Sun, 16 Aug 2020

Sacco Sez: The Franchise who saved the Broncos

Denver Broncos
05 Jul 2020, 10:38 GMT+10

The greatest celebration of the Fourth of July is that of the United States of America, with food and fireworks (when allowed), a festival for the entire nation.

But there are other celebrations in conjunction with the Fourth of July, and the most prominent to Denver Broncos fans is that it is the birthday of Floyd Little.

A Pro Football Hall of Famer and the first player chosen for the Broncos Ring of Fame, Little stands as the first great Denver player and one whose exploits are known by all in Broncos Country. Of course, his many honors in recent years rekindled his statistical greatness for everyone.

But once upon a time, before the present, there was the beginning.

Floyd Little symbolized pro football in Denver for many years, certainly for the entire period before the Broncos made the playoffs and became annual championship contenders.

So meager was the state of the Denver franchise over most of its first two decades that this author and late sports columnist Dick Connor gave Little the nickname "The Franchise," which he has justly carried to this day.

Like those of the Broncos, Little's beginnings were humble.

"Very, very difficult and very challenging," Little told me.

Like life for the Broncos, nothing came easy.

An accomplished high school athlete, Little felt that his academics needed refinement to compete in the classroom at the best colleges.

"I went on to a military school [Bordentown Military Institute] and learned to do the necessary things that were important in terms of discipline, integrity and character - all of those things that are intangibles," Little said.

Thanks to his efforts, Little earned a full scholarship to Syracuse, where he was given one of the ultimate honors in college football in the 1950s and '60s. Syracuse awarded him jersey number 44, the number that Jim Brown and Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis had worn for the Orangemen.

At a time when freshmen could not play varsity football, Little became a three-time All-American running back at Syracuse. By doing that, Little joined a select group that includes Doak Walker, who starred at Southern Methodist University in the 1940s.

In a twist of irony, it was Walker, then a personnel man for the Broncos, who scouted Little for the Broncos.

But meanwhile, back in Denver ... it was early 1967 and the Broncos had just completed their seventh straight season without a winning record. The Phipps brothers, who owned the team, had hired Lou Saban, architect of back-to-back American Football League championship teams in Buffalo, to build the Broncos. This would be the first step toward a semblance of respectability, before the playoffs could even be considered.

The merger of the American and National Football Leagues had begun to take place, and while all AFL teams were to go into the NFL, a huge condition was that every franchise must have a stadium that seated at least 50,000 people.

Prior to this, the team played in a minor league baseball park, Bears Stadium, which was half made of wood for football and only seated 35,000 fans. On March 17, 1967, metropolitan Denver voters turned down a stadium bond issue to build a suitable new stadium.

So this was the situation into which Floyd Little was drafted.

The East Coast native recalled his reaction to the news of being drafted by Denver. "I was not happy. I could not believe it when I got a call from Lou Saban that they had drafted me to the Denver Broncos. I was like, 'You have got to be kidding me.'

"I could not believe it 'til I flew out to meet Lou. I was just amazed and fell in love with Denver the first day that I saw it."

And Denver fell in love with him right away, too.

The first bona fide national superstar in Broncos history, Little was coming to a team and city hungry for success and an identity in pro football.

Little would supply the cornerstone for building franchise respect by maintaining a sterling standard of play and a quality of leadership matched very few times since. His status on the team and in the community was so revered that the future Hall of Famer was the team's only captain, as selected by his peers, during his entire nine-year career.

Little's standard of excellence as a running back was such that any reasonable ranking of Broncos players would place him on the kind of list that can be counted using just one's thumbs.

Not only was Little "The Franchise" for the Broncos, but he walked door-to-door to help drum up financial support that would ultimately lead to the expansion of that ballpark to become Mile High Stadium, meeting all standards set by the NFL merger.

The civic drive to raise the funds necessary for the stadium project ended in February of 1968, and construction began on a 16,000 seat upper deck that raised capacity above 50,000 for the 1968 season. Bears Stadium was officially renamed Denver Mile High Stadium on December 14, 1968.

He retired as the seventh all-time leading rusher in NFL history, and led the NFL in total rushing yards from 1968-73. He was also first in yards from scrimmage during that six-year time frame.

Among numerous off the field honors, Little was awarded the 1974 Byron White Humanitarian Award presented by the NFL Players Association.

Now, the Broncos have been to the Super Bowl eight times and are one of just nine franchises to have won it three times or more. The team plays in one of the NFL's crown-jewel stadiums, Empower Field at Mile High.

But back in the day there was some building to do, on and off the field, and he did not shy away from the construction.

People sometimes ask me how fast Little was.

I often respond that he had great speed, especially considering that he was carrying an entire time zone on his back.

Happy Fourth of July, and happy birthday to The Franchise, Floyd Little.

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