Years Played: 1967-1975 (all with Denver)
5’10”, 196 lbs
6,323 rushing yards, 43 rushing TDs
2,418 receiving yards, 9 receiving TDs
893 punt return yards, 2 punt return TDs
2523 kick return yards
12,157 all purpose yards
AFL All-Star: 1968, 1969
NFL Pro Bowl: 1970, 1971, 1973
All-AFL: 1969 (1st)
All-Pro: 1970 (2nd), 1971 (1st)
NFL Rushing Title: 1971 (1133 yds)
NFL Rushing TD Title: 1973 (12 TDs)
Retired as NFL’s 7th all-time leading rusher
Inaugural inductee in Denver Broncos Ring of Fame
Denver Broncos #44 retired
The greatest Bronco ever is unanimously considered to be John Elway. He’s the man who needs no explanation. For the second, common thought suggests there is more debate. Some would argue Terrell Davis due to his playoff performances, others would argue Champ Bailey due to being among the best corners in the NFL for nearly his entire tenure in Denver, others would argue Shannon Sharpe due to his domination of his position. However, I don’t think this is a debate. Floyd Little is the second greatest Bronco ever and without Little the Broncos wouldn’t exist today.
To explain this, we need to go back. And I mean way back. I mean all the way back to 1959 when one sport reigned supreme: baseball. Bob Howsam, who ran the AAA Denver Bears baseball team wanted to bring Major League Baseball to Denver badly. A third major league, the Continental League, was announced as forming on July 27th, 1959. William Shea, who created this league, sought to fill the void following MLB’s departure of New York City. He knew in order to create a new league, however, he’d need other cities, which lead to him also putting teams in Denver, Minneapolis, Houston, and Toronto. Howsam was thrilled by this opportunity, and took out a great deal of personal debt to spearhead an effort to add 8,000 seats to Bears Stadium in order to support a major league team. However, MLB became alarmed by these developments and instead cut a deal with Shea to create the New York Mets while also adding a team to Houston and Minneapolis.
Howsam now was in a bit of a pickle. He had this big, 35,000 seat stadium but no team to fill even close to those seats. Lamar Hunt, who became aware of this situation, met with Howsam to recruit him to join the “Foolish Club” of founders of a new football league, the American Football League (AFL). In August 1959, the Denver Broncos were officially formed with Bob Howsam as their owner.
Howsam’s tenure as owner, however, wouldn’t last more than one season. Facing mounting debt, he sold the team to a group lead by brothers Gerald and Allan Phipps. The next few seasons were fairly uneventful for the Broncos, as they were the worst team in the AFL. There were a few events; Frank Tripucka suiting up at QB and becoming the first professional QB to throw for 3,000 yards, Lionel Taylor had the first 100 catch season, the Broncos started 7-2 one year but choked away the division lead, but it was mostly mediocrity for the Broncos.
The major change occurred with the AFL/NFL merger. As part of the terms, all AFL venues must have at least 50,000 seats. Bears Stadium, was quite a bit short and the voters had rejected a $20MM bond issue by a nearly two-to-one margin. The Phipps were seemingly out of options and the minority ownership block began fielding offers to sell the team, which included offers from groups in Phoenix and Birmingham, but because of their connections to the Denver community they hesitated to sell the team. In the meantime, a group of wealthy individuals and organizations in Denver formed DOERS (Denver Organization to Erect the Right kind of Stadium). The DOERS mission was to raise funds to buy Bears Stadium from the Phipps, then gift it to the city and county of Denver which would allow the government to sell bonds to raise the funds to expand the stadium. Local fans also contributed funds to DOERS to keep their team. The plan worked and Bears Stadium underwent a 16,000 seat expansion to keep the team in Denver. The fans responded well, with average attendance reaching 46,579 in 1969.
The city decided the stadium’s name must change. Broncos Stadium wouldn’t be a good idea, since the Bears still played a ton of games there. DOERS Stadium was also proposed, but that name rolls off the tongue about as well as Michael Hoomanawanui. In the end, there was only one name that seemed to meet everyone’s wishes, Mile High Stadium.
But you didn’t come here to read a history of the Broncos origin, no, you want to know about Floyd Little. There is a method to my madness, though, as Floyd Little’s story isn’t just the Hall of Fame player he was but the legacy he left with the Broncos. He isn’t called The Franchise just because he was a great player. No, a name of that caliber is reserved for only a player who goes above and beyond the call.
See, throughout the AFL days the Broncos really didn’t have a star player. They had great players: Frank Tripucka, Lionel Taylor, Goose Gonsoulin, Gene Mingo, but they didn’t have that guy who could just flat out dominate and take over a game. This all changed when in 1967, the Broncos drafted Floyd Little out of Syracuse with the 6th pick. Before this, the Broncos first round picks in the old AFL draft never signed with them, instead opting to sign with the NFL. However, 1967 was the first year of the common draft.
Little, however, expected to go 9th overall to the New York Jets. He had never met the Broncos coach, Lou Saban, nor anyone else from the Broncos organization. On draft day, when he got a call from Lou Saban telling him he was drafted by the Broncos, his response was “Denver, where the hell is that?” To say he was less than thrilled to be going out west rather than staying in his home area of the northeast (he grew up in Connecticut) would be understatement.
