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Syracuse Orange legend Floyd Little passes away

Syracuse University, the athletics department and the Orange football program lost a legend and a friend on Jan. 1, 2021 with the passing of Floyd Little.

The 78-year-old Little was born in July 1942 in New Haven, Conn. He is survived by his wife, DeBorah, who was also part of the fabric of the Syracuse University Athletics family and Syracuse community, son, Marc, daughters, Christy and Kyra, and several grandchildren.

“Floyd Little is a Syracuse treasure,” said Syracuse University Director of Athletics John Wildhack ’80. “The legacy that he leaves here is so much more than just one who wore #44, was an All-American, was in the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Floyd’s legacy is that he was a wonderful, wonderful person. He treated everyone with genuine care and respect and was always there for people. His impact as a person is those who he impacted. He was always willing to share his time, his wisdom, his support. His passion for Syracuse University – not just Syracuse Athletics, but the entire University – was inspiring to all of us. It is a legacy that will last forever and will never be replaced. He is someone who leaves a legacy of pure class in every single respect. There was only one Floyd Little and there will never be another one like him.”

A three-time All-American for the Orange from 1964-66, Little famously followed Jim Brown and 1961 Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis in Syracuse’s trinity of legendary running backs who wore the No. 44. Little attended Syracuse University to keep a promise he made to Davis before Davis’ untimely passing in 1963. The pair were with Syracuse’s Hall of Fame coach Ben Schwartzwalder at dinner during a visit to New Haven. Little told Davis he would sign with Syracuse, but he didn’t make if official until the day he learned of Davis’ death a few months later.

“Born on the 4th of July, Floyd was an All-American in every way,” said NBC Sports on-air personality Mike Tirico ’88. “On and off the field he represented the finest of Syracuse. From cementing the legacy of the number 44 to his Hall of Fame pro football career, he was truly one of the greats. But, for so many of us those football accomplishments stand secondary to Floyd the person.  Every second around him was a treat. Floyd always had a way of making you feel like the most important person in the room. He loved his school and any of us who were part of the Orange family. I am forever grateful to have been friends with a man who for me was the true definition of a legend.

In three seasons for the Orange, Little rushed for 2,704 yards and scored 46 touchdowns. He was also a standout return man who led the nation in all-purpose yards (1,990) and punt return average (23.5) as a junior in 1965. He still holds the Syracuse career record with six punt returns for touchdowns. The 1966 ECAC Player of the Year, Little finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting twice. Little played in the same Orange backfield as College and Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Larry Csonka ’68 and Tom Coughlin ’68, the two-time Super Bowl champion head coach.

“Floyd’s legacy as a hall of famer, pro and college, on the gridiron, is just as strong off the gridiron with the things he has done in the community and the way he has affected people and their lives,” said Syracuse football coach Dino Babers. “He is the type of person you just cannot forget. His smile is contagious. His knowledge is power. The advice that this man gave you was just a godsend.

“There are numerous fond memories of Floyd, but one that I appreciate the most is during the weekend of a Spring game, Floyd came back to Syracuse with his teammates, Larry Csonka and Tom Coughlin. They invited me to dinner with them. I watched the teammates rib each other, talk about one another and love each other. It was something I will never forget. I really do appreciate being a part of knowing exactly how close the Syracuse family is and how those three men loved each other and were pulling for each other, not only in everything they have done in football, but all their endeavors in life.”

In 2016, Little was presented with an honorary doctorate in humane letters from Syracuse University.

“No one loves Syracuse University as Floyd Little loves Syracuse University. He truly is Mr. Syracuse University,” Coughlin said.

Following his college career, Little was selected by the Denver Broncos with the No. 6 pick in the 1967 NFL Draft. In nine seasons (1967-75) with the Broncos, he amassed more than 12,000 all-purpose yards and was a five-time Pro Bowl selection. Little ranked seventh on the NFL’s career rushing list (6,323 yards) at the time of his retirement and was a charter member of the Broncos Ring of Fame in 1984. Little was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010. His induction into the Greater Syracuse Sports Hall of Fame in 2019 marked the 11th hall of fame to recognize Little.

“Floyd was one of a kind on and off the field,” said Syracuse men’s basketball coach Jim Boeheim ’67. “He could make anybody smile. He could get along with everybody. He made everybody feel good about themselves and everything else. A unique person. A unique personality. It’s hard to try to explain how great of a person Floyd Little was. There is nobody better than Floyd Little in any way, shape or form, on the field or off the field. I don’t think anybody really compares to him. It was a privilege just to know Floyd Little.”

In 2011, Little returned to his alma mater to serve as special assistant to the director of athletics, a position he held until 2016. The impact he made in his role as an athletics department administrator is immeasurable.

“Floyd was known for football, but he should be known for just being the most common person you could ever meet,” said Syracuse Senior Deputy Athletics Director Herman Frazier. “He always had a smile on his face and was always prepared for whatever question he was asked. He served a special role when he was here at Syracuse University. He was here for the student-athletes, the coaches and the staff, in any situation. He is a strong pillar, a strong person, and a strong man. His legacy at Syracuse University will live on forever.”

Little provided guidance and advice to student-athletes from all sports. His work enabled him to influence a new generation of student-athletes to work hard and find success.

“Floyd had a way of making you feel special, even if he did not know you very well,” said Orange cross country and track & field All-American Justyn Knight ’18. “He had a way with his words that made you feel like you meant something to the world and that you were destined for greatness no matter if he knew the path you were on or he didn’t. He had a way of encouraging you and letting you know that everything is going to be OK and that everyone has their destiny in life. If it was not for Floyd, and all of the talks we had, my life could have turned out pretty different. He was a like a family member to me, like an uncle.

