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July 26, 2010
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July 26, 2010

The Unexpected Hero


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ENTER A MAN. EVEN AT 60, in pajamas, his body's hard and ready, a fist. He lies down on his bed, and soon he's in it again, the dream in which the football's in his right arm and the enemy's coming at him. He can never make out uniforms or colors, so he can never be sure if they're Chiefs, and he's about to bounce outside and beat two of them around the corner, then hurdle the third and outsprint the rest, the way he did on that 50-yard screen pass against them 30 years ago ... or they're Raiders, and he's about to tunnel through and shrug off the five who have him surrounded, as he did on that 54-yard bolt ... or they're even Kansas Jayhawks, and he's about to carve 'em up for five touchdowns, leaving their coach—who'd traveled to Syracuse with Gale Sayers—murmuring, "That was the greatest performance by any back I've ever seen."

Or maybe all those bodies coming at him are metaphors for everything standing in the way of the only thing left in life that he's got to have, the one place he can't reach—and, hey, wait a minute ... where are his blockers? He never has any in the dream, but maybe that's his fault, after all those times they'd clogged his path and he'd told them to just lie down or get the hell out of his way, even hoisted one into the air at halftime and slammed him to the locker room floor.

He awakens in a sweat, heart thumping, lips whispering, Ohboy ohboy ohboy. It's 2003, nearly three decades since he was the Denver Broncos, and Floyd Little knows he can't go on waiting. Too many of his peers already died or had their brains banged against their skulls so many times that they've lost it, the most precious thing: identity. Ohboy ohboy, he's going to need a blocker.

Enter a boy. He's hopping out of the school bus in front of his two-story white house, his eyes running right to the mailbox. Is today, at last, the day he and Floyd Little connect? It's 1974. It makes no sense that 11-year-old Tommy Mackie, in the suburbs of Wilmington, Del., needs a man who plays on a pathetic football team 1,500 miles away to scribble his name on a piece of paper and mail it to him. A man he has barely laid eyes on, once as an eight-year-old when Floyd came to nearby Philadelphia to play and Tom's dad got tickets, and only a few times on TV because the pre--John Elway Broncos are lepers to the networks.

The boy's constructing a self, only he's missing the biggest piece. His parents' marriage is over—his father moved out a year ago—but his protective mom keeps insisting that Dad's just working long hours. When Tommy sits on the piano bench he used to share with his father and tries to play the Moonlight Sonata as beautifully as his dad did, he props a Floyd Little football card and a Floyd Little plastic 7-Eleven Slurpee cup on the piano for inspiration. He scissors pictures of number 44 out of SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDS at the public library table most hidden from the librarian's eyes. His attachment to Floyd grows with each description he reads of the obstacles that were stacked against his hero: losing his father to cancer at age six, growing up in Connecticut housing projects with five siblings taffy-pulling their mother's $3,200 welfare income, being scoffed at as a bow-legged, undersized, virtually illiterate running back who flunked two years in grade school.

Floyd is Tommy's alone, shared by nobody else in a sea of Eagles green. Tommy relishes that identity, the prepubescent connoisseur, one he stumbled upon as a seven-year-old when his buddy across the street, Dave Apostolico, decreed on the school bus one day that they couldn't share the Cowboys as their favorite team. Easygoing Tom shrugged, scanned the NFL logo stickers on Dave's notebook and fixed on the blue helmet with a rearing white stallion snorting steam from its nostrils at the center of a big orange-red D. "That's the Denver Broncos, they're one of the worst teams, and their only good player is Floyd Little," declared Dave, and bingo, Tommy—whose heart tilted toward underdogs—was hooked.

All those hurdles in Floyd's path, Tom read, had been flattened by pure will—the very trait upon which Tommy was staking his own identity. Too amenable for his own good, too small and slow of hand and foot to match Dave and their third Musketeer, bruising Gregg Marvel, on any playing field ... why, the only way Tommy would hang on till the end of their careers at A.I. du Pont High, where Dave would be quarterback, Gregg team captain and Tom deep bench, was by sheer doggedness.

That's what Tom needs in order to capture some proof of the link between himself and his hero. At age 10 he wrote to the Broncos for Floyd's autograph, but the team sent only a few stock photos. Tom comes up empty again at 12 and keeps pushing, even after the Floyd era ends in '75 with yet another Broncos last-minute loss and with Tommy weeping on the living room floor. Why, if the commissioner only knew ... but Tom's letter asking Pete Rozelle to help him get Floyd's signature goes for naught, as well.

Desperate, at 14, Tom visits the Pro Football Hall of Fame and searches the archives in vain for Floyd's home address—"basically stalking at an early age," his sister, Maryde, says—then crafts another letter to the Broncos, this time pretending to be Tom's older brother, Jeff, asking if Floyd could please send a signature as a gift for his "little brother's" birthday: pay dirt!

Dear Tommy, Sorry I missed your birthday which by the way is the same day as my wife's. Hope you had a happy one. Sincerely, Floyd Little.

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