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THE UNEXPECTED HERO
GARY SMITH
July 26, 2010
FORMER BRONCOS BACK FLOYD LITTLE AND ARDENT FAN TOM MACKIE EACH HELPED THE OTHER FULFILL HIS LIFELONG DREAM
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July 26, 2010

The Unexpected Hero

FORMER BRONCOS BACK FLOYD LITTLE AND ARDENT FAN TOM MACKIE EACH HELPED THE OTHER FULFILL HIS LIFELONG DREAM

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He begins to vent his outrage: Your statistics place you in the top 20 of the 38 running backs in the Hall of Fame in EVERY major category, Floyd! and It's not fair to spend an entire career on such a bad team and get penalized for it! and You did everything out there, caught passes, blocked on special teams, returned kickoffs and punts and You were a humanitarian, won the Brian Piccolo and Byron "Whizzer" White awards. This is ridiculous! The biggest injustice in football history!

Now Floyd's flushed, because this stranger's tapping something old, something buried, something bitter. Suddenly lunch is 2½ hours old, and Floyd's taking them back to the dealership and inviting Tom into his office while Emily, yet to utter a peep, disappears with her laptop. Tom pulls out a small tape recorder. It's one he began using a few years back, when his father's death led him to sift through an old box and rediscover the words his dad had written soon after Tom had finally learned that his parents' marriage was over—May you become the quarterback of the Broncos; May you never feel that life has let you down; May you always fight the good fight and never surrender the joy of hope; May you become all that you wish to be by using all that is within you and not look to someone else for hope. I LOVE YOU, Dad—and he felt the pang of what he had once wanted to do with his life, before his journalism professor at the University of Delaware had told him he'd never cut it, before the sports editor at the school paper had banished him to the field hockey and lacrosse beats, before the newspapers he'd applied to for jobs turned him down and he'd settled for a life of writing pharmaceutical ads instead of sizzling lead paragraphs in an NFL press box. And damned if Tom hadn't dipped back into that old well of sheer doggedness and begun to make it happen on the side, writing late at night and on weekends for the Redskins' and Cowboys' and Raiders' weeklies.

He puts the tape recorder on Floyd's desk and asks, "So why do you think you're not in the Hall of Fame?" Floyd leans back. It's the most bewildering, humiliating thing for a five-time Pro Bowler who retired with the words "future Hall of Famer" riveted to his name, who was once introduced that way by Rozelle; no, it's the second-most humiliating thing, behind the bigger face slap: Floyd has never even been a nominee. He has kept that pain in a vault, cracked open now and then only for a few loved ones and dear friends—Why not me? I worked so hard—and exposed in public only when it was just too much. Like that time in the early '90s when Floyd was sitting beside his son, Marc, in the same booth at The Varsity restaurant in Syracuse that he'd frequented in his college days and two young men approached to ask him to settle a bet over what year he'd been enshrined in the Hall. "What do you think?" Floyd asked.

"I say 1982," one replied. "My friend here says '84."

Floyd raised his hands. "Gentlemen," he said, "I have never even been nominated." The sadness his son saw in his face got buried again till the day in '93 that the calls began coming in: "Congratulations, Floyd!"

"Why? What?"

"They're putting you in the Hall of Fame!"

"Huh?" His heart began pounding. "You s-----n' me?" His breath became a pant.

"No, I just heard it! Way to go!"

Floyd reached for the radio, turned on the sports station. Not a word. He called his best old Broncos buddy Billy Thompson, who found the list of new members and read it off. "Naw, Floyd," said Billy, "it's Larry Little!"

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