Syracuse University Magazine

F_little_Aug2010.jpg

Pro Football Hall of Fame

Add Patience to his Virtues: Floyd Little

Joins the Pantheon of NFL Greats—at Last

Floyd Little ’67 was born on the 4th of July, which seems apt for a three-time Syracuse All-America running back who wore the number 44 and went on to a spectacular career in pro football. To no one’s surprise, Little was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983, soon after becoming eligible. Why then, football fans wonder, did it take until 2010—Little’s 30th year of eligibility—for him to assume his rightful place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio? The wait was long—and ironic. For decades, Little was introduced at public functions as a “future hall-of-famer” by the likes of longtime NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle and pass-catching-ace-turned-sportscasting-star Frank Gifford. In time, Little’s induction may have been taken for granted. Last August, this lingering injustice was righted when Little was enshrined in pro football’s pantheon. “It’s truly a great honor for me to finally get in to the Hall of Fame,” Little told one newspaper. “It’s taken quite a while to get there, but I’m not mad at anybody. I’m happy I can stand up and receive this honor with my family and friends.  I didn’t want to go in posthumously; I wanted to go in when I could celebrate with the family, the kids, the fans, and the teams.” 

 The mystery of Little’s exclusion from Canton remains just that. A first-round draft pick of the Denver Broncos, he spent nine seasons with the team as one of pro football’s most productive running backs. A five-time all-star, he led the NFL in rushing in 1971 with 1,133 yards, topped his conference in rushing twice, and gained more than 12,000 yards in total offense. Considered small at 5 feet 10 inches, 195 pounds, Little demonstrated a spirited versatility that was rare then and rarer today. During several seasons he was the only player in the league to score touchdowns three ways: as a running back, pass receiver, and punt returner. He retired in 1975 as the pro game’s seventh leading rusher, all-time.  

In life after football, Little became a successful businessman and community leader, making his home in Seattle. Asked to explain the delay in reaching Canton, he says, “I think it had to do with playing in Denver.” There were three relevant disadvantages for players wearing that other Orange uniform during Little’s years as a Bronco: The team had a losing record seven of nine seasons, never qualifying for post-season play; the city was among the smallest NFL media markets, leaving players as far from the national spotlight as possible in pro football; and as an American Football League franchise absorbed by merger, the Broncos were subject to snobbery on the part of old-time NFL hands, who dominated Hall-of-Fame politicking. Little believes the hand of fate helped open the door. “I believe everything happens for a reason,” says Little, who co-chaired this fall’s Orange Central extravaganza. “In the 44th year after I graduated, with our 44th president in office, during the year my son turned 44 and the 44th Super Bowl was played, I received the 44 votes necessary. You might say it was in the stars.”

Little’s mantle did not sit bare while he awaited the cosmic alignment. He was recognized by the NFL Players Association in 1973 with the Byron “Whizzer” White Player of the Year Award, named for the late Supreme Court justice who played halfback for the Detroit Lions. In 1978, Little was the Walter Camp Foundation’s Man of the Year, putting him in the company of Hugh “Duffy” Dougherty ’39, the only other Orange footballer so honored. On the 25th anniversary of Little’s graduation from SU, he received the prestigious NCAA Silver Anniversary Award, determined by a formula described as “40 percent athletics; 60 percent career.” When it comes to crediting others, Little displays none of the reluctance Canton showed him. Little’s College Hall of Fame biography concludes with this: “He said of Syracuse, ‘I liked it because they made you be a student first, an athlete second.’”  —David Marc





And Then There Were Seven

Floyd Little is the seventh Orange player admitted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He joins an impressive group: fellow number 44 halfback Jim Brown ’57 (Cleveland Browns); center Jim Ringo ’53 (Green Bay Packers), tight end John Mackey ’63 (Baltimore Colts); wide receiver Art Monk ’80 (Washington Redskins); team owner and coach Al Davis ’50 (Oakland Raiders); and fullback Larry Csonka ’68 (Miami Dolphins). Little and Csonka, whose years as student-athletes at SU overlapped, appear to be the only members of the same college backfield elected to both the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Astrologers take note: both Little and Davis were born on the 4th of July.