Floyd Little, the Pro Football Hall of Fame running back who continued the legacy of those who wore No. 44 for Syracuse University and maintained a lasting relationship with his alma mater through his final years, died Friday night at the age of 78.
Little, who played three seasons for Syracuse from 1964-66, ran for 2,750 yards and 35 touchdowns for the Orange. He also totaled 591 receiving yards and caught four passes for touchdowns, extending the reputation of those who wore SU’s hallowed number beyond his great predecessors, Jim Brown and Ernie Davis.
Little reportedly had been battling a rare form of cell cancer. His former college teammate, Watertown’s Patrick Killorin, publicly revealed in May that Little had been diagnosed with cancer. Killorin organized a GoFundMe drive for Little and had kept fans updated about the former running back’s condition.
“He was the best back that I ever blocked for, and I think the other guys would probably say the same thing,” said Killorin in May.
“In your life as an athlete, you get a chance to meet certain people that really inspire you and make you work harder, make you understand that if you missed a block that you realize why you missed that block and go back after it the next time and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Killorin said. “You want to play much better, and that’s what Floyd Little is about — making you a better player, making you a better person.”
Killorin revealed in late November that Little had entered hospice care.
“Floyd’s courageous battle with a difficult disease (cancer) is now at a critical stage in his life,” Killorin wrote on Facebook. “This is a time when a husband and wife must make important decisions regarding potential end of life decisions ... I love you my friend.”
Little was named All-American each of his three years at Syracuse and was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in 2010.
“Floyd Little is a Syracuse treasure,” Syracuse athletic director John Wildhack said. “The legacy that he leaves here is so much more than just one who wore No. 44, was an All-American, was in the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“Floyd’s legacy is that he was a wonderful, wonderful person. He treated everyone with genuine care and respect and was always there for people. His impact as a person is those that he impacted. He was always willing to share his time, his wisdom, his support. ... It is a legacy that will last forever and will never be replaced. He is someone who leaves a legacy of pure class in every single respect. There was only one Floyd Little and there will never be another one like him.”
Little was selected by the Denver Broncos as the No. 6 pick overall in the 1967 NFL draft. He played for the Broncos from 1967-75 and was a five-time Pro Bowl selection and first-team All-Pro in 1969. In 1971, when the NFL played 14-game seasons, he led the league with 284 rushes and 1,133 yards, as well as 1,388 yards from scrimmage.
In 117 career games, he gained 8,741 yards from scrimmage and scored 52 touchdowns. Little ranked seventh on the NFL’s career rushing list (6,323 yards) at the time of his retirement and was a charter member of the Broncos Ring of Fame in 1984.
Little still holds the Syracuse career record with six punt returns for touchdowns. He was named the 1966 ECAC Player of the Year while with SU and finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting twice. He played in the same Orange backfield as College and Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Larry Csonka and Tom Coughlin, the two-time Super Bowl champion head coach.
“Floyd’s legacy as a hall of famer, pro and college, on the gridiron, is just as strong off the gridiron with the things he has done in the community and the way he has affected people and their lives,” said Syracuse football coach Dino Babers. “He is the type of person you just cannot forget. His smile is contagious. His knowledge is power. The advice that this man gave you was just a godsend.
“There are numerous fond memories of Floyd, but one that I appreciate the most is during the weekend of a spring game, Floyd came back to Syracuse with his teammates, Larry Csonka and Tom Coughlin. They invited me to dinner with them. I watched the teammates rib each other, talk about one another and love each other. It was something I will never forget. I really do appreciate being a part of knowing exactly how close the Syracuse family is and how those three men loved each other and were pulling for each other, not only in everything they have done in football, but all their endeavors in life.”
Little was inducted into the Greater Syracuse Sports Hall of Fame in 2019, marking the 11th hall of fame to recognize him.
“Floyd Little was a true hero of the game. He was a man of great integrity, passion and courage. His contributions off the field were even greater than his amazing accomplishments he did on it. Floyd’s smile, heart and character epitomized what it meant to have a Hall of Fame life,” Hall of Fame President and CEO David Baker said in a statement.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with Floyd’s wife, DeBorah, and their entire family. We will forever keep his legacy alive to serve as inspiration for future generations. The Hall of Fame flag will be flown at half-staff in Floyd’s memory.”
Little is survived by DeBorah, son, Marc, daughters, Christy and Kyra, and several grandchildren.
Little chose Syracuse over Notre Dame and 45 other offers to fulfill a promise to fellow SU icon Davis. The two sat with Syracuse Hall of Fame coach Ben Schwartzwalker at dinner during a visit to Little’s hometown of New Haven, Conn. Little told Davis then he would sign with Syracuse but didn’t make it official until the day he learned of Davis’ death from leukemia three months later.
Little also seriously considered attending the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, mentioning his admiration for Gen. Douglas MacArthur who was part of the academy’s recruiting pitch for Little, during a visit to Fort Drum in 2012.
Little said that Gen. MacArthur told him that if he had a chance to go to the Academy, he could become the first Black General in the United States Army. Little said his decision was all but made up until his conversation with Davis.
In 2011, Little returned to his alma mater to serve as special assistant to the director of athletics, a position he held until 2016.
Little was popular with his Syracuse teammates and continued to bond with Syracuse players during his later years at the university.
Killorin forged an enduring bond with his teammate and said in May that Little called him every few weeks when he was experiencing past health problems.
“Overall, you couldn’t have had a better player on the field and off the field, and later on in life, he became such a great friend to everybody and was always there, always stepped up the plate to help you,” Killorin said.
Little’s generosity extended across the offensive line and to all his teammates, Killorin said, and he was also quick to joke around with his blocking unit.
Killorin recalled Little joking that his fifth-place finishes for the Heisman Trophy voting in 1965 and ‘66 would have been higher if not for a few false-start penalties from starting left guard, Tony Scibelli.
“He was very unselfish and always bothered to make sure his linemen were thanked for what we’ve done, and he also took every chance to give us a little dig once in a while,” Killorin said.
In 2016, Little was presented with an honorary doctorate in humane letters from Syracuse.
“No one loves Syracuse University as Floyd Little loves Syracuse University. He truly is Mr. Syracuse University,” Coughlin said.
Multiple wire services contributed to this report.