Floyd Little, one of Connecticut’s greatest athletes, has died.
Little, born on July 4, 1942, burst into football prominence at James Hillhouse High School before Hall of Fame careers at Syracuse University and with the Denver Broncos. Little was enshrined into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983 and Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010. He was a charter member of Broncos Ring of Fame in 1984.
He died Friday at his home in Las Vegas with his wife, DeBorah, at his side, according to a statement from his family.
Little was uncle to former Hamden Mayor Scott Jackson, who called his uncle “magnetic.”
“He was one of the greatest football players of all time,” Jackson said. “He was a better person than he was a football player.”
Jackson said Little was one of six children, all of whom have died except Jackson’s mother, the oldest of the siblings.
There’s a tradition the family has followed when a family member passes away, Jackson said.
“We all get up and tell stories about the loved one that we’ve lost,” he said. “In a pandemic, I don’t know what it’s going to look like. I don’t know that we’re going to be able to do that.”
When asked what story he would tell, Jackson said he didn’t know yet.
“There are too many to tell of uncle Floyd. There are just too many,” he said, recalling that his own father passed away when he was a young adult. “When we needed a father figure, uncle Floyd would ably step in. He walked my sister down the aisle. He gave the first toast at mine.”
Little, 78, was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in May. He entered hospice care in late November.
Little ran for 6,323 yards and 43 touchdowns in nine seasons with the Denver Broncos after being the sixth overall selection in 1967 draft. He recorded his lone 1,000-yard season in 1971 when he was the NFL rushing champion with 1,133 yards in 14 games. He led the AFL in all-purpose yards in 1967 and 1968, and led the AFL and NFL in rushing yards per game during the 1969 and 1971 seasons.
He remains a popular figure in Denver. On Nov. 22, the Broncos awarded Little and his family the game ball following a 20-13 victory over the Miami Dolphins.
A member of Syracuse’s all-century team, Little earned All-American honors at Syracuse from 1964-66 and graduated with a program record 2,704 yards. He broke Jim Brown’s program record with 1,681 all-purpose yards in 1964 and broke that mark with 1,990 yards in 1965, a record that still stands. The 1966 team captain, played seven games as top 10 teams during his three seasons with the Orange.
Little was enshrined into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983 and Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010.
President-elect Joe Biden, a classmate and fraternity brother of Little’s at Syracuse, videotaped one of two introductory speeches for Little.
“President-elect Biden and he were able to connect on the phone a couple of weeks ago,” Jackson said.
“I watched him play in Archibald Stadium, his number 44 flashing by defenders who had no chance,” Biden said in a released statement Saturday, “running as if he was chasing the spirit of his dear friend and fellow 44 legend, Ernie Davis.
“In the years that followed, I got to know Floyd as the man behind the number,” Biden said. “He was full of character, decency, and integrity. He was always gracious with his time with fans — parents and grandparents who wanted to introduce their children and grandchildren to a genuine role model.
“I was one of them,” Biden said. “I remember our call when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the joy in his voice. And I remember the more recent call when he shared his cancer diagnosis, and how fearless he was in his conviction to fight it. As with everything else he did in life, Floyd lived to the very end with grit and heart, and love for his family and faith in God. I will miss my friend. He was a good man.”
President-elect Joe Biden comments on the passing of Floyd Little.
Biden is a Syracuse law school graduate. pic.twitter.com/si3EW3Lxrj
— Robert Harding (@RobertHarding) January 2, 2021
As Little’s son, Marc Little, recalled during a speech when his father was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Biden made sure to mention his friend: “Joe said, ‘Ladies and gentleman, I’ve always dreamed I’d stand in this place, but I was hoping I’d be standing next to my friend Floyd Little.’”
During his enshrinement in Canton, Little passed on notecards and spoke from the heart, including his humbling beginnings in New Haven.
“Because of those who encouraged me in those early years, I am here today,” Little said. “I want to encourage you, every student, every athlete who will hear my voice. Don’t listen to the naysayer. I had plenty of those. Don’t focus on your weakness, so you won’t become a victim. Find the goodness in you that says, yes I can be a good student. Yes I can be a good son or daughter. Yes I can be a positive role model.
“The choice is yours. Be the best you can be. I truly believe that none of us is anything until the least of us is something. Leave a legacy that you and your family can be proud. I’ve given you everything that I’ve got, and I’m a better person for it.”
During Little’s Hall of Fame induction speech, he also made reference to the angry young man at Troup Middle School. Implied in his speech were the many peers, coaches and administrators who “saw the good in him” and gave him a chance to excel.
Little told the New Haven Register in 2010 that one of those people was Bob Schreck, a former teacher at Troup and later principal at Troup and Lee High School. Little credited Schreck with helping convince school administrators to allow him to return to school after as a seventh-grader he was expelled for fighting a ninth-grade bully, and then helped steer a better path for a painfully shy young man who was ridiculed over what was perceived as his lack of academic wherewithal.
“Because of those who believed in me, I was re-enrolled back in school, became class president (in ninth grade) and started my journey as a leader in everything I did,” said Little. “I never looked back.”
Little also gave much credit to former Hillhouse football coaching legend Dan Casey. Little praised Casey in his Hall of Fame speech for seeing the good in him when others didn’t. Little’s SAT scores were not good, but Casey was determined to get Little into the best possible preparatory environment he could.
“He pulled out all the stops and found a school in Bordentown that wanted to integrate,” Little told the Register in 2010. “They wanted a more mature person that could deal with hostility and anger and racism. I was the first African American to go to Bordentown.”
The same year he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he returned to New Haven to personally present a scholarship named in his honor at the New Haven Gridiron Club annual dinner. He shocked the New Haven Gridiron Club that evening with a personal check for $12,000 to the organization.
Little returned to the New Haven Gridiron Club dinner again in 2015 when his Hillhouse backfield mate Billy McCoy was inducted.
Hillhouse won eight of nine games in 1960, a controversial loss to Notre Dame-West Haven in October costing it the Waskowitz Trophy — a coveted prize in the days before CIAC playoffs and the Register Top 10 Poll.
McCoy and Little shared the story of how Little found his way into the lineup in 1959 during an interview with the Register in 2015.
Little was not a starter. His persistent pleading with Casey finally got him on the field. And a little white lie opened the door. Hillhouse trailed Harding 21-0 in the 1959 home opener when Casey, tired of listening to Little, told him to go in and block for McCoy. Little got to the huddle and said, “Coach wants me to carry the ball.” He scored on a long run and remained a fixture in the lineup.
The New Haven Athletic Center was renamed in Little’s honor in 2011. Leading up to the dedication of the building, he said in an interview with the Register how much it meant to him to have one of the state’s best indoor athletic facilities named after him.
“Entering the Pro Football Hall of Fame is a cut above all of the awards I’ve received in sports,” Little said. “It’s historical. But when you put it in perspective, I’m one of 267 people in the Hall of Fame. I’m bust number 257 of 267. But how many people enshrined in Canton have a building with their name on it? That’s something that perpetuates you. That’s what makes me say, ‘Wow.’ And to have it in the place where it all started for me, that’s what makes it more significant for me than being in the Hall of Fame.
“It’s so special because it’s my home,” Little said in 2011. “There’s still a lot of Connecticut in me. I became who I am because people in New Haven believed in me. They saw the good in me and helped me, and I hope I can do that same thing for kids in my hometown.”