ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Pro Football Hall of Famer Floyd Little, known as "The Franchise'' in his career with the Denver Broncos, died on New Year's Day. He was 78.
Little had been diagnosed with cancer, which became public this past May, and was moved to hospice care in November.
"Floyd Little was a true hero of the game. He was a man of great integrity, passion and courage," Pro Football Hall of Fame president and CEO David Baker said in a statement. "His contributions off the field were even greater than his amazing accomplishments he did on it. Floyd's smile, heart and character epitomized what it meant to have a Hall of Fame life.
Little's family said in a statement: "The family extends their gratitude to all who have supported Floyd Little and his family during this time with prayers, calls and your heartfelt expressions of love.''
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said those around Little were proud to have known him.
"I was so fortunate to know Floyd and witnessed first-hand the impact he had on others," Goodell said in a statement. "Whenever he represented the Broncos at the annual NFL Draft, others immediately sought to greet him and his genuine excitement of being with his fellow Legends and his pride and passion for the Broncos was unmistakable. "Football, the Broncos and the NFL were a large part of his life, but nothing could surpass his love and affection for his wife DeBorah and his children, Marc, Christy and Kyra. To them and the entire Little family we extend our deepest sympathy."
For many fans, Little was the team's first star. Always a vibrant presence at team functions, Little had also become a regular at ceremonies in Canton, Ohio, for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Little was enshrined in the Hall's Class of 2010. A three-time All American at Syracuse, Little is in the College Football Hall of Fame as well.
"I feel so blessed in everything, and as long as I can I will always come back [to Canton], and I always hope to see many more Broncos here with me as the years go by,'' is how Little put it in 2019 when both Champ Bailey and Broncos owner Pat Bowlen were enshrined. "Football has given me so much, and I will always try to give back in every way to young people who need our help.
"I've always been blessed around the game and through all the aches and pains will always feel that way.''
After the Broncos' Nov. 22 win over the Miami Dolphins, when the team rushed for 189 yards as Denver South High School's Phillip Lindsay finished with 89 yards on 16 carries, the team sent a game ball to Little. Little's wife, DeBorah, posted photos on social media of the ball in Little's room in hospice.
Little, who was the sixth pick of the 1967 AFL-NFL draft by the Broncos, played nine seasons with Denver and rushed for 6,323 yards with 43 touchdowns. Those early years of the Broncos' franchise -- one of the original AFL teams in 1960 -- were usually a struggle on the field as Little starred for teams that didn't make the playoffs.
The Broncos finished with a winning record just twice in Little's career -- in 1973 and 1974. But he was a five-time Pro Bowl selection and led the AFL in combined yards in both 1967 and 1968.
He also became the first player to lead the NFL in rushing while playing for a last-place team (1971 with 1,133 yards). The Broncos didn't reach the postseason until the 1977 season, two years after Little's retirement.
"Without question, Floyd was one of the greatest Broncos of all-time and an unforgettable part of our history," Broncos president and CEO Joe Ellis said in a statement. "...As the first Pro Football Hall of Famer to star for the Broncos, Floyd brought credibility to this team while becoming one of the most dominant players of his era. Seeing him finally receive that Gold Jacket was the culmination of a tremendous lifetime in football.
"Even after his retirement, Floyd was a wonderful ambassador for the game and the Denver Broncos, carrying himself with warmth, kindness and class -- always with humility and a smile. In recent months, he faced his cancer diagnosis with the same grit and determination that defined his incredible playing career."
Earlier this year former Syracuse teammate Pat Killorin made Little's cancer diagnosis public as he created a GoFundMe page called "Friends of Floyd.'' Little had Stage 2 neuroendocrine tumor cancer, and more than $100,000 was raised to help the Littles with medical costs.
From 2011 to 2016, Little worked in the Syracuse athletic department, and in 2016, he was given an honorary doctorate degree from the school.
"Floyd Little embodied what it means to be Orange," Syracuse chancellor Kent Syverud said in a statement. "He was an all-American student-athlete. He set records in the NFL. He achieved success in the business world. Floyd mentored countless student-athletes, and dedicated his time, energy and resources to improving the lives of others. He was a great friend, to me and to his beloved Syracuse University."
Syracuse men's basketball coach Jim Boeheim honored Little in a tweet, calling him a "great friend" and one of the school's "greatest ambassadors."
I have lost a great friend and Syracuse University has lost one of its all-time greatest ambassadors. Floyd Little brought a smile to the face of everyone he encountered. Juli and I send our condolences to DeBorah and Floyd's family. pic.twitter.com/sIdzEdwhkV— Jim Boeheim (@therealboeheim) January 2, 2021
Little had his No. 44 retired by both Syracuse and the Broncos.
President-elect Joe Biden, who attended law school at Syracuse at the same time Little was a student, called the running back a "good man" and a friend in a statement.
"As with everything else he did in life, Floyd lived to the very end with grit and heart, and love for his family and faith in God," Biden said.
Little was called "The Franchise" because his signing, when players could choose between the NFL and AFL, was credited with keeping the team from relocating in the 1960s and with helping to convince local voters to approve funds to build Mile High Stadium.