Syracuse football great Floyd Little passes away at 78

Floyd Little dies at 78

College and Pro Football Hall of Famer's impact felt on and off the football field from Syracuse to Denver.
Published: January 2, 2021
Commencement 2016 Ceremony Floyd D. Little
Floyd Little accepts an honorary degree at Syracuse University's 2016 commencement ceremony.

Floyd Little, college and professional football Hall of Famer, passed away Jan. 1, 2021, after a long battle with cancer, his son Marc Little announced on Twitter on Saturday. He was 78 years old.

“I will miss him more than I can fathom,” said Little in his tweet. “I was blessed to have Floyd Little as my father. I am the luckiest son in the world.”

Little went public with his cancer diagnosis in May. Former Syracuse teammate Patrick Killorin posted updates about Little’s status on his Facebook page, and on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, he shared that Little had had entered hospice care.

Little was a standout football player long before his days with the Orange and the Denver Broncos. In an article from the Hartford Courant, the New Haven, Conn., native was described as a man among boys during his playing days at Hillhouse High School.

He returned to Hillhouse each year to present the Floyd Little Scholarship. This year’s winner was Josiah Artis, a senior who in March was honored as a scholar athlete by the National Football Foundation.

“You could hear a pin drop when he spoke,” said Bill Santillo, president of the New Haven Gridiron Club. “Basically, he talked about what you’ve got to do to be a champion. You’ve got to overcome obstacles. You’ve got to hang with the right people. You can’t let outside influences influence you. You’ve got to focus on it. Everybody was listening and when he got done, everybody gave him a standing ovation.”

Little went on to be the first African American player at the Bordentown Military Institute and fought against racism in his time there.

When it came time to choose a college to continue his career at, Little was a highly-coveted recruit; even Gen. Douglas MacArthur personally asked him to go to West Point.

After a conversation with Ernie Davis, Little committed to play football at Syracuse. Davis passed away a few months later, and Little went on to follow in his and Jim Brown’s footsteps, even adorning the same No. 44 as The Elmira Express himself.

In college, Little became the only three-time All-American running back Syracuse has ever had. In 1964, he took 157 carries for 874 yards and nine touchdowns and corralled 17 catches for 257 yards and one touchdown. Little finished 5th in Heisman Trophy voting in both 1965 and 1966; in those two seasons he combined for 1,876 rushing yards on 355 carries, 334 yards on 34 catches and 29 total touchdowns.

After a successful career with the Orange that would see his and Davis’ number retired forever, Little was drafted sixth overall in the 1967 NFL Draft. With the Denver Broncos, the team with which Little spent his entire professional career, he would go on to have a prominent impact on and off the field.

Little was selected as the Broncos’ team captain in all nine of his professional seasons, including his rookie year. He led the league in combined yards in 1967 and 1968. In the latter year, he caught four passes for 165 yards, setting a franchise record of 41.25 yards per reception that has yet to be broken over fifty years later. Little lived up to his name. At 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds, he was the smallest back to lead the NFL in rushing since World War II.

When he retired in 1975, Little was the league’s seventh all-time leading rusher. He bowed out from the NFL with 6,323 rushing yards, 2,418 receiving yards, 43 rushing touchdowns, nine receiving touchdowns and five Pro Bowl selections, including four consecutive appearances from 1968-1971.

Little’s No. 44 was also retired in Denver.

The former Orange player was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983. Ten years ago, in 2010, Little was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame alongside Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith, Russ Grimm, Rickey Jackson, John Randle and Dick LeBeau.

President-elect Joe Biden, who went to Syracuse at the same time as Little, paid tribute to the Orange football star and said that he would miss his “friend,” who Biden had come to know in the years since their graduations.

“I watched him play in Archbold Stadium, his number 44 flashing by defenders who had no chance, running as if he was chasing the spirit of his dear friend and fellow 44 legend, Ernie Davis,” said Biden in a statement.

“In the years that followed, I got to know Floyd as the man behind the number. He was full of character, decency, and integrity.”