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Promises to Keep
My Inspired Run from Syracuse to Denver to the Hall
By Floyd Little
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2012 Floyd Little and Tom Mackie
All rights reserved.
This book isn't just about my life's journey to Canton and beyond. I also wanted to write this book in the hope of inspiring fans like you to go out and fulfill your own dreams. If you're not doing everything you can to live your dream, you have to ask yourself, "What am I waiting for?" Life is not a dress rehearsal. It's the only one you get. And while fulfilling your dreams is a thing of beauty, the commitment and sacrifice necessary can be daunting. I know. I'm not here to tell you how easy it is. I'm here to share with you how hard it can be. Life is hard. It's not easy. Dying is easy. Before you meet your Maker, make sure you've squeezed every last drop of life out of this world. When your time is up, you want to leave completely fulfilled, at peace, knowing your loved ones will carry on your proud legacy.
I was a 25-year-old rookie running back. A bowlegged, 5'10", 195 pounder soaking wet. Critics said I was too old and too small to make it in the NFL. When I was drafted by the Denver Broncos, a last-place AFL team, the so-called experts stacked the deck against me even more. They said I was just a scatback, a shifty little guy who might make it as a kick returner but definitely not an every-down back. So I went all-in against the naysayers.
I played with a fury for nine seasons, became an every-down back, a 1,000 rusher, a perennial Pro Bowl player, and I retired as the seventh-leading rusher in NFL history. That wasn't by accident. That was pure will. In 2010, I was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In a sense, being enshrined in Canton now gives me a sense of immortality. Did I fulfill my dream? Yes. Did I do it by myself? Hell, no. I needed a cadre of supportive family, friends, mentors, coaches, teammates, fans, competitors, and naysayers every step of the way. No one travels life's journey alone. The one thing I did have was an uncommon will — a non-stop drive to achieve everything people said I couldn't.
Here's the thing: God only gives you drive or talent. You don't get both. In the history of sports, God has only made two mistakes: Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard. Somehow they were both given generous heaps of drive and talent.
Sometimes you don't know what you've been blessed with until something happens in your life and you discover it for the first time. For me, it happened when I was 14 and everything in my life seemed lost. A vision appeared that changed my life. After that, I made a promise that I never stopped striving to keep. A promise that drove me to achieve things that I never thought possible. Along my life's journey, I've been asked to keep more promises. I believe a promise is your word, your bond. That's what defines me, and that's all I have. This is where those promises begin.
My father, Frederick Douglas Little, died when I was six. He was named after the abolitionist Frederick Douglass. When he passed, my mom, Lula, was left to raise six kids in Waterbury, Connecticut. My mother was a saint. But at the same time she was a disciplinarian. You couldn't get anything past her. If you did something wrong, she would find out and you'd get a beating. She worked many jobs to support us. Because she was so busy, I was able to keep one secret from her for many years — my athletic talent on the football field. She thought I was too small to play football and didn't want me to get hurt. Consequently, my older sisters Betty, Rosa, and Priscilla helped me hide my secret gridiron life for years. They stitched up and cleaned my clothes when they were ripped to shreds. My mom didn't find out I was a pretty good football player until I got my scholarship at Syracuse. By then, what could she say?
I was the second youngest. Along with my three older sisters, I had a younger brother, Charles, known as "Jitty," and an older brother, Frederick, known as "Ranger." My father gave him the nickname from his favorite radio show, The Lone Ranger. Ranger got into trouble a lot. But our family always pulled together. We worked hard. I was shining shoes when I was six. And when I wasn't working, I was tagging along behind the skirt of my oldest sister, Betty. I was shy and self-conscious. My skin was darker than other black kids, and they called me Cheetah.
By the time I was 13, we had moved from the projects in Waterbury to a small apartment in New Haven. We had no choice but to move. Ranger got us evicted. Think about it — you have to be pretty bad to get evicted from the projects. Ranger was. He and some other boys got in trouble for continually beating up other kids. Our entire family got tossed to the curb because of it.
At first life didn't change much for us in New Haven. We continued to take odd jobs to bring in money. The pressure of constantly working and doing badly in school started to weigh on me. I was an angry young man. It took a watershed moment of pure frustration and angst for me to finally change my ways.
By the time I was 14, school had become too much for me. I could barely read, and then one day I was asked to read aloud and mispronounced a word. All the kids laughed at me. I got mad and refused to read in front of people again. I was challenged every day because of it. I failed tests, and my homework was always wrong. Some older kids teased me that I was stupid. So I got in a lot of fights. Most kids, though, were afraid of me. They'd see me and cross to the other side of the hallway. By the time I got to the eighth grade, I was just going through the motions. We were on social security. We all had more than one job, and I was always tired. My clothes were shabby. My shoes had holes. My hair was uncombed.
