Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Meeting "44" 44 years later

November 24, 1968 was a cold day in Denver.  That afternoon I sat with my friend Greg in the South Stands at what was then called "Bears Stadium" watching the Denver Broncos-Buffalo Bills game.  We had bought season tickets to the Broncos that summer at what seemed at the time to be a high price for a 12 year old - $2 per ticket!

As two sixth graders we loved attending Bronco games that season.  Denver did not have a very good team, but we enjoyed the excitement of going to the games.  On this day we were happy as the clocked ticked down with under a minute to play and our beloved Broncos ahead 31-29, running out the clock.

Suddenly Broncos star running back #44 Floyd Little fumbled!  A Buffalo player picked up the ball and was tackled deep in Denver territory.  The Bills kicked a field goal to go ahead 32-31.  A tear came to my eye as I sat shivering in section CC row 39 of the South Stands.  There was nothing more important to this 12 year old than seeing the Broncos win, and with 23 seconds left a Buffalo victory looked to be certain.

But Floyd Little had other plans.  The Broncos got the ball back on their own 31 yard line.  Time for one or two plays at most.  I watched as diminutive Broncos quarterback Marlin Briscoe, at 5'10" short by NFL standards, throw the ball as deep and far as he could.  The ball seemed to hang in the air forever as it came towards us in the South Stands.  Little dived and caught the ball, tumbling to the Bills' 10 yard line.  Bobby Howfield kicked a field goal and Denver won 34-32! 

I was so happy I saved the Denver Post sports section the next day - I always wanted to remember this great Bronco victory.  "If I hadn't caught that ball," said Floyd in that 1968 game story, "I don't know if I would have had to quit football or not.  I'd have had to do a lot of thinking."  It turns out Floyd was "fired" by Bronco coach Lou Saban after he had fumbled, and he ran back onto the field, against Saban's orders, to make the winning play.  I still have that paper, worn and tattered over the years. 

On Tuesday night I met Floyd Little in person for the first time in my life.  He was appearing at the Denver Broncos Quarterback Club (DBQC) to promote and sign copies of his new book, Promises To Keep.  As a board member of the DBQC I handled the negotiations with Floyd's publisher to setup this meeting.  I was thrilled when I got to sit next to Floyd at dinner!

I pulled out that old paper and showed it to Floyd, telling him the story of me being in the South Stands that day.  He said, "You ought to put that in plastic!"  We chatted for 10 to 15 minutes.  "44 years ago was when Lou Saban fired you," I said.  Floyd's eyes lit up. "44 years?  You're right!  I'm going to use that in my interviews tomorrow!"  We reimnisced about some of the great games in his Bronco career.  "Lou Saban's last win as Broncos coach, where you beat the Browns 27-0 in Cleveland was a good one," I said.  "That game meant a lot to Lou - he used to play for the Browns," Floyd replied.  I didn't know that!

Floyd was very gracious at the meeting.  He made a point to visit each table and greet the 80 fans in attendance.  After I had my 1 to 1 talk with Floyd over dinner he spoke to the group for an hour, telling of his life (chronicled in his new book) and answering questions.  "I played with 50 offensive linemen and 27 different quarterbacks in Denver," Floyd said.  "I'd be great if I played today.  Back then some of my best runs were just to get back to the line of scrimmage!"

Floyd told us a number of stories.  How the Jets wanted to draft him at pick #9 of the first round and give him the same salary that Joe Namath got as a rookie ($400,000).  Instead Denver selected him at pick #6 and he signed for $10,000.  How Mean Joe Greene, the Hall of Fame Pittsburgh defensive lineman, told Floyd after Floyd was selected to the Hall, "you were the best football player I ever played against - not just the best running back - but the best football player, period. Congrats."

Sadly, Floyd is still bothered by the lack of respect he got from the press during his playing days.  He told us of an appearance at the Pro Bowl in the early 70's where the press mostly ignored his accomplishments.  And that continues to this day, as Sports Illustrated's Peter King called Floyd after the 2010 Pro Football Hall Of Fame selections were announced to say, "I didn't vote for you." 

If I were to give advice to Floyd, I'd say don't focus on these negative reporters, and on anyone who says you don't belong in the Hall of Fame.  Instead think of all the Denver area kids you were an inspiration to, like myself, with your never-give-up positive attitude and tremendous skills on the football field.  Floyd continues to be an inspiration to young people today, as he is an assistant to the Athletic Director at his alma mater - Syracuse University.

Floyd Little and me, 10/16/12

PS For more on that 1968 Bills/Broncos game watch a video that I recorded from a 1980 TV special and put on you tube awhile back where Floyd and Lou Saban talk about that game.

Thanks to Tom Mackie, Floyd's co-author, for his assistance in connecting me to Triumph Books to setup this meeting.

Cold football game photo by Express Times Bill Adams

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