Floyd Little came home in the early months of 1963 and was exhausted.
Little, who went on to become a three-time All-American running back at Syracuse University and a Pro Football Hall of Fame running back, had just returned home after being recruited by Gen. Douglas MacArthur at the Waldorf Astoria in New York.
While in New York, Little was introduced to legendary baseball players Roy Campanella and Elston Howard as MacArthur was selling Little on the idea of playing football at Army.
To that point, it had worked.
“He had assured me I’d be the first African-American general in the United States Army,” Little said during a panel discussion to honor the 50th anniversary of Davis being the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy on Friday night in New York. “If you look at it, had I gone to Army, I would’ve been Gen. Colin Powell’s boss.”
When Little got back to his third floor apartment in New Haven, Conn. after meeting MacArthur, a knock at the door would change his life forever.
“There stood in the doorway Ernie Davis, (SU coach Ben) Schwartzwalder and Bill Bell, the (Syracuse) running backs coach,” Little said. “And (Davis) just busted through the door and he grabbed my mom and my sisters, and said, “How are y’all ladies doing? I’m taking Floyd to dinner tonight.’”
Little was stunned.
“I was looking in total amazement, first of all that Ernie Davis was in the ghetto with two white guys,” Little said. “I was truly amazed knowing that this is the guy who had just won the Heisman, and he was at my house.”
The four went to a nearby restaurant, Jocko Sullivan’s, near the Yale campus. Davis and Little made small talk and both decided to order steak and lobster.
“Ernie hadn’t had it. I hadn’t had it,” Little said, “so we thought we’d order it.”
But before either of them ate, Davis invited Little into the men’s bathroom to talk about playing at Syracuse.
“We talked for what seemed like half an hour,” Little said. “Obviously, someone was standing guard because no one came in the bathroom that whole time.
“He said that Syracuse didn’t throw the ball, so you’d have a chance to carry it a lot. Ben Schwartzwalder thought only three things could happen when you threw the football, and two of them were bad. You can drop it, or someone else could get it.”
Toward the end of the conversation, Little started checking his watch.
“I kept figuring at this point my steak and lobster were cold,” Little said. “I said to myself, ‘If I don’t stop Ernie from talking, my steak and lobster are going to be cold.’ So, I put my arms around him and I said, ‘OK, Ernie, I’m going to Syracuse.’”
About three months later, Davis died.
Shortly after, Little called Schwartzwalder and committed to SU.
“I had given him my word, and there is nothing more valuable,” Little said. “My word is all I have.”
Since then, Little has done everything he could do to honor the legacy of Davis, his idol, mentor and friend.
Davis would be proud.
After a standout career at SU, Little was drafted in 1967 by the Denver Broncos where he became known as “The Franchise.” By the time Little retired, he left the NFL as the seventh leading rusher of all time with 6,323 yards rushing and 54 touchdowns.
Said Little: “Because he didn’t have the opportunity to do the things that he could do, and live the life he could’ve lived, I’ve taken upon myself to try to live the life that Ernie didn’t.”Wesley Cheng