Floyd Little, the legendary Broncos running back who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010, has died, his family announced. He was 78.
"Everyone with the Denver Broncos family is heartbroken with the passing of Floyd Little," President and CEO Joe Ellis said. "Without question, Floyd was one of the greatest Broncos of all-time and an unforgettable part of our history. He rightfully earned the nickname 'The Franchise' for his profound impact on this organization, helping to put the Broncos on the pro football map in the early days. As the first Pro Football Hall of Famer to star for the Broncos, Floyd brought credibility to this team while becoming one of the most dominant players of his era. Seeing him finally receive that Gold Jacket was the culmination of a tremendous lifetime in football. Even after his retirement, Floyd was a wonderful ambassador for the game and the Denver Broncos, carrying himself with warmth, kindness and class — always with humility and a smile. In recent months, he faced his cancer diagnosis with the same grit and determination that defined his incredible playing career. On behalf of the Broncos, we extend our deepest condolences to Floyd's wife, DeBorah, the entire Little family, his many fans and all of his loved ones."
Little's personal story was that of triumph after years of struggle. Perhaps that's what made him so perfect to lead the Broncos in the late '60s and early '70s.
There are no easy paths to the NFL, and even fewer to enduring football greatness — but Little's childhood seems to have been about as hard as any. His father died of cancer when he was 6 years old, and to help support his family, Little shined shoes. His difficulties learning and performing in school tests meant that he had to spend two years at a military institute improving his grades before he could enroll at Syracuse.
"The only thing I had was a dream," he said during a visit to his hometown in 1988. "I was on welfare, had no money, no promises and no guarantees."
He was a standout running back at Syracuse, where he wore No. 44 like star running backs Jim Brown and Ernie Davis before him. Little earned All-America honors in 1964-66 and was then selected by the Broncos with the sixth-overall pick.
Affectionately known as "The Franchise," Little arrived in Denver in 1967 with a unique status as the first first-round pick to sign with the team. Prior to 1967, the AFL and NFL had separate drafts, and the Broncos lost each of their top picks to more-established and more financially stable teams in NFL.
His arrival marked a new era for the Broncos, who were 26-69-3 in their seven seasons to that point. More than that, the Broncos were considered something of a laughingstock in the AFL — the runtish team of the runtish league. Little didn't immediately change that reputation, but he would do it in time.
It would take him a season to establish himself as one of the league's top running backs, but he showed the ability to make an immediate impact whenever he could get the ball in his hands. In his first season, he totaled an AFL-leading 1,626 all-purpose yards, including 1,212 yards on punt and kick returns.
He maintained that stature in his second season, and did so as he entered the AFL's top 10 in rushing yards. The effort earned him his first AFL All Star selection. It also produced one of his favorite stories, when head coach Lou Saban fired him in the middle of a game against the Bills.
Little had just fumbled as the Broncos looked to protect a narrow lead with less than a minute left.
"He told me to get off the field, get out of the stadium," Little told the Rocky Mountain News in 1992. "He said, 'You're fired. Get your [posterior] on the highway. You're gone.'"
Little refused, though, and returned to the huddle for the Broncos' final drive with 25 seconds left. He told quarterback Marlin Briscoe, "Just throw the ball as far as you can. … I'll be there. I'll catch it."
Little was true to his word. He made the 59-yard reception and then got 5 more yards because of a facemask penalty. The Broncos kicked the game-winning field goal on the next play.
As Little told it, Saban said after the game, "You have one more week."
Little, of course, lasted much longer.
The following year, Little earned a second All Star nod as he rushed for a career-high 729 yards, a total that ranked fifth in the AFL despite missing five games. At this point of his career, just three years in, Little had already become the Broncos' franchise rushing leader.
In their first season in the NFL after the merger, Little and the Broncos proved they were more than up for a new challenge. For a third consecutive year, Little improved upon the previous year's rushing output, this time running for 901 yards as he earned his first Pro Bowl selection in 1970.
A year later, though, Little would prove that he wasn't just one of pro football's top backs — he was the best. In 1971, he was the NFL's leading rusher as he galloped to 1,133 yards, the Broncos' first 1,000-yard rushing season.
Relive Floyd Little's prolific career with the Broncos and several memorable moments as a Broncos alumnus with these rarely seen photos.
In his final four seasons, Little added to his career accolades — two more years with at least 800 rushing yards apiece, new career highs in rushing touchdowns in a single season and yards from scrimmage. But perhaps none of those personal accomplishments meant as much as team's first winning season in 1973.
After a most inauspicious beginning, the Broncos finally had turned the tide and were at last emerging as a team worth respecting. Unfortunately, Little's time in the NFL would end in 1975, just two years shy of the Broncos' first postseason berth.
After Little's final season in 1975, his star loomed large in Broncos and NFL history. When he retired, he was seventh in rushing yards in pro football history and first in franchise history. At that time, his 6,323 career rushing yards were nearly 5,000 more than who was in second place. It was a record that wouldn't be broken until 1998.
Yet all that did not add up to surefire Hall of Fame candidacy, though many fans, analysts and peers thought it should.
For 35 years, Little waited. It was the only personal accomplishment that eluded him. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983. He was a member of the Broncos' inaugural Ring of Fame class in 1984 and his number has been retired.
As the years wore on, the more egregious Little's became, but it was finally rectified in 2010 when he was elected as seniors candidate.
Though the wait had been frustrating, Little was delighted to no end after being inducted. The idea that he was among the league's greats was maybe something that needed little validation. What resonated more was knowing that, in a way, he'd live on long after he passed.
"We are bound to leave everything we accomplished in this lifetime behind, passing it on," Little said in his enshrinement speech. "So leave a legacy that you and your family can be proud [of]."
There's no question Little did that, even outside of football.
After struggling with his education during his teenage years, Little refocused his devotion to learning at Syracuse and later as a student at the University of Denver. At the same time that he was leading a Hall of Fame playing career, Little was also working on a master's degree, graduating in 1975.
"I would go to practice in the day, and I would go to classes at night," Little said in 2019. "When I tell people that I went to Denver Law School at night while I played, they say, 'It's impossible, you can't do that.'
"Well, I guess that's what I've done all my life."