“The Franchise’’ dies.
But the Floyd Little Legend lives.
Floyd ran to eternal glory, but never ran away from a challenge, even the last and most difficult. Little Big Man passed on the first day of the new year from a long struggle with a rare form of cancer.
He was 78, but forever young.
The No. 44 is sacred in sports. Hank Aaron, Jerry West, Willie McCovey, Pete Maravich, Reggie Jackson, Elvin Hayes, Ernie Nevers and, from Syracuse University, Jim Brown, Ernie Davis and Floyd Little — three of the greatest running backs in college football history.
Floyd became only the third Denver Broncos’ player with No. 44 on his jersey. He wore it well, and nobody else has ever worn it because 44 was appropriately permanently retired with Little.
I last visited with Floyd at the 2019 Pro Football Hall of Fame ceremonies. He had been inducted at Canton, Ohio, in 2010, and was joined last year by Broncos owner Pat Bowlen and cornerback Champ Bailey. Floyd was there to celebrate. As we stood in front of Floyd’s bust for what turned out to be the last time, he said: “I love coming back and being reminded because I still don’t believe that I’m here.’’ Then he asked for a favor.
“Most Broncos fans don’t remember me, but you saw me play for years. Will you tell them I was pretty good?’’
Floyd Little was much more than pretty good. He was the best there was in Denver and among the best there was in the NFL. He was so impactful Floyd was selected to the Pro Bowl six times from a team that never made the playoffs and only produced two winning seasons.
His final game at Mile High Stadium was Dec. 14, 1975, against the Eagles when Floyd was the 33-year-old backup to kid Otis Armstrong and had barely played — on special teams — the week before vs. the Raiders.
But an aching Floyd saved his best for last for the Broncos fans and his young teammates. Floyd rushed 19 times for 56 yards and a touchdown, and he caught five passes for 94 yards and a meandering, remarkable touchdown, and he returned a kickoff for 13 yards.
In all, 163 total yards, two touchdowns and a 25-10 victory.
Floyd Little was pretty damn good.
Floyd was a true All-American — born on the Fourth of July in the middle of World War II in 1942 and died in the middle of the pandemic Jan. 1, 2021.
And he saved the Broncos from themselves and from leaving Denver.
During the early years of the American Football League the Broncos were an awful, appalling, abysmal franchise with no money, no players and no hope. From 1960-1966 hundreds of players, literally, refused to play for Denver. There was competition between the AFL and the NFL, but the Broncos were outsiders.
Not one No. 1 draft pick signed with the Broncos. No Merlin Olsen, no Dick Butkus, no Bob Brown, not even fifth-round or 10th- or even 20th- and yes, 30th-round picks.
In 1966 the Broncos finished 4-10 — I watched them play an exhibition in Memphis — and they owned the sixth pick overall for 1967, the first common NFL-AFL draft. After Bubba Smith, Steve Spurrier and Bob Griese were selected, the Broncos took “halfback’’ Floyd Little from Syracuse.
In truth, Floyd had no choice. He signed with the Broncos on May 17, 1967. He rushed 25 times for 66 yards in his opening game, a victory, and seven times for 4 yards in his second game, the first of nine consecutive losses. He had to get used to it. But, in his third season, Floyd became the Broncos’ first 1,000-yard rusher, and 50,000 fans were showing up at new Mile High Stadium.
Floyd became known as “The Franchise’’ because he was.
In nine seasons as a running back, a receiver, a returner, Floyd accumulated more than 12,000 yards and 54 touchdowns, and only O.J. Simpson had more yardage during that span.
Floyd was recruited out of high school by West Point and Gen. Douglas MacArthur. He was played in the movie “The Express’’ by actor Chadwick Boseman, who died recently. Floyd received an honorary doctorate from Syracuse and a law degree and an honorary doctorate from the University of Denver. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame alongside the NFL’s all-time rushing leader Emmitt Smith and receiver Jerry Rice.
He was a magnificent man.
Thanks, Floyd, from all of us.
Pretty good life indeed.