When I suggested we do the interview at the Varsity, a divey, iconic pizza joint just down the hill from the Carrier Dome, Floyd Little’s eyes lit up.
“Can’t think of a better place,’’ said the football legend, flashing that infectious, light-up-an-arena smile of his.
During our undergraduate days at Syracuse University — his in the mid-1960s and mine in the mid-1970s — the Varsity was a go-to-place where one could share slices and beers with friends, and escape the stresses of term papers, tests and breakups. It also was a place you could earn some extra cash busing tables, which Little did, even after becoming an All-American and a Big Man On Campus. Founded by a Greek immigrant who arrived in America in 1926 with little more than the clothes he was wearing, the Varsity is festooned with enormous photographs of famous Orange sports figures. As chance would have it, the day of the interview I was able to grab a booth next to the wall with the gigantic visage of Little in football helmet beaming down on us.
“Who is that handsome man?’’ he joked, pointing at his younger self.
I had followed his career since I was a peach-fuzzed 9-year-old in Rome, N.Y., about a 45-minute drive from campus. And, in retrospect, it was Little’s grid-iron heroics that introduced me to the school that would become my alma mater. Yes, like many, I dreamed of adding to the Orange running back legacy begun by Jim Brown and carried on so magnificently by Ernie Davis and Little, each of whom also wore jersey No. 44. But the good Lord didn’t bless me with their sublime skills, so my time at SU would be spent toting typewriter rather than football.
I had interviewed the introspective Little numerous times through the years, and when this chat concluded in the spring of 2018, I finally got around to doing something I meant to do long ago. I thanked him for planting the seed in me to come to a college that would profoundly impact my life. “Just goes to show,’’ he said, sounding genuinely moved, “that we all have the power to inspire.”
A few days ago — just when I didn’t think the news of the world could get any worse — I received word that the 77-year-old Little is battling an aggressive form of cancer. “No doubt it will be the toughest fight of his life,’’ Little’s good friend and former teammate, Patrick Killorin, wrote in a Facebook post. “Floyd doesn’t believe he has yet written, with his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the final play of his life.” To help defray some of Little’s cancer treatment expenses, Killorin created a Friends of Floyd (FOF) page. It allows for donations and words of encouragement.
Our childhood sports heroes often fail to live up to expectations away from the fields, tracks and rinks of play. While they might be splendid at hitting homers, making jump shots, and carrying the football, they often treat people poorly and forget their roots. Happily, that wasn’t the case with Little. Over time, he has proven to be not only a Hall-of-Fame football player, but a Hall-of-Fame person. And that opinion of him is echoed by many. In this time of personal crisis, Little has heard from scores of well-wishers. Call it payback time for all the kindness he’s displayed, especially from 2011-2016, when he returned to SU to raise funds and mentor student-athletes — many of whom had to overcome harrowing challenges of racism and poverty similar to ones Little faced.
He burst onto the scene and into our consciousness in the autumn of 1964 during the second game of his sophomore season. The great Gale Sayers was supposed to be the story that day, but Little stole the show, scoring five touchdowns as SU routed visiting Kansas at old Archbold Stadium. “That was the greatest performance by a back I’ve ever seen,’’ Kansas coach Jack Mitchell told reporters — an extravagant compliment, considering Mitchell had been an eyewitness to Sayers’ eye-defying runs for two seasons.
Little went on to earn first-team All-American honors three times and continued his greatness in the NFL, where he played a pivotal role in helping the Denver Broncos become one of pro football’s signature franchises. His story is all the more remarkable, considering its origins in an impoverished, rough-hewn New Haven, Conn., neighborhood. During his childhood, it seemed more likely Little would wind up in the hall of justice instead of 10 halls of fame. Or perhaps in a place even worse — a morgue. His father died of cancer when he was 6, and his mother raised him and his five siblings on meager earnings and welfare checks. Little struggled in school, particularly with reading, and failed the fifth grade. When he finally graduated from high school at age 19, his prospects for a successful life seemed gloomy at best.
“I was told I was too dumb to go to college,’’ he said. “But you try going without eating for two days and see how well you would do on tests.”
With the help of his high school coach, Don Casey, Little enrolled at Bordentown Military Academy in New Jersey. The prep school’s structured setting worked wonders. There, he would excel on the football field and in the classroom. Gen. Douglas MacArthur recruited him to play football at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and Little was ready to accept his offer, until that fateful day in 1963 when Ernie Davis died. Little remembered how he gave the Heisman Trophy winner his word that he would attend SU during a recruiting visit a few weeks after having dinner with MacArthur. “There went my plans on becoming the first African-American five-star general,’’ Little joked. “But that’s OK. Thanks to my hero, Ernie Davis, I wound up at the place I was meant to be all along.”
The kid deemed too dumb to go to college would go on to earn undergraduate and law degrees, and in 2018 would receive an honorary doctorate from SU. And along the way, he would inspire many, including a 9-year-old kid who wound up attending the same university, and is now joining a stadium full of others rooting for Little to win the toughest fight of his life.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist. His latest book, “Remembrances of Swings Past: A Lifetime of Baseball Stories,” was just published and is available in paperback and digital formats at amazon.com.