An 'Uncommon Man,' Floyd Little: 1942-2021


The professional football world today is celebrating the life and mourning the passing of Floyd Little, an “uncommon man” who used his platform to encourage those who, like himself, had been told they were not big enough or smart enough or talented enough to succeed.

A member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2010, Little died Friday. He was 78.

The following is a statement from Hall of Fame President & CEO David Baker:

“Floyd Little was a true hero of the game. He was a man of great integrity, passion and courage. His contributions off the field were even greater than his amazing accomplishments he did on it. Floyd’s smile, heart and character epitomized what it meant to have a Hall of Fame life.

Our thoughts and prayers are with Floyd’s wife, DeBorah, and their entire family. We will forever keep his legacy alive to serve as inspiration for future generations. The Hall of Fame flag will be flown at half-staff in Floyd’s memory.”

Little, a scrappy kid from New Haven, Conn., burst onto the scene when he chose to play football at Syracuse. He donned the iconic No. 44 worn previously by legendary running backs Jim Brown and Ernie Davis. While at Syracuse, he was named an All-American three times, paving the way for the Denver Broncos to select him sixth overall in the 1967 AFL-NFL Draft.

In his rookie year, Little appeared in 13 games, starting 12, and rushed for 381 yards on 130 carries. The Broncos used him extensively in their return game, and he led the AFL with an average of 16.9 yards on 16 punt returns. He also returned 35 kickoffs that seasons for 942 yards, a career high and second best in the league that year.

Little increased his rushing yardage each of the next four seasons, with production that led to four consecutive Pro Bowl selections and one spot, in 1969, on the All-Pro first team. That year, he rushed for a career-best 5.0 yards per carry and a league-leading 81 yards per game.

His best season statistically came in 1971. Playing in all 14 games, he carried 284 times and won the NFL rushing title with 1,133 yards — on a team that finished last in its division with a record of 4-9-1 and possessed few other offensive threats.

As the Broncos’ offense evolved, so did Little’s game. Over his last five seasons (1971-75), he averaged 31 receptions and 339 receiving yards per year.

During the six-season run from 1968 to 1973, Little rushed for more yards and totaled more yards from scrimmage than any running back in the NFL. Despite that production, however, the Broncos could muster only two winning seasons in his nine-year career.

Little career stat line — 1,641 carries for 6,323 rushing yards, 215 receptions for 2,418 receiving yards, 81 punt returns, 893 return yards and 54 total touchdowns — while impressive doesn’t capture his importance to the Broncos organization.

In the late 1960s, many wondered if the team might leave Denver, but the drafting of Little gave the Broncos a fresh start — and him the nickname “The Franchise.” He was elected team captain as a rookie and retained the honor of captaincy his entire career.

“Floyd Little can often be heard saying, ‘I do not choose to be a common man; it is my right to be uncommon if I can.’ That's my dad, an uncommon man,” Marc Little said in presenting his father for enshrinement in 2010.

“As an athlete, they said he wasn't tall enough or big enough to make a difference,” Floyd’s son continued. “My dad had a calling to greatness, a divine call that predestined this very moment.”

Little used his enshrinement speech to implore listeners never to give up.

“Because of those that encouraged me in those early years, I am here today. 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,” Little said.

“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.”

He continued: “Leave a legacy that you and your family can be proud.”

Little’s legacy included induction into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983 and election as a charter member of the Broncos Ring of Fame in 1984.

It also includes a special honor in his hometown.

On Sept. 15, 2011, the New Haven Athletic Center, billed as the largest scholastic/athletics facility in New England, was renamed the Floyd Little Athletic Center.

“Entering the Pro Football Hall of Fame is a cut above all of the awards I've received in sports,” Little told the New Haven Register. “It's historical. But when you put it in perspective, I'm one of 267 people [at that time] in the Hall of Fame. I'm bust number 257 of 267. But how many people enshrined in Canton have a building with their name on it? That's something that perpetuates you. That's what makes me say, `Wow.’”

After his Hall of Fame football career, Little served as a special assistant to the athletic director at Syracuse from 2011-16. In 2016, he received an honorary doctorate degree from Syracuse. Statues of him, Jim Brown and Ernie Davis are erected at the football practice facility.

Little’s legacy will be remembered forever in New Haven, Syracuse and Denver. It will be preserved forever at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

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