The story behind Floyd Little's retired No. 44

There was never a John Elway Day.

Not while he was playing there wasn’t.

Peyton Manning, Terrell Davis -- they never had an official day in their name.

There was a Floyd Little Day, though, and it occurred in the prime of the running back’s career. Before Elway became a teenager, long before Elway became the general manager who would sign Manning, well before the Denver Broncos had a winning season for that matter, Little was the most beloved athlete in Denver sports history.

So much so Little has longed been dubbed “The Franchise.” So much so Bronco fans – not players or coaches, but a couple of fans – carried Little off the field immediately after he played his final home game at Mile High Stadium in 1975.

So  much so that in an October 29, 1972 game  against the  Cleveland Browns, Broncos owner Gerald H. Phipps arranged to hold a “Floyd Little Day.”

Such celebrations were not uncommon for active players in Major League Baseball at the time, but it was the first – and last – of its kind by the Broncos. It was Little’s rushing title with 1,133 yards in the 14-game season of 1971 that inspired the day in his honor.

“That was an unbelievable day,’’ Little told 9NEWS this week. “I have a picture that was hanging on my wall at Syracuse. It was a picture of a fan who held up a sign in the stands: “Every Day should be a Floyd Little Day.’’

There will be another Floyd Little Day of sorts this Sunday when the Broncos play the Indianapolis Colts. Only this time Little will gladly share his day with Elway, Frank Tripucka and Peyton Manning.

The numbers of Elway (No. 7), Little (No. 44) and Tripucka (No. 18) will be displayed as banners inside the stadium for the first time. Manning will be recognized as he wore No. 18 with Tripucka’s blessing the previous four seasons.

“I think that’s absolutely appropriate,’’ Little said. “He did a great job for us while he was there.  He is a true Hall of Famer. I think it’s great to continue to cite players for what they have done. And certainly Peyton winning the 50th Super Bowl in the history of Super Bowls, that’s a great achievement. And I’m just glad he’s included in this.’’

After nine seasons, all with the Broncos, Little was the NFL’s seventh-leading career rusher with 6,323 yards. He added another 2,418 yards on 215 receptions and 3,416 yards on punt and kickoff returns.

Little’s 12,157 all-purpose yards held as a Broncos record for 30 years, and remains second in team history to Rod Smith’s 12,488. But to reiterate Little’s versatility, Smith got 91 percent of his yards as a receiver; Little got 52 percent of his yards as a rusher.

Yet, in Little’s nine seasons, the Broncos’ average yearly record was 5-8-1. If it’s unfathomable to think any player on such dreary teams could be so popular, perhaps some context would help.

Prior to Little’s arrival, the Broncos’ average record was 4-10 through their first seven seasons from 1960-66. Perhaps, one reason for Denver’s futility in the old American Football League was their first-round draft picks kept signing with the more established National Football League.

So when the Broncos selected Little with their No. 6 overall draft pick, the franchise had its first star before his first carry. And he came along at a time when it appeared the Broncos were in peril of dissolving as the AFL-NFL merger demanded teams have stadium capacities of at least 50,000.

In part because of the excitement generated by Little’s arrival, a local group with a community spirit raised $1.8 million for Bears Stadium and deeded it to the City of Denver. The venue was expanded by more than 15,000 seats to 50,000 and was renamed Mile High Stadium.

Season ticket sales went from 18,898 in 1966 to 24,650 in 1967. By the time Little retired in 1975 – and was carried off the field by Broncos fans following his final home game – season tickets had maxed out at 49,000.

Thus, Little’s nickname as “The Franchise.” Thus, why retiring Little’s No. 44 was a no-brainer.

“I think it’s always great when the Broncos bring attention to some of their past players and some of the players who helped create and cultivate one of the best franchises in the National Football League,'' Little said.  To constantly reach out to those who were a part of it, it’s just wonderful. I’m so glad I’m one of them.’’

Copyright 2016 KUSA


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