Literally until the words came forth last Saturday during the announcement of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's newest inductees, there was no reason to assume the Denver Broncos and their fans might have reason to celebrate.
Everybody knew Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith, the leading receiver and runner in National Football League history, respectively, would lead the class of 2010. Beyond that, nothing was certain. Especially for anyone who knows how Colorado's franchise has been snubbed through the years.
Then, suddenly, the next name called was Floyd Little. And one of the Hall of Fame's biggest injustices melted away.
Little, the former Syracuse star, spent nine seasons (1967-75) with the Broncos, making it to three Pro Bowls and leading the NFL in combined rushing and receiving during a six-year stretch (1968-73) that also featured O.J. Simpson and Larry Csonka, among others. Little became such a hero in Denver that he is generally credited with saving the franchise.
And if you've ever been in the old Mile High Stadium or the newer Invesco Field for the annual ex-Broncos reunion, when former players are introduced, you know the fans still revere Little.
But memories are one thing. Actual video is another. Fortunately, NFL Films had plenty of old clips ready to show. And that film told the story more than words or numbers ever could.
Despite being just 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds, making him neither a power back like Jim Brown nor a speedster like Gale Sayers, Little was extraordinary. He was as good as anyone in his time at bouncing off tackles, keeping his balance and quickly re-accelerating. And though he wasn't a burner, once he was in the open field, he was almost impossible to catch.
"I never tried to run over anybody," Little said on the NFL Network. "But I tried to run around as many as I could. ... You only have to be faster than the guy chasing you."
The 67-year-old Little freely admitted he "never thought this day would ever come" after 30 years of being eligible. He had other accomplishments to be proud of, from knowing Denver's fans still worship him to enjoying business success as owner of car dealerships in Denver and Seattle. But that wasn't enough.
This time Little got his due, but perhaps at the expense of another deserving ex-Bronco. Shannon Sharpe was the NFL's best tight end for a decade and played a major role on three Super Bowl-winning teams (two in Denver, then one in Baltimore). Granted, Sharpe will have more chances, and he's certain to make it — perhaps next year, when the only first-year-eligible certainty is Deion Sanders.
But Sharpe isn't the only Denver player being shafted, and a reminder came Saturday when the electors (from sports media) chose linebacker Rickey Jackson, a former standout (1981-95) for New Orleans and San Francisco. Jackson was an excellent player, but he shouldn't be inducted before another ignored Bronco.
That would be Randy Gradishar, whose 10-year run (1974-83) with Denver included seven Pro Bowls, one NFL Defensive Player of the Year honor (1978), five years making the All-Pro first team, and more than 2,000 career tackles and 20 interceptions from his inside linebacker spot. Gradishar came out of Ohio State, where legendary head coach Woody Hayes called Gradishar the best linebacker he'd ever coached. And as anyone who has ever met him knows (Gradishar, who has worked in recent years for Phil Long's car dealerships, has made many appearances in Colorado Springs), he's at least as good a person as he was a player.
Yet, somehow, Gradishar never has made it into the Hall of Fame. The veterans committee, which saved Little this time, someday might be the answer for Gradishar and others from the Orange Crush-era defense, including cornerback Louis Wright and strong safety Dennis Smith, plus free safety Steve Atwater from later.
Colorado can cheer Floyd Little once more when he's enshrined in August at Canton, Ohio, his bust placed alongside those of former Broncos John Elway and Gary Zimmerman. But until the door opens for others, Denver's should-bes will still outnumber the inductees.
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