by Luke Hammill
Floyd Little’s office at Syracuse University is like a personal shrine. The crowded walls are adorned with mementos like the No. 44 jersey he inherited from predecessors Jim Brown and Ernie Davis. There is a photograph of a smiling Little and his mother at Shea Stadium when his Orangemen played the Pittsburgh Panthers, and there are more pictures of Little with famous friends such as fellow Syracuse alum Joseph R. Biden Jr.
So when student-athletes at the university visit the office to seek advice from Little, who now works as a special assistant to athletic director Dr. Daryl Gross, they’re bound to become familiar with his many accomplishments, if they aren’t already. But those reminders are not on the walls to impress visitors, Little said.
“They are for me, not for you,” Little, who is 70, said in his office on a morning in late April. “Who am I? Well, that name up there says, ‘Floyd Little.’”
Memory loss is just one of the problems Little, who played professionally for the Denver Broncos, said he deals with as a result of head injuries he suffered during his Hall-of-Fame career. He is one of about 4,000 former players suing the NFL in a class-action suit in federal court in Philadelphia. It accuses the league of seeking “to suppress and obscure the truth about the long-term effect of concussions.” Little is a lead plaintiff in one of the complaints.
Little, who played running back, alleges in the suit that in addition to memory loss, he has suffered from “anxiety, headaches, sleeplessness, and numbness and tingling in his hands as a result of the head injuries he suffered as an NFL player.”
A five-time all-pro selection, Little captained the Broncos for all of his nine professional seasons – even his rookie season – from 1967 to 1975. He led the league in rushing twice and retired as the seventh-leading rusher in league history. Unlike most of today’s star running backs, Little also returned punts.
“We didn’t have a third-down specialist or different packages. I was the package,” Little said, noting that defenses often focused on stopping him since he was Denver’s only star player. “I played every down.”
Little was small for an NFL running back; he was 5 feet, 10 inches and 195 pounds in his playing days. He was a three-time All-American at Syracuse and was the sixth overall pick in the American Football League draft – the Broncos joined the NFL in 1970, as part of the AFL-NFL merger – but he said he often felt he had to prove himself to critics who thought he was too small, too slow, and too dumb to play professionally.
He also felt the pressure to perform well, he said, because he could have lost his job if he didn’t, and he didn’t have the million-dollar salaries of today’s pro athletes as a financial cushion. During his rookie season, for example, Little said he made only about $23,000, and that was considered good money in that era.
So he often played hurt. Defensive players often put “bounties” for as much as $1,500 on players like Little, he said, to supplement their income, and they would try to knock him out of games. They’d even joke with Little about it: “Floyd, I’m gonna get you today. I need that money.”
“He was what you would call today our franchise player,” said Mike Schnitker, who blocked for Little as a guard from 1969 to 1974. “We didn’t have much of a passing game, and it wasn’t a team that was filled with a bunch of superstars…Floyd was basically our offense.”
Schnitker, who is 66 and also a plaintiff in the suit, said Little had a combination of speed, evasiveness, and power. “He wasn’t a big guy, but if you met him in the hole, I mean, you were going to feel it,” Schnitker said. “He’d get another yard or two.”
Schnitker also said Little took many hits. “When he was on the field, I mean, they’d set up the defense to stop him,” Schnitker said. Schnitker said he, too, suffers from memory loss, which makes his sales job for a construction manufacturer a struggle.
Little had five documented concussions during his pro career, but he thinks there were many more. He recalled being hit so hard by Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus one time that he mistakenly ran into the Bears’ huddle and didn’t realize his mistake until the Bears asked him if he was all right.
Little said he was hit in the head countless times, and when the trainers asked him how many fingers they were holding up, the answer was always “two,” and he would be allowed to go back into the game. He thinks the decision should have been taken entirely out of his hands.
“They knew,” Little said of the coaches’ and trainers’ awareness of the possible dangers of hits to the head. “They shouldn’t have let me play. My eyes were dilated, I was looking out of my earhole, and they’d send me back in.”
