January 2, 2021
made the Broncos. And I'm not talking about cracking the roster.
In the wake of his death, you're seeing the tributes, of course -- some from those relying on
search engines, others speaking and writing from the heart. From former teammates, from others in the game, even touchingly
from those of a certain age range who were raised in Colorado and considered Floyd their first sports hero. It has been much
-- and correctly -- noted that he helped legitimize a bedraggled franchise and perhaps played a role in it remaining in Denver
as the NFL-AFL merger was in the works in advance of the united schedules.
Frankly, the oft-parroted notion that Little was the Broncos' only big-time
player in the '60s is incorrect, and acknowledging that isn't diminishing his impact. Rich "Tombstone" Jackson was
a terrific defensive end with Denver from 1967-73, defensive tackle Paul Smith (1968-78) was among the pro game's elite during
his prime, and Billy Thompson was one of the most versatile defensive backs in the NFL from the second he joined the Broncos
in 1969. He was a cornerback/return man for four seasons before switching to safety.
My father, Jerry, was the Broncos' offensive line coach in Little's
final four seasons. He immensely respected Floyd, considering him tough enough to sit in on O-line meetings. (No, they didn't
do that. I'm just saying...) Floyd was undersized and took poundings as part of the job description. His legs were so bowed,
it looked as if he had just come from competing in bull riding at the Greeley Stampede. His teammates loved him, he was the
spiritual and competitive leader, and he meant so much more to his team -- and this town, then still somewhat of an outpost
with an inferiority complex.
betting that many who don't understand the big picture and context this weekend were assuming that Floyd led the NFL in rushing
twice and had, oh, five 1,000-yard seasons in the 14-game schedules of the tme. Surely, all this love for a running back must
come with eye-popping numbers to support his greatness, right?
Little had one 1,000-yard rushing season, with 1,133 yards in 1971, beating out Green Bay's John
Brockington for the NFL rushing title by 28 yards.
He came within shouting distance of 1,000 again the next two seasons (859 and 979).
The Broncos did win
another NFL rushing title during Floyd's career, but that champion was Otis Armstrong, who rushed for 1,407 yards with a 5.3-yards
per carry average in 1974. That year, Armstrong and Little often were in the same backfield together, Otis nominally as the
fullback. The banged-up Little was limited to 117 carries and 312 yards.
Long before then, Little passed the eye test and more for greatness.
He exuded it.
I'd say the analytics geeks need to put away the calculators to truly get that.
But maybe it takes a Delorean with a flux capacitor,
Maybe you had to be here.
And then after his career, obtaining a law degree
was another challenge he could handle. Head-on.
My father made two other NFL coaching stops -- with Tampa Bay and Chicago -- before returning with Dan Reeves in
1981 and spending the rest of his life with the Broncos as coach, scout, director of college scouting and, ultimately, a semi-retired
consultant. There was one more player he coached whom he considered cut from the same "football player" cloth as
That was Walter Peyton, listed
at the same height (5-10) and only four pounds heavier than Little's 196.
Jerry Frei liked to say that Payton could step in and play any position,
including quarterback and, if necessary, tackle for a few plays. (That was exaggeration, but I knew what he meant.)
Final thought: In Floyd's prime, a kid used to
call in to "Bronco Talk" after EVERY game and ask Bob Martin: "How many yards did Floyd Little gain?"
Bob didn't suffer fools very well. But he always
Because to Colorado, to those
young and old, Floyd transcended the game.
Not that stats defined Floyd Little, but here
are his career numbers ... (Pro Football Hall of Fame.)
Football Hall of Fame.)