Most of the honorees express varying degrees of elation, gratitude and humility. Many break down with emotion. Floyd Little's feelings on getting his call to join the Pro Football Hall of Fame were more complex, and not entirely joyous.
The words “disappointment” and “bittersweet” come up as he looks back over the 30 years he’s waited for the honor.
The former Denver Broncos running back, a Federal Way businessman, was among the players added to the Hall by the senior committee in February.
Nicknamed “The Franchise” for his reputed influence in keeping the team from being relocated, the 67-year-old Little will be officially inducted in the annual ceremony at Canton, Ohio, in August.
“I was elated, but at the same time a little disappointed that it took so long,” Little said. “There was a lot of pain over the years; that doesn’t wash away completely.”
But better late than never, right?
“Oh, I’m glad to get in while I’m alive,” he said. “The average life expectancy for a football player is 58 years, and I’m 67, so I’ve already lived longer than most of us do.”
Little was a three-time All-America selection at Syracuse and was the first-round pick of the AFL Broncos in 1967. At the time, the Broncos had struggled to sign “name” players and had enjoyed no on-field success. A move to Birmingham, Ala., was reportedly in the works.
Little signed and starred. He didn’t entirely turn around the franchise, but he brought enough legitimacy and interest that the team stayed put.
In nine seasons, he was a two-time AFL All-Star and a three-time Pro Bowl player. He led the AFC in rushing in 1970 and the NFL in rushing the following year.
He returned punts and kicks every year, and also was a receiving threat. When he retired in 1975, Little was the seventh-leading all-time rusher (6,323 yards). The six ahead of him earned Hall of Fame inductions when their careers were over.
But Little waited.
Some theories on his snub: He started in the AFL, and played for a small-market team. Some of his numbers appeared pedestrian on the surface: 3.9 yards per carry career average, and 54 rushing yards per game.
Beyond the numbers, he was a fiery competitor who was one of the lone threats on a dismal team that had two winning seasons in his tenure.
Journalist Jeff Legwold, who presented the case for Little’s enshrinement to the senior committee, brought up some interesting points:
In a six-year period when he rushed for more yards and had more total yards than any player in the league, his team went 47-73-6. Of those six backs who had more yards than Little at the time of his retirement, all operated behind at least one Hall of Fame lineman.
Little never had a single lineman even make it to the Pro Bowl. Consequently, on roughly 30 percent of his carries, he was first hit by a defender before ever making it to the line of scrimmage.
After retirement, Little got into the car business and owned Pacific Coast Ford in Federal Way. And while he built a loyal customer base for what he called a “family-oriented business,” he waited for a call from Canton that didn’t come.
“I had fallen through the cracks, if you will,” Little said.
Not among his fans, though, who continued to pose an uncomfortable question.
“People always were asking me what year it was that I was inducted into the Hall,” he said. “All the time; I heard it all the time. I would respond: ‘I’ve never even been nominated.’ And they would always say, ‘You’re kidding me.’ ”
A few years ago, Little wrote a letter to the members of the senior committee and asked them if they had an explanation that he could give to those who kept inquiring. Several replied that they agreed it had been an unfair oversight.
Little said he believes he has a firm legacy in place aside from the Hall induction.
“I’m referred to as ‘The Franchise’ by Denver fans, and I like that,” he said. “I want to be remembered as a guy who played hard every down and ran back punts and kickoffs all the time because I had investment in that franchise and that team.”
Little likes the idea of having his bust in Canton, because it represents a form of “being immortalized.”
“It’s been bittersweet,” he said.
The most bitter is the closing of his car dealership in 2008, falling victim to the recession and tight money.
“When the banks dried up, it was the ripple effect that hit us,” he said. “I was in it 32 years, and it was the greatest experience.”
And now, the business is gone but debts remain.
“We’re dealing with that; there’s a lot of people we still owe dollars to. We’re in the same boat as a lot of other businesses. It got on top of us so fast we couldn’t keep up; it’s not a good deal.”
Little told his story via phone while waiting for a plane back to Syracuse, where he was honored at a Saturday basketball game against Villanova. His Hall of Fame call was big news there, of course.
A few minutes after finishing the interview, my phone rang. It was Little.
“Hey, you should tell people that I’ve got five acres of prime property right on Pacific Highway … somebody needs to come and buy that off me …”
Still the businessman. He might have added in his marketing pitch that he would gladly autograph the deed to the land, and sign it “The Franchise – Pro Football Hall of Fame member.”
Dave Boling: 253-597-8440