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Fifth in a series of profiles of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's seven-member Class of 2010.
Floyd Little is not the most recognizable Denver Bronco of all time; that would be John Elway. Little did not finish his career by leading the Broncos to a Super Bowl title; that would again be Elway. And Little is not the first Denver player to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame; you guessed it, Elway.
But before a pair of Lombardi Trophies were resting in Denver and the orange No. 7 became one of the more iconic jerseys in football history, Floyd Little was the face of the Broncos. The running back, who will finally be inducted into the Hall on Aug. 7 after 35 years of retirement, was the franchise's first star, an electrifying player who changed the game running, receiving and on special teams.
"I liken myself to Barry Sanders, because he didn't play with anybody, he didn't have any help, like I didn't," said Little, who played for the Broncos from 1967-75. "I played with 30 offensive linemen and 27 quarterbacks, so I was running for my life, for the most part."
Coming to Denver after being drafted with the sixth pick in the first AFL-NFL common draft in 1967, Little joined a team that hadn't experienced much success. Between their founding in 1960 and Little's selection seven years later, the Broncos won an average of 3.7 games a season, had six players lead the team in rushing and employed four head coaches. The running back was drafted to be a game changer and scoring threat whenever he had his hands on the ball, similar to what he'd been as a three-time All-American at Syracuse.
Little didn't disappoint. In each of his first two seasons, he led the American Football League in all-purpose yards. His third season, 1969, he was a first-team All-Pro, leading the league in rushing yards per attempt and yards per game. Two seasons later, following the merger of the AFL and NFL, Little was tops in multiple categories, with the most rushing attempts, rushing yards, rushing yards per game and total rushing/receiving yards from scrimmage. Floyd's talents were clearly evident in all aspects of the game.
"He was running back punts and kickoffs, he was the number one running back, he was the focal point of every defense that came to play Denver," said Billy Thompson, Little's teammate from 1969-75. "He was doing a lot, which you very seldom see now. Most running backs now are very specialized. They're too valuable to have them do something else. Floyd was doing all that, plus carrying the ball 15, 20 times a game."
Thompson, a speedy defensive back who would eventually have his name alongside Little's in Denver's Ring of Honor, took over most of the kick- and punt-return duties for the Broncos in 1969. This allowed the running back to focus solely on offense and helped Little achieve his best individual season in 1973.
That year, the player known as 'The Franchise' ran for 979 yards, hauled in 41 catches for 423 receiving yards and scored a total of 13 touchdowns in 14 games. Little was one of four AFC running backs invited to the Pro Bowl, alongside O.J. Simpson, Franco Harris and Larry Csonka. More importantly, the Broncos went 7-5-2, the best record of the Little era and good enough for third place in the AFC West. Still, it was not good enough to make the playoffs, a destination the running back never reached during his career.
The lack of postseason experience was one of the arguments used against Little for many years when his name was up for debate for the Hall of Fame. Critics claimed not enough was done in a career that wasn't long enough for a player who never played for a championship team. The running back has always felt that his numbers speak for themselves, especially his place on the all-time rushing list when he retired.
"Everybody who ended their career as the seventh-leading rusher is in the Hall. The last guy who retired at number seven and is now in the Hall is Marcus Allen," said Little. "So what is there to defend? It's a question that the criteria to be in the Hall of Fame was that you had to be in the Super Bowl. That's a team accomplishment. That really should not have anything to do with it.
"The problem was that I played for Denver. That's the real problem. And Denver had no Hall of Famers before John Elway, which was a shoo-in. It's crazy. And now they say, "Is Floyd Little a Hall of Famer?" Well, why not? You had 30 Hall of Famers who have said, "This is the worst thing that ever happened, for this guy to not be in the Hall of Fame. It's a tragedy." You had a guy like John Mackey say, "If you can't find a place for Floyd Little, take me out." For people to question if I should be in or not, I think it's ludicrous."
Team historian Jim Saccomano agrees that Little's induction is important not only for the Broncos franchise, but also for the city of Denver and state of Colorado. As the first professional sports star in the Rocky Mountain region, Little not only paved the way for Elway, but for all the other Denver players who had success over the years.
"I'm the longest-tenured sports administrator in the state, I'm a native and I was a season-ticket holder nearly from the beginning. So I can speak with some authority on this: Floyd was the first star this region had. There was minor-league baseball, no basketball, a few hockey teams, but the Broncos were the only big-time team the area had, and even they were in the smaller of the two leagues," said Saccomano, who also is the Broncos' VP of corporate communications.
"But for the first third of the franchise's history, he was the guy. For many of our ticket holders, the ones who have been there from the beginning, Floyd represents their era. For it to be recognized, as opposed to ignored, that's a really big thing."
Little now lives in Federal Way, Wash., which is about 25 miles south of Seattle. For 32 years he worked in the auto industry, including 18 owning a car dealership in Federal Way, but he relinquished his franchise at the end of 2008 when the economy began to sink. He now spends his time with his family and friends, traveling and preparing for his big weekend in Canton.
When asked what his lasting memory of his football career is, the former Bronco answers as fast as one of his long runs down the sideline. Little recalls his final game at Mile High Stadium, a Dec. 14, 1975, victory over the Eagles. The running back caught a 66-yard touchdown pass to give the Broncos the lead in the third quarter and then ran in a one-yard touchdown in the fourth to put the game out of reach. In all, Little accounted for 150 total yards that afternoon. When the final whistle blew, he didn't have to take another step.
"The fans came and carried me off the field," Little said. "The thing that really makes that game stand out is the opponents were quick to come over to congratulate me on a great career, and for helping to perpetuate a game that we all love and to wish me the best."
It wasn't the best finale to a Bronco career ever, but for Floyd "The Franchise" Little, it was the perfect final carry for a Hall of Fame running back.
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