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July 26, 2010
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July 26, 2010

The Unexpected Hero


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And a bonus, an autographed action shot of Floyd that Tommy slides into a frame with his own solemnly scrawled pledge to work out, improve his speed and gain weight so that he, all 5' 5" and 115 pounds, can realize his dream of playing in the NFL, and a vow to remain as humble as Floyd once he does.

Oh, the letter of indignation he sends to the Hall of Fame when its holy gates refuse to open for Floyd in 1980, the first year of eligibility for the man who retired as the NFL's No. 7 alltime leading rusher. Then, all at once, it's time for Tom to grow up and head off to college, and for the critical missing piece in his project to change from a running back retired from a flailing, faraway team to....

Enter a wife. Yes, we're hurdling two decades, but that means nothing in the smoke where dream and identity stir. She's a lithe, lovely blonde named Emily, a coworker whom Tom met at the advertising agency in D.C., where he was writing copy for pharmaceutical and computer-software ads in 1998, and whom he married on third-and-long at age 37. Now his 40th birthday's nearing, in 2003, and she's looking for the one gift that'll wow him when it strikes her: What if she could give him Floyd?

He mentions his childhood idol, oh, only about 44 times a year, and he dons a huge Styrofoam horse head on Sundays to root the Broncos home. She still can't believe that he actually flew to Denver a few hours after the Broncos won their first Super Bowl, in 1997, to wander through a trashed, hung-over city and enter Mile High Stadium for the first time in his life and then tell everyone after he'd raced back to the airport and flown home the same day that it was the best $1,500 he'd ever spent. She has no clue how she ended up at an NFL Europe game on her honeymoon in Barcelona or how minihelmets, mini-Elways and mini--Mile High Stadium replicas came to festoon her house. But she's a good wife, the kind who reads The New York Times in silence when he drags her to a game, and she just wants to see his face light up.

She tries, without luck, to trace Floyd on the Internet. Then she remembers Tom once saying that Floyd lived somewhere near Seattle, and her mother points out that a close family friend, Molly Bailey, also lives there, and Molly remembers seeing a commercial for a Floyd Little car dealership and produces a phone number, and Emily's relayed to another dealership—in West Covina, Calif.—that Ford has sent Floyd down to rescue, and she's stunned seconds later to be speaking to the Floyd Little.

So ... this total stranger, calling from the other side of the country, wants Floyd to agree to meet some guy named Tom? Floyd's a busy man. He's 60, running two dealerships and about to get remarried in a few weeks. Maybe he wouldn't even have considered such a request if he'd become a sports hero a decade or two later. But remember the word that Floyd says to Emily, and to life itself, for yours, like his, might pivot on it:


Emily hands Tom an envelope on March 20, 2003. Inside is a photo of Floyd and the words: It's time for you to suck up your middle/Because you're going to meet Floyd Little.

"What?" Tom keeps spluttering. "How did you ... ? I can't believe it!"

It's pouring a few weeks later when their rental car pulls up to the dealership in West Covina. Tom's tingling with nerves. A half hour's all that Emily dared ask for, but their host says, Hey, let's grab some lunch, and Tom blinks in disbelief as the great Floyd Little drives them to his favorite soup-and-sandwich joint. Then it's Floyd's turn to blink when, as he regales his visitors with old war stories, Tom begins dropping casual remarks such as, Wasn't that the season you played with the broken transverse process bone in your back? And that's how lunch might've gone, Tom tossing in a few tidbits to establish his long apostleship, nibbling his French-dip roast beef sandwich and taking home a brief memory to cherish for life ... if Tom were still the flowerpot in the corner that he'd been in his 20s and 30s. But ever since his father died of a heart attack in 1996 and the velocity of life and death had struck him, Tom had changed.

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