Then one day I snapped. I beat the crap out of some kid for basically no reason. Then I punched a teacher. When the kid's parents showed up, I fought with them, too. I was just mad at everyone. Mad at my life. Mad that every day seemed worse than the day before. It's no surprise that I got tossed out of school that day. The principal threw me out. I was outside, sitting on a curb, sobbing, afraid to go home because my mom was going to beat me. Hyperventilating, I didn't know what I was going to do. I felt beyond helpless.
All sorts of terrible things entered my head. Should I just run out into the street or rob a store, just to get this miserable life over with? Those thoughts had never entered my mind before. I wasn't a depressed kid. I was just seething with anger and frustration.
Then in the midst of all these tears, I heard my father's voice and I looked up. There he was, standing before me. Because I was so young when he died, I didn't have many strong memories of my dad. I've been told he had been a promising baseball player in one of the Negro Leagues back in the 1930s. Then he met my mom, Lula, and got married. Later, he got hurt playing ball; he got kicked in his ear and lost hearing in it. A few years later he died of ear cancer and believed it was from the baseball accident. My memory of him was him either fighting someone or sequestered to the bedroom, too sick to come out. When I did see him, he had stained bandages wrapped around his head. Fluid and pus would seep through.
But in this vision, my father looked healthy. There were no bandages or torn clothes. His face was full, and his eyes were alive. I was shaken, couldn't take a breath. Totally transfixed, my dad pointed at me and said, "Floyd, I have chosen you to take my place. I want you to live the life that I didn't get to live. I'm counting on you to do the things I couldn't do and to finish the things I couldn't finish. I want you to become a leader. Promise me that you'll do something great with your life so you can protect our family."
Then he was gone. My dad had come back to tell me to change my life. He could see my future and wanted to tell me about the journey I couldn't see. Somehow his spirit saw that I was struggling and found a way to communicate with me. I was in shock. He had a half-dozen other kids, most of them older than me. Why did he choose me, the second youngest? I closed my eyes and soaked in the moment. I realized this was my wake-up call. My life was passing me by, and I needed to do something about it. My dad had come back to ask me to keep a promise to him — to do the things he couldn't do and finish the things he couldn't finish.
From then on, I began to change. I straightened the hell up. I went home after that, told my mom I was expelled from school, and took my beating, knowing that she would never beat me again.
The next day, I went back and pleaded to the principal to let me back in. He slammed the door in my face.
So the following day I tried again using a different approach.
Every student has a teacher they like. Even a kid like me who hated everyone. Robert Schreck was an English teacher who was also an assistant basketball coach. I was a lousy English student but good at hoops. Mr. Schreck was someone I could always count on. Somehow he understood me, understood my struggles. I went to him and begged him to ask the faculty and administrators to give me another chance. It wasn't easy. He was mad at me for getting kicked out. It was a very humbling experience for me to ask for help. I would rather be castrated than ask someone for help. I believed it was a sign of weakness. But after my surreal experience with my dad, I knew it was the only way to turn my life around. I needed help. I needed someone to care. I had proved time and again I wasn't making it on my own.
So I went to Mr. Schreck's class and begged. I was on my hands and knees. It was time to recognize my faults. I didn't care what the other students thought. I wasn't self-conscious or paranoid anymore. At first, Schreck looked through me and said he couldn't do anything for me. But I wasn't going to be denied. I came back day after day, every day on my hands and knees.
I knew I had to get back in school. It was the only way I could change my life. Deep down I knew I didn't deserve it. I had become a bad guy. People were genuinely afraid of me. But this was my life. Whether I deserved a second chance or not, I needed to get back into school.
After weeks of pleading my case, Mr. Schreck became convinced that I was genuine in my commitment to change. He decided to stick out his neck for me and went to the school administration and pleaded my case. I found out later, like me, he went several days in a row, probably pleading on his hands and knees. Whatever he did, it worked.
Weeks after getting kicked out, I was finally back in school thanks to Mr. Schreck. I owed him big time.
Sometimes you question why something is happening to you. You ask God or whatever higher power you believe in, "Why are you doing this?" or "Can't you stop this from happening?" That's how I felt when we got kicked out of the projects. We had been through so much, and now we had to move to another town and start over.
But that's the blessing of change. It usually means a new start. A short while after Mr. Schreck gave me a second chance and got my ass back into school, I discovered something that became my passion and ultimately changed my life — football.
A classmate of mine, Al "Tubby" Rogers, saw me hanging out near my home one day and came up to me. He said, "Kid, do you play football?" "Um, no. Never played," I replied. "Well, a bunch of us get together on Saturdays over at the park to play. We always need guys, why don't you stop by?"
