DENVER — On numerous occasions in recent years, Floyd Little has referred to Billy Thompson as his best friend.
Thompson received a blow a few weeks ago when he learned from his good friend and longtime Broncos teammate that Little had been diagnosed with cancer.
Thompson said that Little, who now lives in Las Vegas, will begin treatment this week.
"The good thing is it's treatable," Thompson said. "It's an aggressive form of cancer but treatable.
"I told him if he needed anything, I can come there, whatever. He said, no. I could tell in his voice he was feeling a little weak. He said, 'I’ll be in touch.' "
On Monday afternoon, after this story was first published, Little returned a call from 9NEWS. Asked if he wanted to say anything to all the fans of Broncos Country who are pulling for him, he said, "Just ask them to pray for me."
He expressed gratitude that Las Vegas Raiders owner Mark Davis had reached out to him. Little's wife DeBorah said Peyton Manning was among the donors on her husband's Go Fund Me page. (Little's treatment will fall outside his insurance network). Those who would like to donate can go to: https://www.gofundme.com/f/friends-of-floyd
Floyd and his wife did not want to release the type of cancer he has until more tests are run. Little, who followed Jim Brown and Ernie Davis in wearing the famed No. 44 at Syracuse before the Broncos made him the No. 6 overall selection in the 1967 NFL Draft, received an honorary doctorate in humane letters from his alma mater during the university's commencement in 2016. Thompson was there.
"I don't have a better friend in the world than Billy Thompson," Little said later in an interview with 9NEWS. "I've been away from Denver since the early '80s. We talk six, seven times a year. During the season, maybe once a week. I got an honorary doctorate degree from Syracuse, and Billy was there. He flew cross country to see me walk across the stage. He was the first to call me, Dr. Little. So that's the kind of friend he is."
Little played nine seasons for the Broncos from 1967-75. Thompson played 13 seasons from 1969-81. Both have long been members of the Broncos' Ring of Fame.
How did they become so close?
"Well, we were teammates," Thompson said. "His family and my family, we were like brothers. In football, there's a closeness you get that you probably wouldn't get anywhere else. You go through practices together, games together. You go through wins, you go through losses. It's like family."
They also shared a unique bond as returners.
"He was captain of the team when I was a rookie," Thompson said. "I told him I was coming in to help him out. I gave him some relief on punt returns and kickoff returns. That was his job even though he was our No. 1 running back. That’s crazy."
Thompson became the first player in professional history to lead his league – the American Football League, in this case – in both punt returns and kickoff returns.
Thompson averaged 11.5 yards on 25 punt returns and 28.5 yards on 18 kickoff returns as a rookie. He also started all 14 games at right cornerback that year, leading the team with three interceptions including one against the Houston Oilers' Pete Beathard that he returned 57 yards for a touchdown.
It was one of seven defensive touchdowns Thompson scored in his career – three on interceptions, four off fumble recoveries. He recorded 61 turnovers in his career – 40 on interceptions, plus 21 fumble recoveries.
Thompson, 73, has been the Broncos' alumni director and director of community outreach since 1993. Once a year, a group of Broncos alumni visits the charity of their choice. At least once a month, the Broncos' alumni council meets. The next meeting, by remote, is Tuesday.
"We have Le Lo Lang, Steve Foley, Tyrone Braxton, about 13-14 guys," Thompson said. "It's a good group of guys. We catch up on how our guys are doing."
A couple years back, Little called this reporter to pitch the Pro Football Hall of Fame case for Thompson. There is little doubt that the Broncos' cornerback turned safety and captain of the famed Orange Crush defense has been overlooked.
Little was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010 after a 30-year wait. To this day, Little is the most versatile player in Broncos history. When he retired, 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 all but 9 percent of his yards as a receiver; Little got 48 percent of his yards aside from rushing.
Yet, in Little's nine seasons, the Broncos' average yearly record was 5-8-1. Then again, 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 that their first-round draft picks kept signing with the more established National Football League. It wasn't until the common draft of 1967 that Little became the first of Denver's first-round draft picks to sign with the team. Merlin Olsen, Kermit Alexander and Bob Brown no doubt would have improved the Broncos' fortunes in the early- to mid-1960s – had they not opted to instead play instead in the NFL.
Little became the Broncos' first-round choice in 1967 at a time when it appeared the franchise was in peril of moving from Denver to Atlanta. In part because of the excitement generated by Little's arrival, a local group of deep pockets with community spirit bought Bears Stadium for $1.8 million 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.
Thus, Little's nickname as "The Franchise."
And now Little, who will turn 78 on the Fourth of July, is in confronting the ultimate life battle.
"I'm praying for him," Thompson said. "I know he's going to fight it."
"We're going to beat it,'' DeBorah said.
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