Orange Watch: Remembering Syracuse football legend Floyd Little

Floyd-Little
Floyd Little in January when he was honored at the Gator Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Douglas DeFelice, USA TODAY Sports

Item: The sad passing of Syracuse and Denver Broncos all-timer Floyd Little at age 78 on New Year’s Day in Henderson, Nev. after a battle with a rare form of cell cancer, has produced a monumental national response from all those he touched in many walks of life. To us, the ever-lasting story about the great running back and human being was the unfairness of why it took so long for his ultimate selection in 2010 to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Their names are Tom Mackie and Jeff Legwold.

The former is the improbable individual who painstakingly performed years of the heavy lifting necessary to get a way overdue Floyd Little inducted into the Canton, Ohio shrine, the latter is a Denver-based ESPN writer covering the Broncos during an almost 30-year career on the pro football beat.

Together, they helped formulate the game plan that finally sold Hall of Fame voters on correcting a glaring mistake – providing the first true star of the Denver Broncos franchise with the sport’s ultimate individual honor.

We wrote and broadcast the same theme for years before 2010; it made absolutely no sense that Little was not only shunned by voters to the Hall shortly after his five-year, post-career waiting period ended in 1980, but he wasn’t even nominated for enshrinement by the Hall’s Senior Selection Committee members until 2009.

After all, Little earned the nickname “The Franchise” in Denver, way before John Elway came on the scene to lead the Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowl titles in 1998-99. When Little retired as the team’s career rushing leader after the 1975 season, the Broncos were an organization on the rise, consistently selling out an expanded 52,000 seat Mile High Stadium, and about to debut the “Orange Crush” era and first Super Bowl appearance in 1977.

Floyd Little not being another ex-Syracuse star in the Pro Football Hall of Fame was simply preposterous. (The same statement continues to ring true for the late SU great Walt Sweeney, an AFL-NFL all-pro selection nine times between 1963-1975.)

As Legwold pointed out in compiling his overwhelming statistical analysis presented to voters for Little’s Hall credentials, the bullish back was hit behind the line of scrimmage on 30% of his carries for the Broncos, yet retired in ’75 as the seventh all-time rushing leader in NFL history with 6,323 yards (Little is now the 80th all-time rusher in the modern NFL 16-game regular season era).
Incredibly, the six backs ahead of Little, fellow former Syracuse star Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson, Joe Perry, Jim Taylor, Leroy Kelly and John Henry Johnson, were all voted into the Hall of Fame before 1994.

Mackie was a fervent Broncos and Little fan growing up in Wilmington, Del. The two eventually became close friends, and fed-up in the early 2000s that his boyhood idol was not receiving his professional due, refused to let his personal crusade falter.

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In 2006, the unlikely duo spent time to compile the autobiography “Floyd Little’s Tales from the Broncos’ Sidelines” which served as the blueprint for providing the documentation, along with Legwold’s statistical case, for the senior committee to ultimately agree that it was long past time to correct a big mistake.

The story of the odd couple relationship of Mackie, 20 years younger than Little growing up on the east coast, and the west coast-based Little was expertly chronicled in a 2010 Sports Illustrated story by writer Gary Smith, and is recommended reading for all in Orange Nation.

Always an eloquent speaker whether that was in front of a large group or one-on-one with those who were privileged to know him, one of Floyd Little’s quotes, courtesy of the National Football Foundation’s eloquent tribute on Jan. 2, sums up his extraordinary life:

“I chose not to be a common man,” Little once proclaimed. “Because it is my right to be uncommon, if I can.”

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About Brad Bierman 762 Articles
Now in his sixth decade of covering SU sports, Brad was sports director of WSYR radio for eight years into the early 1990s, then wrote the Orange Watch column for The Big Orange/The Juice print publication for 18 years. A Syracuse University graduate, Brad currently runs his own media consulting business in the Philadelphia suburbs. Follow him on Twitter @BradBierman.