He compared himself to current NFL quarterback Robert Griffin III of the Washington Redskins, whose coaches allowed him to stay in a playoff game against Seattle despite a knee injury that was visibly bothering him. Little believes it was irresponsible of the Redskins to allow Griffin to play, regardless of Griffin’s willingness to remain in the game.
Little said the pressure to play through injury was unique to the pros. “I can’t recall being knocked out in college and they put me back in,” he said of then-Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder and his staff.
Little has always prided himself on his photographic memory. “Ben Schwartzwalder used to say, ‘Floyd Little had total recall. He could meet 50 people and remember their names a year later and where they were sitting,’” Little said. Now, though, he said he finds himself turning to his wife in the car and asking her where they are going, or not remembering current Syracuse athletes’ names or the last thing they spoke about. “I have to write a lot down,” he said.
Though they get worse with time, Little said, those memory problems became apparent while he was still in the league. Toward the end of his career, Little enrolled in law school at the University of Denver and received a masters degree in legal administration. But studying was sometimes difficult.
“I’d read a case and then not remember what I’d just read,” Little said. “So I’d read it again and say, ‘Oh, I’ve never read this before.’ Even though there was highlighter on the page.”
Little said he doesn’t really talk about the lawsuit with anyone – not even his own son, Marc. Most don’t notice that anything is wrong, he said. Tom Mackie, who took dictation from Little and wrote Little’s memoir, Promises to Keep, last year, said he’s never noticed any significant lapses in memory.
“Any time I’ve been with Floyd, he’s been extremely lucid,” Mackie said on the phone, though he acknowledged that Little, like many people, does sometimes tend to repeat stories he’s already told.
But Rick Upchurch, who returned kickoffs and punts with Little in 1975, said in a telephone interview that he noticed something different about his old teammate at a Broncos alumni golf tournament last year.
“Floyd, you know, he wasn’t as sharp as he normally is,” Upchurch said. “He just wasn’t. You had some questions, and you’d have to repeat them to him.”
Upchurch, 60, is a plaintiff in the suit, as well, and he expressed disgust for the sentiment that ex-players are greedily suing the league for money.
“I think it’s repulsive that old ballplayers – guys that were out on the field and got hit and dinged and things of that nature or hit other ballplayers and knocked them out and that whole deal – would say such a thing,” Upchurch said.
Little also said he is not in the suit for money – he mostly wants to raise awareness about the plight of retired players and would be satisfied if NFL officials admitted that the league could have done more to protect its athletes.
Tom Jackson, who played linebacker for Little’s Broncos and now works as an NFL analyst at ESPN, is not part of the lawsuit and declined to comment on Little’s health.
“I think for each of us, it’s such an individual sense that you have of what it is that happened to you, how you were treated, whether you got, you know, the care that was available,” Jackson said on the phone.
Little, Schnitker and Upchurch all admitted that it’s not a black-and-white case. Little called the issues surrounding head injuries a “chicken and egg” situation and attributes some of his memory loss to old age. Both Little and Upchurch said their health is not as bad as some of their friends’. Little’s voice quieted to a whisper as he spoke about the numerous football players he knew who have committed suicide, such as his good friend Dave Duerson, the Pro-Bowl safety who played for the Bears in the 1980s. Before he shot himself in the chest in 2011, Duerson left a suicide note that read, “PLEASE, SEE THAT MY BRAIN IS GIVEN TO THE NFL’S BRAIN BANK.” Neurologists at Boston University later found evidence of a degenerative brain disease that was linked to concussions.
Little said he loves NFL commissioner Roger Goodell because he’s trying to make the game safer, though Little dislikes a new rule that prohibits ball carriers from leading with their helmets. He thinks that move is actually a form of protection. The worst head injuries, Little said, happen when the ball carrier or receiver isn’t aware he’s about to be hit. If the player can’t lead with his helmet and has to run with his head straight up, he actually leaves himself more vulnerable to nasty collisions, Little said.
Though he says his memory problems make his job at Syracuse tough, Little thinks they’d be worse if he were sitting at home. He said that would cause his brain to suffer from “atrophy.” His job, he said, helps exercise his mind and keeps it working.
“I have to stay active,” Little said. “I don’t know where I’d be if I wasn’t here.”