A long time coming for Floyd

By Mike Klis
Updated: August 8, 2010

Former Denver Broncos player Floyd Little speaks during his enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

Former Denver Broncos player Floyd Little speaks during his enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

CANTON, Ohio — On the day Floyd Little the football player was to receive assurance he would live forever, Floyd Douglas Little, the man born on the Fourth of July, picked at his breakfast.

It wasn’t the food’s fault.

“It feels just like a game,” Little said. “I’m all full of adrenaline. A little nervous. Can’t eat. Couldn’t eat when I was a player, can’t eat now. Let’s get it on.”

The Denver Broncos’ first star with national appeal, Little had to wait 30 years after he was eligible for election to become the franchise’s third player inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday at Fawcett Stadium, the high school home field of Denver head coach Josh McDaniels.

“It’s about time,” Vice President Joe Biden said in a taped message.

Little then delivered not only the most powerful speech from a group of seven inductees that included Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith, but one Biden might study for future use.

After thanking the Lord, every member of his family, his coaches, many of his former teammates and the people who worked on getting him elected, Little concluded his 9 minute, 20 second speech with an uplifting message to underdogs everywhere.

“The road is always not so easy,” Little said, looking at notes only once for transitional purposes. “I remember being a strong but angry young man in school. When I took my strength away, that became my weakness. After being kicked out of school, I reached an impasse in my life.”

He said he had a vision from his late father, who said, as Little put it: “FLOYD! I have chosen you to take my place, to do what I could not do.”

Little re-enrolled in school.

“I want to encourage you, every student, every athlete, every person who will hear my voice: Don’t listen to the naysayers,” Little said. “I had plenty of those. Don’t listen to those who will judge you for your rough edges. Don’t focus on your weakness so you won’t become a victim. Find the goodness in you that says: Yes I can!”

Saving the Broncos

Halfway through his two-egg omelet Saturday morning, Little, the former Broncos running back great, got a call from McDaniels, who was kicking from inside his mother’s womb when Little took his final handoff in 1975.

“He said, ‘The next opportunity you have to come to Denver, I would like you to stand before our team and talk to our players,’ ” Little said of his conversation with McDaniels. “He said, ‘I wasn’t old enough to have seen you play, but I’ve researched you, and I know everything that you meant to us. All my players need to know who you are, and what you meant to this franchise.”

The story goes that Little saved the Broncos franchise. A college sensation at Syracuse, Little became the Broncos’ first, first-round draft pick to snub the National Football League and sign with Denver’s struggling American Football League franchise. The excitement of Little’s arrival, coupled with a nonprofit group that funded the expansion of Bears Stadium to what became Mile High Stadium in 1968, scuttled relocation plans and kept the team in Denver.

Little, 68 years old and 35 years since his final NFL carry, follows John Elway and Gary Zimmerman on the Broncos’ list of Hall of Famers.

At breakfast, Little sat at the front of the far table in a cafeteria full of football greats. He was across from his son Marc, who presented Little to the Hall of Fame with a 3-minute, pretaped speech.

Along came Smith, the Dallas Cowboys running back great who looked as if he could have used a few more winks.

This wasn’t Little’s problem. He went to bed at 3 a.m. — he stayed up in his hotel room with his wife and daughters, talking about the exhilarating gold jacket presentation of the night and the enshrinement ahead — then got up at 6 a.m.

In the cafeteria, former Pittsburgh Steelers great Lynn Swann walked by to get some more coffee or juice when from behind he gave Little an impromptu shoulder massage.

“Hey, Lynn!” Little said, after turning to see who was working over his still strong shoulders.

“You know what the funny thing is,” Little said, turning back to the table, “I’ve played with 75 percent of these guys.”

Nearby was Hall of Fame receiver James Lofton, and the conversation in a cafeteria full of greats turned to Gordon Banks. An immortal in his own right, Banks was the best man at Lofton’s wedding and now is the senior pastor of Little’s church in Federal Way, Wash.

“Gordon Banks is a guy who never played in college and went on to have an eight-year professional career,” Lofton said.

Banks could have picked up a few tips from Little’s speech.

All the red-shirted Hall of Famers are supposed to autograph the footballs sitting at the back of the cafeteria, but by the time Little sauntered over, he was supposed to climb into a convertible and ride in the Hall of Fame parade.

“Oh, Flo-o-o-y-d!” everybody in the room teased. “Come on, Floyd!”

Little laughed and headed with his family to the start of the parade route.

Gold-jacket presentation

Many Hall of Famers have looked back at their special weekend and said the induction ceremony was anticlimactic compared with the Hall of Fame gold-jacket presentation the previous night.

As members of the new Hall class were waiting in a holding room for ESPN’s Chris Berman to stop talking Friday, Little was filled with calm and peace. And a little feistiness.

Joining him among senior players elected was Dick LeBeau, the former Detroit Lions defensive back who is now the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator. LeBeau has taken on a protective, never-let-them-read-you persona that is typical of longtime NFL coaches.

But Little poked away at LeBeau’s guard.

“I tell Dick, when you get introduced, let me go up in your place,” Little said. “They can’t tell the difference, anyway, because we both wore No. 44.”

LeBeau couldn’t help smiling at Little’s playfulness.

“He said, ‘You know what? I think they might, Floyd,’ ” Little said. ” ‘I think they might know the difference.’ ”

Finally, Little and his son Marc were led away from the holding room to the bottom of a runway that led to a large, glittering stage. Harsh spotlights were strobed off the black, glossy surface. A large, formally dressed audience was fixated on Rickey Jackson, who was on stage getting his gold jacket.

Marc quickly choreographed how he was going to slip on the gold jacket for his dad.

“And just as we were getting ready to walk out,” Marc said, “I whispered in his ear: ‘Welcome to immortality.’ ”

Out in the audience, former Broncos linebacker Tom Jackson was telling a story about his first encounter with Little.

“I’m a rookie, and Floyd runs a play off tackle,” Jackson said. “This is 1973. And I hit Floyd right on the knee. Feeling pretty good about myself. Here I’m a rookie, just got a nice lick in on Floyd Little.”

Up stepped John Ralston, then the Broncos’ coach. Jackson figured he was about to get his first compliment from the head coach.

“He puts his arm around me,” Jackson said. “And very quietly, John Ralston explains to me, ‘Son, that’s a quickest way out of here. Hitting our franchise on the knee.’ “

“The Franchise” then, Floyd Little is now a Pro Football Hall of Famer. Now, and for the rest of his life.

“I feel I can finally breathe,” Little said after the ceremony. “This has been a long, emotional journey for me. But this was supposed to be my time. I’m just glad I was still here to experience it.”