Big plans for Little
As part of the merger agreement between the American Football League and National Football League, a joint draft between the two leagues was held for the first time in 1967. That ended the many heated battles between AFL and NFL clubs for the top college talent that had been the norm since the AFL was founded in 1960. There’s little doubt that Syracuse running back would been the embroiled in one of those tug-of-wars between the rival leagues had the draft format not changed in time.
Fortunate for fans, there would be no competition when it came to the team signing its first round pick in the 1967 AFL-NFL Draft
. Five players were selected ahead of Little before Denver used is first round pick on the halfback from Syracuse.
At the time Denver was mired in the doldrums of losing season after losing season and desperately in search of a spark for their football team. The Broncos had reached the .500 mark just once in its first seven seasons of operation and were still seven years away from its first winning record. Adding to the despair, the team had yet to have a bona fide star become the face of the franchise.
So when it came time to drafting a player in 1967, the Broncos had their eyes on a halfback who they hoped would cure an anemic rushing attack while also providing that star power to attract fans. Little fit the bill as he had followed in the footsteps of such runners like the legendary and Ernie Davis at Syracuse.
He broke the school’s career rushing record while hitting the 100-yard mark 13 times. He also demonstrated a knack for finding the end zone as he scored in 22 of his 30 college games. He scored 19 touchdowns in 1965 to lead the nation in that category. A finalist for the Heisman Trophy, Little received more votes for college’s most coveted trophy than any other sophomore or junior that year.
Little continued his magic as a senior thanks to a new backfield running mate, fullback . The future Hall of Famer was converted from linebacker to fullback and helped open more holes for the dynamic Little.
Not that the Broncos needed much arm twisting to go after Little in the ’67 draft but scouting reports supported what most already knew about him. Deep inside the Hall’s archives are many of the BLESTO scouting reports. A review of Little prior to the draft included remarks such as these:
“Will be a top pick. A cross between and .”
“Will be first stringer as defensive corner-flanker if not R.B.”
“Has all the moves and fakes.”
That analysis proved ever so true. However, at first Little was disappointed to learn that he was drafted by Denver. He had expected to land with an eastern team so he would not be far from his roots. Little grew up in New Haven, Connecticut and later moved on to prep school at Bordentown Military Academy in New Jersey. Following four years at Syracuse, the comparatively old rookie (he turned 25 before his first season) was not eager to move across the country. But, it didn’t take long for Floyd and his new wife Joyce to learn to like Denver. They were hooked on the city after the first visit.
The feeling among the city towards their new star was quickly reciprocated. Little was actually used more as a return man than a runner during his rookie season. Regardless of where he played on the field his flashy style that so excited the fans was apparent from the start. He led the AFL in punt returns and even scored a touchdown on an electrifying 72-yard return against the New York Jets.
Little evolved into the face of the franchise and almost single-handedly put Denver on the pro football map. Despite a lack of talent around him, he managed to become among the finest runners in the game during his nine-season career that spanned through 1975. As evidence, there wasn’t a single player in the game who put up more all-purpose yards from 1967 to 1975 than the Broncos’ prized multi-faceted star.
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Fierle is the Manager-Digital Media/Communications at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He joined the Hall of Fame's staff in 1988.