“I would always use the word ‘hope’ in our conversations, referring to competitions and being successful. He was one of the people who told me, ‘You can’t just keep saying, ‘I hope to do things.’ You have to put it in your mind that you are going to do it and there is no excuse for you not to do it. Stop leaving it to hope and just go out there and do it.’ That completely changed my whole outlook when I went to the biggest races like the NCAAs and the World Championships.”

“We knew Floyd as a person, as a man, and as someone who really cared for us, regardless of what he accomplished during his career and as a legend at Syracuse University,” said former Orange football captain Cameron Lynch ’15. “He was the person who guided us when we had troubles. He was very instrumental in my development at Syracuse. I try to emulate the way Floyd approached the day … to bring his whole self, a big smile all the time, a positive attitude, always shaking hands, and always treating people the right way. I learned so much from him. To see him and his legacy and what he left behind is really something to be proud of. I am proud to bleed Orange the way he did. His legacy will live forever.”

Thoughts about Floyd Little from those who knew him:

Greg Allen ’73, Syracuse University Football Letterwinner
“When people talk about Floyd Little, they always talk about what a great athlete he was, which he was. But when I think about Floyd, I think about our personal relationship and what a great friend and individual he was. Some say that the measure of a man’s greatness is not how he treats people who are his equal or his peers, but how he treats those who are maybe less than, or not as important, or do not have the celebrity that he has. I always found that to be true with Floyd. When he was engaged in a conversation with you, he was talking with you. He genuinely interested in what you were talking about. He was genuine. When I think of Floyd Little, I don’t thing about a great athlete, I think about a great man.”

Cliff Ensley’69, Syracuse University Football Letterwinner
“One thing people may not know about Floyd is that he loved to sing songs. During my sophomore year he gave me rides home on our off weekends. When the Motown songs came on, he belted out the verses. He really enjoyed doing that, and he was a pretty good singer!”

“Before his last game in Archbold Stadium, Floyd gave a talk to the team in the locker room. He had us all in tears. After that, we knew we were going to win that game. He went out and scored three touchdowns. I love the way he could walk into a room and everyone was his friend, and he was a friend for everyone. He was one of the strongest, proudest, most caring individuals I have ever known.”

Quentin Hillsman, Syracuse University Women’s Basketball Coach
“He is an icon. He is a legend. When you think of the number 44 you think of a couple of people – Floyd is one of them. His humility always struck me. You could talk to him about anything and never know he was Floyd Little. He has done so much. I could gain so much knowledge from every conversation. For our program, he has been everything to us. For me personally, he is my son’s godfather. That is how close we became. This is a big loss for my family and the Syracuse University family.

The best thing about Floyd is that he was just Floyd – a guy who you could be around, be yourself. You have legends and Hall of Famers who walk that way. He didn’t walk that way. He would take his ring off and let you wear his ring, his Hall of Fame jacket, he would give you the stories about the NFL and at Syracuse and what life meant to him. He would share everything. He gave everything away. He was a very selfless man who cared about people, his University, most importantly he was a man who really cared about his family and those closest to him. It is a devastating day.”

Rob Konrad ’99, Syracuse University Football Letterwinner
“My favorite thought about Floyd is from the ceremony in the Dome to retire the #44. I was the last to wear the number, so I was the first to go on the field. I had just finished in the NFL. When my name was called I kind of jogged out to midfield. Terry Richardson was next and then a few other guys. Jim Brown was last. Then came Floyd, he just has this infectious energy and enthusiasm about him. He was wearing his #44 jersey on and he came sprinting out on that field with a smile from ear to ear. He was ready to play! I remember when we were all out there, Jim and I looked at each other and Jim said, ‘I wish I had that much energy!’ That’s how I remember Floyd.”

Doug Marrone ’86, Syracuse University Football Letterwinner
“Floyd’s legacy will be the impact that he has had on so many people who have been around him. He is such a positive effect. We love him and (wife) DeBorah. Outside of the practice facility at Syracuse there are three football statues, and one is Floyd. It is well earned and well deserved. He has done so much for the University and for the community. He is one of the most giving people I have ever been around. He gave you everything he had. That’s what he did on the field and that’s what he did off the field. It was a great honor to have been with him during my time at Syracuse.”

Dick Stockton ’64, Sports Broadcaster
“There are so many great athletes who get it done on the field, but what are they like off the field? Floyd was a special guy. When you talk about role model, Floyd Little was indeed the epitome of a role model for people. I have seen a lot of athletes in all sports. He was a nice person, a kind person, he was considerate. The way he was off the field impressed me more. A great successor to the #44 era of Jim Brown, Ernie Davis and Floyd. If I were with Floyd right now, I would say, ‘Thank you, thank you, from the bottom of all of our hearts.'”

Felicia Walker ’87, Granddaughter of former Syracuse Football Head Coach Floyd ‘Ben’ Schwartzwalder
“My grandfather, who was the father of two daughters, always referred to his players as his kids. He loved Floyd Little like his son. He stood out from the beginning. Ben told stories about Floyd often. He spoke about their initial meeting in New Haven when Floyd was in high school. He convinced Floyd that at Syracuse he would not only be part of a great football program but that he would get a top education. I think it was meant to be that two men named Floyd bonded right from the start. They bonded on the field and they bonded throughout their lives. He was a lifetime friend of my grandparents. Floyd Little stood out as a kind generous person with a gift for shining his light on others.”