few, but they had a number of good players in Lionel Taylor and Goose Gonsulin and a few players like that. They didn't win a lot of football games. They played in old Bears Stadium and they had to really elevate themselves to a better position to be a part of the National Football League because that was the year of the merger. As part of the merger the team had to get a larger facility which meant that they had to remodel Bears Stadium and I was a part of that, going out, soliciting people to support the stadium. It became Mile High Stadium and it became a franchise that hit the top of franchises. We had 50,000+ people in the stands, more fans than most stadiums around the country. It began its journey as a great franchise and it's become one of the great franchises in the National Football League.
Jess Place: Mile High Stadium underwent two renovations to expand seating during your time in Denver (1968, 1974). As a player, how did your view of the stadium change during those transitions? Were there any construction related growing pains that affected the players?
Floyd Little: No it didn't affect us. We were looking at expanding our stadium and we should. We had to be compliant with what the rules were at that time and we needed more seats because we had more fans. We had a 17,000 person waiting list - people just wanting to come to games but there was no opportunity. Our teams were getting better. We were winning here and there. We were beating some big teams. We beat the Vikings and the 49ers. We were winning games, but we weren't winning a lot of games, but we were winning big games. Our team was developing and getting better. We needed a bigger seating capacity. I enjoy what Denver has done with the franchise and it's one of the top five to ten franchises in the National Football League.
Jess Place: Did you have any inclination that might be the case when you showed up in Denver?
Floyd Little: No, I did not. Getting all the people out, going door to door going around on these caravans I remember with Sam Rutigliano [Reciever's Coach] and Stan Jones [Defensive Line Coach]. We'd go to Wyoming, Idaho, South Dakota or New Mexico soliciting fans to come up and support the team. Of course, things started getting better. We started getting players. It was not like what it was when I first got there with 26 rookies that I started with. We played 26 rookies my first year. I was the captain of the team. How often do you get a rookie as a captain? We had more rookies voting for me than we had veterans voting for veterans. No, I didn't know it would be what it became. The thing about the fans was that they were always there win or lose. Before airport security, fans would be there at the airport waiting for us even when we'd lost to Kansas City or San Diego. We had so many fans. We had a 12th man before the 12th man as it's known today. There are no better fans than the ones in Denver.
Marlin Briscoe was the first African American Quarterback to start in the NFL. His brief career as a Bronco overlapped with Floyd Little's. In an interview with Briscoe last year, I asked him to tell me a story about Lou Saban. He told me about the Buffalo game played in Denver on November 24, 1968. In this game, Lou Saban cut Floyd Little on the field after a costly fumble while the Broncos were trying to run out the clock to salt away a victory (this was before you could take a knee to run out the clock). Rather than go into written detail about what was said, I thought it was better for the MHR faithful to hear the story firsthand - from the quarterback Marlin Briscoe and the running back, Floyd Little themselves. (For the Marlin Briscoe series of interviews, click here for part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.)
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September 19, 1971: Dolphins at Broncos - The Half a Loaf Game - This was one of the most defining moments in Denver Broncos history. This was a game where head coach Lou Saban opted to go for a tie, rather than a win, famously stating that "half a loaf of bread was better than no loaf". It was the first game of the season and it set an ominous tone for Saban's Broncos going forward. After being pelted with half-loaves of bread for the next five home games among other indignities, Saban resigned in with five games left to play, leaving interim coach Jerry Smith in charge. John Ralston would take over for the 1972 season and beyond.
Jess Place: Talk about your relationship with Lou Saban, I know he left mid-season. Any feeling about that?
Floyd Little: I was sad. I understood what he was trying to do. We were playing against a Super Bowl team, the Miami Dolphins [the Dolphins would win the AFC in 1971 and win the Super Bowl in 1972]. We were a young team and he felt that if we played them to a tie it would give us a lot of momentum and confidence. If we could hold them to ten points and we could get ten points, that could launch us. Lou was thinking, hey, I'm not going to try to beat these guys. If I can get my team just to tie this team, it would do so much for my football team. In retrospect when you look at it we should have tried to beat them rather than try to tie them. The fans got mad, they brought half loaves of bread and threw them down at him. It was horrible. It was a horrible sight for his kids to be harassed and his wife to be harassed. He did the only thing he had to do and that was to resign. I hated to see him go because I liked him. He was a former player and understood us as players. He fired us up everyday and challenged us everyday to be better players. He did what he had to do. I'll tell you what, John Ralston was a guy who knew talent better than any guy I'd ever seen. When John came in, he put the team together that went to the Super Bowl. Red Miller got credit for it, but it was John Ralston's draft choices and people he brought in.
Jess Place: John Ralston would get in the huddle with you guys?
Floyd Little: Yeah he did. He'd come in and pat you on the back and inspire you. He was a big Dale Carnegie guy. I remember one meeting where coach said, "This is a game. Anything that ends in 'ball' is a game. Let's not forget about that. This is a game. If it ends in b-a-l-l, it's a game." And then [DB] John Rowser raised his hand and said, "What about eyeball and meatball coach?" Everybody just died laughing. It really killed that motivating message. Here's a guy that's thinking about what ends in ball that's not a game. Oh, eyeball! What about meatball! We all cracked up and it really poured a lot of water on John Ralston's fire that day.
Jess Place: Seldom talked about in the annals of Broncos history is head coach Jerry Smith who coached the Broncos for just five games in 1971. Is there something about Jerry's brief run that sticks with you?
Floyd Little: Jerry was a good guy. I liked Jerry. Jerry was an interim head coach for a minute and he came on. I didn't get to know him that well because his tenure was short, because they brought in John Ralston shortly after he left. Jerry picked up the slack. Not sure how many games we won under him [Jerry Smith was 2-3-0]. I liked Jerry. He was a good guy. We don't think about him being our head coach because he was the interim coach for a very short period of time, but he was our head coach and we need to give him that credit.
Jess Place: What team in the AFC West did you hate the most? What do you think of that rivalry and how it's grown over the years?
Floyd Little: Well it's still the same. It's been the Oakland Raiders. We hate those son of a guns and we still hate them. With Shanahan coming over after being fired by the Raiders and Al Davis not paying him, it made it even worse. We hated the Raiders anyhow so it was easy for us to continue to hate them. Today we still hate them. If you ask me why, I don't know. But the Raiders is a team that we don't care for and we want to wish them all the bad luck in the world.
Couldn't have said it better myself. After conducting this interview, I have to say that Floyd Little is a class act all around and I feel very privileged to be able to interview him for MHR.
[Special thanks to Colby and KaptainKirk for assistance with this article]