|Bill Ingraham / Associated Press|
|Floyd Little was a big target on a mediocre Denver team, but he was still tough for opposing defenses to contain.|
In 2005, Syracuse University retired its No. 44 jersey. Only 11 players in the long history of the Orangemen have ever worn the number.
When you look over a list of those 11 names, the legend may be a bit inflated. But from 1954-66, three running backs who wore No. 44 for Syracuse made an indelible mark on football.
First there was Jim Brown, who became arguably the greatest running back in NFL history. Then came Ernie Davis, a Heisman Trophy winner who followed Brown to the Cleveland Browns but tragically died of leukemia before he ever played in the pros. And a few years later, there was Floyd Little.
It took a little longer than most, but on Aug. 7, Little will join Brown as a member of the Pro football Hall of Fame.
I had the privilege of seeing Little in person when I went to the Gator Bowl in 1966. I was there to see a Tennessee wide receiver we had drafted, Austin Denny (it wasn't a scouting mission; we were trying to keep him away from the AFL). But Little was more than a little distracting.
Tennessee's strong defense was stacked to stop the run, as Syracuse rarely passed the ball in those days anyway. But they couldn't stop Little -- he rushed for 216 yards. Simply put, it was one of the finest rushing performances I have ever seen.
Little had outstanding running ability and was a great kick returner. But he also possessed excellent blocking skills -- an unusual trait for a tailback in that era.
As a player in the NFL, Little was relegated to some very poor teams in Denver. Only twice did the Denver Broncos finish above .500 during Little's nine-year career; they mustered a grand total of 47 wins in those nine seasons -- but it wasn't Little's fault.
He was a five-time Pro Bowler despite playing for a non-contender. As he did at Syracuse, he wore No. 44 with the Broncos, and he is one of only three Broncos to have their jersey numbers retired, along with Frank Tripuka and John Elway. Thanks to a push from the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Seniors Committee, Little will now have a bust in Canton along with Elway.
In addition to his dynamic skills as a runner, Little might well have been the most respected teammate in the history of the NFL. In his nine seasons with the Broncos, Little was voted team captain all nine years. I have never seen anything like that before, and I doubt we will ever see that kind of respect for one player again.
Later in Little's career, he really became an accomplished pass-catcher. Between his receiving skills, his blocking skills and his running ability, Little would truly have thrived in today's era of spread offenses.
He was a truly great ball carrier in his prime; had he played for a contender, he might have been one of the most exciting players in history. While that's speculation and can be argued either way, his induction into the Hall of Fame solidifies a legacy of greatness that can never be taken away.