Well, I had to deliver papers in the morning, but after my route, I thought, Why not?
I showed up and saw a bunch of kids, many of them older, flying around wearing shoulder pads and cleats. Some even wore helmets. I was sporting torn jeans, a ripped shirt, and shoes with barely any soles. I was the only one who had no equipment. But instead of feeling scared, I smiled. Boyohboy, this is going to be fun! I thought. These guys are really hitting each other. Hard. This is right up my alley!
At first they put me at guard. I said, "Okay, what's a guard do?" You push people out of the way so the guy with the ball can run, they told me. I grinned and absolutely loved it. I got rid of so much aggression that day, shoving people around and knocking people silly. I would hit a guy and see another guy 10 yards down the field and hit him, then I'd see another guy farther down and deck him. After a while one of the guys said, "Hey, you're fast. You're hitting guys and flying past the ball carrier down the field. Maybe we'll put you at receiver." "Okay, what's a receiver do?" They run down the field and catch the ball.
So they moved me from guard to receiver. I ran down the field so fast no one was near me. I waved my arms wildly. "I'm open, I'm open. Throw me the ball!" I cried. But no one could get me the ball. I ran down the field so fast I'd gone too far.
The next time I came out the guys put me at running back. "Okay," I said, "what's a running back do?" You carry the ball and try to score touchdowns. Well, the first time I got the ball I ran the whole way for a touchdown. I scored again the next time I carried the ball. In fact, I scored the first six times I touched the ball. It didn't matter that I was sliding all over the place with my treadless shoes. People were coming from all directions to get me. I was zigzagging all the way down the field. If I ran 80 yards for a touchdown, I was traversing at least 180 yards to get there. Funny thing is, that became my running style. Years later I would say, "I try not to run over anybody. I try to run around as many guys as I can."
After that day in the park, football became my favorite sport. I still loved basketball, but football was the perfect fit for me. It gave me the physical outlet I never had before. Where else can you hit someone full force and get a pat on the back instead of your ass thrown out of school?
Looking back, it was a blessing we got kicked out of the projects and had to move to New Haven. It was a blessing that I met Tubby Rogers and discovered football. If we had stayed in Waterbury, I may not have gotten into sports. I may have ended up in a gang or worse. My whole life began to change after we moved to New Haven.
My life changed each time I showed up at the park to play. Each time there were more and more people watching me play. One day a guy named Dan Casey came to watch me. He was the head football coach at Hillhouse High School. Meeting him put me on an athletic path that I would never look back on.
Some kids may look at playing sports as a way to escape from the ghetto. I never saw it that way. I saw my athletic ability as a way to get an education. At the time the thought of making it in the NFL or the NBA was about as likely as winning the lottery. That's why, after the vision from my dad, I knew the first step was to get my ass back into school.
I realized that I needed to surround myself with good people if I ever wanted to be successful. I had to rid myself of the procrastinators and the naysayers and surround myself with the doers and people who were positive influences.
Think about it — your attitude is the one thing you have 100 percent control over. It's the person with the positive attitude who gets the opportunity, the raise, and the promotion. Just like it's the negative person who always feels like they're the victim, the one who should have gotten the raise, and the one who wished they had the promotion.
This old adage rings true — whether you think you can or you think you can't, you're right. It's your attitude that makes all the difference.
When I got back into school, I made a conscious decision to change, to surround myself with positive people. I didn't talk back to anyone. I didn't start trouble. I tried to be friendly to people I had been a jerk to before. I even did something few thought I was cable of doing — I ran for class president!
I'd like to think running for class president was my idea. Sorry, no. That's the last thing I thought about doing. I was committed to change. But running for class president? Bullshit. There was no way in hell I was going to do that.
Mr. Schreck, who had become my mentor, had other ideas. "Floyd," he said, "you've done a lot to change people's perceptions of you. But there are a lot of teachers and faculty who think you're full of shit. They don't think you've changed. They think you're trying to skate by. They think you're trying to say the right things, but don't believe a word you're saying. I know better. You've changed. Running for class president will make them believers. Better yet, I think you can win."
Believe me, running for class president was the last thing I wanted to do. I had changed a lot, coming back to school, being humble, showing I was honorable. But Mr. Schreck demanded I do more. He fought hard to get me back in school. He told me that trying to become a better student wasn't enough. As class president, I would have to be an outspoken advocate for the students. I would have to make speeches and support student causes. That wasn't me. I was shy, an introvert. But Mr. Schreck was my mentor. Not only did I believe in him, I felt like I owed him a debt of gratitude.
Excerpted from Promises to Keep by Floyd Little. Copyright © 2012 Floyd Little and Tom Mackie. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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