Sunday, February 7, 2010

Congrats Floyd Little - but did he really save football in Denver?

It was with great joy I watched my childhood hero, Denver Broncos running back great Floyd Little, inducted into the pro football Hall of Fame yesterday. I'm as big of fan of Floyd Little as anyone, and he richly deserves the honor. When I read statements like this in the Denver Post, though, it is a bit of a stretch:

""Without Floyd Little, there would be no Denver Broncos. Either they don't get picked up by the NFL in the merger, or they move to Alabama and become the Birmingham Broncos," said Tom Mackie, the co-author when Little penned his 2006 autobiography."

Tom Mackie deserves alot of credit for helping get Floyd in the Hall with his book. But what really saved the Broncos was owner Gerald Phipps (in 1965) and an organization called the DOERS which raised enough money for the Bears Stadium expansion after the merger had been agreed to. Longtime Denver broadcaster Larry Zimmer explains it well in his book "Denver Broncos: Colorful Tales of Orange and Blue":

"Bears Stadium was not big enough for the demands of the NFL after the announcement of the merger with the AFL in 1966. Gerald Phipps, who saved the Broncos for Denver in 1965, was the majority owner. He used his political clout to get the Metropolitan Stadium District created. The same legislation called for a bond issue to build a new 20 million dollar stadium near Stapleton Airport. The voters delivered a crushing blow by turning down the stadium bond issue by a two to one margin.

Phipps was keenly disappointed. Rumors were rampant that Commissioner Pete Rozelle and the NFL Owners favored relocating the franchise to Birmingham, Alabama.
A number of volunteer groups were formed to keep the team in Denver. They merged into one organization called the DOERS - Denver Organization to Erect the Right Kind of Stadium. Since a new stadium was out, the effort was to build an addition to Bears Stadium. The group organized collections at civic clubs, schools, and on street corners. ... The plan was to raise 1.8 million, buy Bears Stadium from the Phipps, and give it to the City and County of Denver, which would then pay for the additional 16,000 seats by issuing revenue bonds. The campaign was successful. A deck was added to the west side and the capacity was 50,000 when the 1968 season kicked off. On December 14, 1968 the name of the stadium was officially changed to Mile Hi Stadium."

The sequence of event was thus:

Merger agreed to by the NFL and AFL in 1966
NFL Owners concerned about Denver's small stadium, think about moving the Broncos to Birmingham
First common draft in 1967 between the NFL and AFL - Broncos take Floyd Little with the 6th pick in the first round
August 5, 1967, Broncos become the first ever AFL team to defeat an NFL team after beating the Detroit Lions, 13–7, in a preseason game. Floyd Little has yet to play a down with the team. The city was crazy with excitement due to the merger.
Floyd Little has an ok rookie year, gaining 381 yards over 14 games.
New Stadium Vote fails, DOERS get Bears Stadium expanded to 50,000, allowing Denver to participate in the merger
Broncos open 1968 season in their newly expanded 50,000 seat Bears Stadium
Floyd Little's career and the Broncos popularity really takes off starting in 1968, with the expanded stadium and the anticipation of playing in the NFL


I was a 12 year old in 1968, caught up with the excitement of the Broncos and spent $14 of my $25 savings to get season tickets in the South Stands (they had a kids ticket at the time for $2/game). Was Floyd Little a reason I bought season tickets? Certainly he was a part of it - he was my favorite Bronco. But there were other reasons - the anticipation of the NFL, other great Broncos (like all pro defensive end Rich Jackson), etc.

Floyd Little was the biggest star of the late 60's, early 70's broncos, and a role model to many Denver area kids including myself. But this thing called Broncomania that I've been around all my life is bigger than any one player. To say Floyd Little alone saved the Broncos doesn't give credit to Gerald Phipps (who saved the team in 1965 before Floyd was even drafted) or the fans who formed the DOERS, who raised the funds to get the stadium expanded to the NFL minimum.

There are many legitimate reasons why Floyd Little deserved the Hall of Fame. And while he was certainly a big part of the Broncos increased popularity in the late 60's, to say he single handedly "saved the team" is a bit of an exaggeration, and a claim I've seen some of Floyd Little detractors dispute. Floyd didn't need the "saved the Broncos" legend to get into the Hall - what the man did on the field was enough.