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Tom has quit the advertising biz. He's a freelance, honest-to-god writer. He has his childhood hero on speed dial. He has his hero's personal letters and scrapbooks arriving at his front door in cardboard boxes. His hero cackling over Tom's goofy sense of humor, sending holiday baskets of cheese, chocolate, cookies and wine. Tens of millions of people sit on sofas every Sunday, dependent on their idols; Tom gets to go to war for his. Tens of millions of people engage in a relationship with their heroes from seats 100 feet away or through a cathode-ray tube—a connection not nurtured by any of the day-to-day give-and-take that makes a relationship real—and then feel abandoned when the hero moves on to the next team and town in search of more money and a ring....
Tom persuades the Broncos to rewrite the Floyd bio in their media guide, chock-full of TomStats. He improves and mass mails the 44 Reasons. He convinces Floyd to write a letter to each of the nine senior committee media members and pose a simple question—People are always asking me why I'm not in the Hall of Fame, and I just need to know what to tell them—and then polishes the letters till the tone's just right.
Only three of the nine voters bother to answer. They're all retiring or dying off, the voters who saw Floyd play. The gates remain closed. Tom can't keep doing this to his life. Floyd can't keep turning in bed like meat on a spit and leaving his wife to tiptoe around the ashes.
Enter a shadow. It's the one that crosses Floyd's face the day he discovers that he just pissed in his trash can and threw trash in his toilet. The day he asks his wife where his cellphone is ... as he's speaking on it to someone else.
Oh, he's knife-sharp in public, you'd never suspect the shadow. But he knows. He's seen what the concussions have done to old foes and friends, knows how many times all his circuit breakers shut down in football games, remembers the time that Bears linebacker Dick Butkus hit him so hard that Floyd wobbled into Chicago's huddle instead of Denver's. He knows that who you are can go before you do.
Dammit, he can't give up on the Hall of Fame, can't hush the insatiable howl of self. Here it comes again, the competitive rage that drove him all his life. The blaze that when a teammate poured shampoo over Floyd's head during one of his postdefeat trances in the shower, made Floyd turn with a look that caused a stampede of Broncos and then deck the one remaining player—the wrong one, dammit, but someone had to pay! The rage that, when a hall monitor locked him in a full nelson in junior high, made Floyd walk up the corridor wall, flip and land behind the kid, lift him and slam him to the floor, then wallop the teacher who came on the run, then unload on the kid's father when he showed up. Rage so hot it made him sweat, and heaven help anyone—like those four car dealership employees who saw Floyd overturn a 300-pound desk when they pushed too hard for bonuses—who didn't clear out before that sweat trickled from his underarm to his waist. Old hurt from childhood, when even black kids called him Cheeta, after Tarzan's chimp, because his skin was so dark, and Parentheses because his legs were so bowed that they wouldn't straighten even when he lashed belts around them before going to sleep. Hurt from the years when he refused to emerge from his house unless he was clutching the skirt of his swift eldest sister, Betty, clinging so tightly as she ran that he too became swift and her hem became permanently crumpled.
He spent his adulthood trying to entomb that fury, seal it so tightly that few people could imagine him as anything other than the jovial, fun-loving man they knew. But this Hall of Fame snub's like a stick jabbed over and over into that deep-down place. Why isn't it enough, what Jim Brown told the audience that night in 2005 when they were invited back to Syracuse to retire the number they shared with the late Ernie Davis—that Brown would defer to Floyd Little, the only three-time All-America running back to play for the Orangemen, their greatest rusher ever, to speak for number 44? Why isn't it enough, what Brown said when a man approached Floyd afterward to say how sad it was that he wasn't a Hall of Famer? "Listen, Floyd," said Brown, seeing his hurt. "Everyone who saw you play knows. You don't need the Hall of Fame to validate you. We all know you're a Hall of Fame player." Floyd squeezed back tears, told himself he could finally let it go—he'd been knighted by the king of kings.
But he can't. Everything he has in life came from refusing to say I'm done, I can't. Refusing when his high school counselor told him to forget college with an IQ of 88. Refusing when he got the bare minimum on his SAT at a military prep school. Refusing by retaking the test and spending the four hours memorizing the damn thing, so white-hot was his desire, then having teachers and tutors explain those questions and drill him for months, then retaking the exam until, he says, that same version of it came his way ... and scoring 1200! Refusing when coach Lou Saban cut him on the spot for fumbling away the lead with less than a minute left in a sure win over the Bills in 1968, then racing back onto the field over Saban's screams, ordering his replacement to leave the huddle and his quarterback to heave the ball as far as he could toward the flag, and finally leaping and pulling a 59-yard pass out of the dusk to set up the game-winning field goal on the final play.
And so Floyd and Tom keep rallying each other, and the siege goes on and on. Tom mails off their new book, Floyd Little's Tales from the Bronco Sideline, and ever-more urgent letters with new reasons to the voters. He spends his lunch hours with a hoagie in his lap in an A&P parking lot in New Jersey—he and Emily have moved to Princeton, and Tom has returned to advertising because freelance writing paid peanuts—trying to get NFL legends to answer his calls so he can build an even stronger case for Floyd. He promises Emily year after year, This is it, last time, last chance....
No ... no ... Marshall Goldberg? The Cardinals running back of the '40s, whose backfield mate Charlie Trippi is already in, gets nominated in 2007? Tom kicks his office trash can. He wants to grab the voters by their throats and scream, what the #%$&@! do you want? Leadership? Who else in NFL history was named captain every year he played, including his rookie year? Character? What other star running back blocked on PAT, field goal and punt teams, returned kickoffs and punts and visited every prison in his state? Impact? What other Hall of Famer helped save his city from losing its team, going door to door as a rookie in '68 and galvanizing the people of Denver to raise $1.8 million to turn a minor league baseball rattrap into 50,000-seat Mile High Stadium when the Broncos were on the verge of fleeing to Birmingham, Atlanta or Chicago? A winner? A man who never demanded a trade, a man against whom every opponent stacked its defense and who still led the league in rushing once and his conference in back-to-back years—the first man ever to do that on a last-place team, a team so pitiful that its 11 quarterbacks threw 64 more interceptions than touchdowns during Floyd's nine-year career—isn't he more of a winner than players who sailed into Canton on juggernauts?