When he first came to Denver in April, his opinion changed dramatically. He was taken back by the beauty of the city, in his words ”Then I came to visit in April sometime and the weather was absolutely gorgeous and I fell in love with Denver.” The natural beauty of the city wasn’t the only thing that he was surprised by, as he was also shocked with how opening and excited the fans were. They wanted nothing more than a superstar to have, a player who they could identify with. Just as much as #44 became revered in upstate New York because of the play of Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, and Floyd Little, it would became famous in its own right in Denver, only this time in a different shade of orange and blue.
The stats and accolades tell the story of Little’s football career. Throughout his career, he was among the best running backs in the league stuck on a really bad team. Little would never appear on a playoff team and would only twice play on a winning team. He never had an offensive lineman named to the Pro Bowl throughout his entire career.
But this didn’t change the fact that he was loved by his teammates and his fans more than any other player the Broncos had ever had. His last game at Mile High would be among his best and would be one of the best stories in Broncos history. On December 14th, 1975 the Broncos were playing the Eagles. Today, this game would get very little attention. A 5-7 Denver playing a 3-9 Philly sounds about as exciting as watching the 2008 Lions play the 2009 Rams. Little, however, was going to make his last appearance at Mile High one to remember. Late in the third quarter, with the game tied, the Broncos started the drive at their 34 yard line. In the huddle, Little said, “Everybody get somebody; I’m going to take this the distance.” Little, who the Broncos had put their faith in for nearly the last decade, took the swing pass 66 yards to give the Broncos the lead. He ended the game with 150 yards from scrimmage and two TDs. When the game was over, the Broncos faithful stormed the field to carry their hero off the field. He and his wife left Mile High in a limousine, paid by his teammates, to a party to celebrate the career of a legend. After the game, Eagles coach Mike McCormack said, “I would like to have 43 Floyd Littles.”
With this season done, the story of his on-the-field life was done. #44 was taken out of circulation and is one of only three numbers (along with Tripucka 18 and Elway’s 7) to be retired by the Broncos. In 1984 he became one of the inaugural Broncos to be inducted into the Broncos Ring of Fame (along with Rich Jackson, Lionel Taylor, and Goose Gonsoulin). Floyd would end his career 7th on the NFL’s career rushing list but would never play in a playoff game.
When Tom Mackie and Jeff Legwold were building Little’s 2010 push to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, they brought up that on approximately 30% of Floyd Little’s carries he was hit behind the line of scrimmage. Legwold, who had watched every single snap of Little’s career in advance of this, used this as evidence as the ineptitude of the Broncos outside of Little. He gave them that player to rally around and put the faith in. That even if the Broncos were outmatched and outskilled, Little would always show up and he would always put on a show worth the price of admission. Little took this and embraced it. He made Denver his home. This video has a little section about it.
But, all of his strengths as a player pale in comparison to the work he did off the field. Where he made his biggest mark in Denver, where he built his biggest legacy was off the gridiron.
Remember the DOERS? The organization of people who raised money privately to save the Broncos? Floyd Little, who was in his first years with the team and had no connection to Denver (he grew up on the east coast and went to school at Syracuse) was part of this group. Little talks about it a little bit here. They’d go door to door throughout the whole rocky mountain region to raise funds and support for the expanded stadium. It was through these actions where it becomes apparent why the nickname of The Franchise is more than deserved. The excitement he brought to the team on a weekly basis with his tackle-breaking runs and exhilarating returns sent fan interest through the roof and the team began its still standing sellout streak during Little’s early years.
Yet, his football life remained incomplete. As time went on, Little became more and more forgotten by the NFL fans as a whole. He didn’t receive a lot of Hall of Fame buzz and fell more by the wayside as time went on. Yet, he wasn’t forgotten by those who he played against. Hall of Famer Joe Greene said that Floyd Little was the best player (not running back, but overall player) that he played against. He also wasn’t forgotten by Broncos Country, who held the Franchise closer to the heart than nearly any other player to suit up in the orange and blue. One of these fans was Tom Mackie, a freelance football writer. Mackie, whose favorite football player is Floyd Little, wanted to write a book with Little. This book Tales from the Bronco Sideline pushed Little’s candidacy back into the forefront. In 2010 Floyd Little was finally elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Before he spoke, a message from his friend and college classmate Joe Biden played, saying that, “It’s about time”. Little’s speech can be read here. As he put it, this is the “final sports chapter in my life”.
While John Elway is unquestionably the most important person in Broncos history, he wasn’t the fire. Without Little, there is no Orange Crush. There is no Drive, no Fumble. No Mile High Magic by #7. No stories from the South Stands. No This One’s For John!. No Club 2000 for TD. No Champ’s pick on Brady. No Tebowmania. No Peyton Manning. No This One’s for Pat!. If Lucas Oil Stadium is the “House that Manning Built” and Yankee’s Stadium is the “House that Ruth Built” then there’s no reason that old Mile High shouldn’t be the “House that Little Built”.
Submitted June 01, 2017 at 09:56AM by BlindManBaldwin
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