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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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Floyd says a thousand thank-yous, hangs up, hugs and kisses DeBorah and cries and does a Smurf dance in his underwear.

Tom glances at his cellphone as he drives. Missed call. Floyd. He dials back. "You did it, Tom!" cries Floyd. "I'm one of the two senior nominees!"

Tom yanks the car to the shoulder of the road. "You made this happen!" shouts Floyd. "It's me and Dick LeBeau!" Tom's heart climbs into his throat. "You did all the heavy lifting, Tom!" Tom's eyes fill with tears. "Thank you, Tom! Thank you!"

Tom's stomach coils into a knot. In three of the previous six years, since the Hall went from one to two senior nominees a year, one of the two has been voted down when the full membership met five months later at the Super Bowl. And LeBeau's got a glittering coaching career as icing on top of his brilliant years as a defensive back.

Five months. The knot tightens. Eighty percent of the members—44 now—will have to cast yes votes for Floyd in a secret ballot. Tom Googles them all, prints up a list, inscribes notations. He sends each one his book and a handwritten note. He buys an ad pushing Floyd on profootballreference.com. He lies awake at night thinking of the land mines and ways to defuse them. You can't strip away all of Floyd's pass-catching and return yardage and just compare his average of 54 rushing yards a game with those of today's elite running backs! Paul Hornung averaged only 36 a game, John Henry Johnson 48, Leroy Kelly 53 and Larry Csonka 55, and they're all in the Hall! The shift to a 16-game schedule and the one-back offensive set can give today's running backs nearly twice as many carries a year! Look what the rules widening the hash marks and freeing up offensive linemen's use of their hands did too! In 1971 Floyd was only the 13th man in history to break 1,000 yards in one season. TWENTY-THREE guys did it in 2000 alone!

Tom composes a 47-page closing argument, mails it to the man who'll present Floyd's bid to the full membership and then ceases, drained, helpless, a lawyer barred from entering the courtroom in the biggest case of his life.

Enter the jury. Enter cameras ... Floyd ... 10 family members ... and one white dude in an orange shirt and blue blazer.

The jury's sequestered in a conference room of the Fort Lauderdale Convention Center the day before February's Super Bowl. The NFL Network's cameras are trained on the big hall's stage for a live show introducing the Hall of Fame Class of 2010. The Little group—Floyd's wife, three children, a nephew and their significant others—sit huddled in a waiting room like a family at a hospital emergency room, waiting to learn if the father will live or die ... only the father's sitting beside them. Tom still can't believe he's the only non--family member invited. At dinner the previous night Floyd introduced him to the clan by saying, "Guess you're wondering who the white guy at the table is."

The show commences on a TV screen in the waiting room. It's unfolding like a beauty pageant, an emcee opening an envelope and the candidates getting pared to successively smaller groups. Only one senior's going to make it again, Floyd's convinced. It's him or LeBeau.

Cowboys defensive end Charles Haley, one of the modern nominees who's sharing the same waiting room, gets cut on the TV screen, rises and departs. Nobody can even look at Floyd. Tom paces and wonders if it was enough, the Floyd jersey he slept in the night before, the money he gave away all day to homeless people in Miami Beach.

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