The last wish of Floyd Little, as spoken in his own words through an audio message played at his Celebration of Life on Saturday, is that we all “100 percent love and respect each other.”
After nearly three hours of heartfelt testimonials from those who knew the legendary Syracuse University and Denver Broncos running back best, it was clear that he lived by that principle.
Little, who died on Jan. 1 at age 78 from a rare form of cell cancer, was honored with a memorial service at Hendricks Chapel Saturday on the SU campus.
The tribute featured a litany of speakers, both in-person and through prerecorded videos, from his beloved wife, DeBorah, and his three children, to former friends, teammates, and colleagues from various points of his luminary life and career.
They all spoke to Little’s defining characteristics — his love of family, devotion to faith, and his perseverance and determination that was displayed throughout his proud Hall of Fame football career.
The common attribute cherished among all who shared a message on Saturday went back to his kind and welcoming nature, and the warmth those around him felt with even a quick interaction.
“It was a great celebration of a very good athlete, you couldn’t get much better as a football player than Floyd, but in my estimation, a much better person,” said Watertown native Pat Killorin, a former SU teammate and longtime friend who was in attendance, during a phone interview afterward.
“All the people that knew Floyd understood him to be the type of person who was very accommodating, always there for you, had a wonderful smile, and went out of his way to help you,” Killorin added. “He’s the type of guy that you don’t forget and the type of man that really inspires you to become better.”
The stage featured a large projector screen in the middle with bouquets of orange roses adorning each side. Little’s gold jacket and bust from the Pro Football Hall of Fame were placed on a chair to the left, while a portrait of Little proudly wearing the jacket was displayed on the right, next to a podium.
The service was limited to 75 attendees due to state COVID-19 restrictions and was live-streamed on the SU Athletics website. They began with a video tribute on Little’s life and career and then messages from Dean Brian Konkel, Pastor Phillip Turner, and SU chancellor Kent Syverud at the podium.
DeBorah Little then took the stage, sporting a Hall of Fame mask, for an emotional speech touching on her and Little’s intense love and examples of his kind and supportive ways. She shared stories that ranged from hilarious to heart-wrenching.
DeBorah first met Floyd Little after she was elected to the Syracuse City Council, but after already having quickly met former SU legends, Jim Brown and John Mackey, said she nearly turned down the introduction because she “didn’t want to meet another football guy.”
She spoke to the lengths Little went for personal interaction, such as when Little owned car dealerships, he would often drive parts that could be delivered by mail just to ensure it arrived safely and to chat with the recipient. He also refused to use the drive-thru for his bank visits.
“He never met a stranger and he loved all of you,” DeBorah Little said during her speech.
DeBorah Little also gave insight into Floyd’s battle with the illness that lasted more than a year and the uplifting mind-set he maintained.
“You would see Floyd in the most deteriorated state he could be in, he would be smiling,” she said. “Always smiling, always believing.”
Each of Little’s three children took the stage to share messages — daughters Christy Little-Jones and Kyra Little-DaCosta, along with his son, pastor Marc Little — the latter two also teaming up for a moving rendition of: “Love lifts us up where we belong.”
“If you closed your eyes while his son was talking, it almost sounded like Floyd talking, that soft voice,” said Killorin, who started a Go Fund Me page to help offset the cost of Little’s treatments last May. “His family is a family of many talents, and it was good to see them.”
Several others sent in video clips that were played throughout the ceremony. That group included Denver Broncos teammate Billy Thompson, former SU athletic director Daryl Gross, SU athletics colleague Herman Frazier, sportscaster Jim Gray, and childhood friend Joe Plumeri.
Pro Football Hall of Fame president David Baker was at the ceremony and spoke to the honor of preserving and promoting Little’s legacy moving forward through the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in which he was enshrined in 2010 after a long and well-documented wait.
Little accumulated 8,741 scrimmage yards and 52 touchdowns in 117 career NFL games for the Broncos. He finished his SU career with 2,750 rushing yards, 591 receiving yards, and 39 touchdowns during three All-American seasons from 1964-66, also garnering induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.
He is one of three players with a statue outside the SU practice facility, joining Jim Brown and Ernie Davis, all of whom furthered the legacy of the No. 44 in the program.
“He loved representing the game,” Baker said. “No one loved wearing that gold jacket more than Floyd.”
Soon after his wife DeBorah spoke, an audio message from Floyd Little was played, presumably recorded during his final days, in which he expressed gratitude for his family and the blessed life they experienced together.
“I’ll always be with you, I am your strength, and don’t you forget it,” Little said in the clip. “Please respect my last wishes, 100 percent love and respect each other. Sorry I can’t hang around a little longer, God is calling me home. I am Floyd Little, Pro Football Hall of Famer, Class of 2010.”