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.
July 25, 2010
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.
And a bonus, an autographed action shot of Floyd that Tommy slides into a frame with his own solemnly scrawled pledge to work out, improve his speed and gain weight so that he, all 5' 5" and 115 pounds, can realize his dream of playing in the NFL, and a vow to remain as humble as Floyd once he does.
Oh, the letter of indignation he sends to the Hall of Fame when its holy gates refuse to open for Floyd in 1980, the first year of eligibility for the man who retired as the NFL's No. 7 alltime leading rusher. Then, all at once, it's time for Tom to grow up and head off to college, and for the critical missing piece in his project to change from a running back retired from a flailing, faraway team to....
Enter a wife.
Yes, we're hurdling two decades, but that means nothing in the smoke where dream and identity stir. She's a lithe, lovely blonde named Emily, a coworker whom Tom met at the advertising agency in D.C., where he was writing copy for pharmaceutical and computer-software ads in 1998, and whom he married on third-and-long at age 37. Now his 40th birthday's nearing, in 2003, and she's looking for the one gift that'll wow him when it strikes her: What if she could give him Floyd?
He mentions his childhood idol, oh, only about 44 times a year, and he dons a huge Styrofoam horse head on Sundays to root the Broncos home. She still can't believe that he actually flew to Denver a few hours after the Broncos won their first Super Bowl, in 1997, to wander through a trashed, hung-over city and enter Mile High Stadium for the first time in his life and then tell everyone after he'd raced back to the airport and flown home the same day that it was the best $1,500 he'd ever spent. She has no clue how she ended up at an NFL Europe game on her honeymoon in Barcelona or how minihelmets, mini-Elways and mini--Mile High Stadium replicas came to festoon her house. But she's a good wife, the kind who reads The New York Times in silence when he drags her to a game, and she just wants to see his face light up.
She tries, without luck, to trace Floyd on the Internet. Then she remembers Tom once saying that Floyd lived somewhere near Seattle, and her mother points out that a close family friend, Molly Bailey, also lives there, and Molly remembers seeing a commercial for a Floyd Little car dealership and produces a phone number, and Emily's relayed to another dealership—in West Covina, Calif.—that Ford has sent Floyd down to rescue, and she's stunned seconds later to be speaking to the Floyd Little.
So ... this total stranger, calling from the other side of the country, wants Floyd to agree to meet some guy named Tom? Floyd's a busy man. He's 60, running two dealerships and about to get remarried in a few weeks. Maybe he wouldn't even have considered such a request if he'd become a sports hero a decade or two later. But remember the word that Floyd says to Emily, and to life itself, for yours, like his, might pivot on it:
Emily hands Tom an envelope on March 20, 2003. Inside is a photo of Floyd and the words: It's time for you to suck up your middle/Because you're going to meet Floyd Little.
"What?" Tom keeps spluttering. "How did you ... ? I can't believe it!"
It's pouring a few weeks later when their rental car pulls up to the dealership in West Covina. Tom's tingling with nerves. A half hour's all that Emily dared ask for, but their host says, Hey, let's grab some lunch, and Tom blinks in disbelief as the great Floyd Little drives them to his favorite soup-and-sandwich joint. Then it's Floyd's turn to blink when, as he regales his visitors with old war stories, Tom begins dropping casual remarks such as, Wasn't that the season you played with the broken transverse process bone in your back? And that's how lunch might've gone, Tom tossing in a few tidbits to establish his long apostleship, nibbling his French-dip roast beef sandwich and taking home a brief memory to cherish for life ... if Tom were still the flowerpot in the corner that he'd been in his 20s and 30s. But ever since his father died of a heart attack in 1996 and the velocity of life and death had struck him, Tom had changed.
He begins to vent his outrage: Your statistics place you in the top 20 of the 38 running backs in the Hall of Fame in EVERY major category, Floyd! and It's not fair to spend an entire career on such a bad team and get penalized for it! and You did everything out there, caught passes, blocked on special teams, returned kickoffs and punts and You were a humanitarian, won the Brian Piccolo and Byron "Whizzer" White awards. This is ridiculous! The biggest injustice in football history!
Now Floyd's flushed, because this stranger's tapping something old, something buried, something bitter. Suddenly lunch is 2½ hours old, and Floyd's taking them back to the dealership and inviting Tom into his office while Emily, yet to utter a peep, disappears with her laptop. Tom pulls out a small tape recorder. It's one he began using a few years back, when his father's death led him to sift through an old box and rediscover the words his dad had written soon after Tom had finally learned that his parents' marriage was over—May you become the quarterback of the Broncos; May you never feel that life has let you down; May you always fight the good fight and never surrender the joy of hope; May you become all that you wish to be by using all that is within you and not look to someone else for hope. I LOVE YOU, Dad—and he felt the pang of what he had once wanted to do with his life, before his journalism professor at the University of Delaware had told him he'd never cut it, before the sports editor at the school paper had banished him to the field hockey and lacrosse beats, before the newspapers he'd applied to for jobs turned him down and he'd settled for a life of writing pharmaceutical ads instead of sizzling lead paragraphs in an NFL press box. And damned if Tom hadn't dipped back into that old well of sheer doggedness and begun to make it happen on the side, writing late at night and on weekends for the Redskins' and Cowboys' and Raiders' weeklies.
He puts the tape recorder on Floyd's desk and asks, "So why do you think you're not in the Hall of Fame?" Floyd leans back. It's the most bewildering, humiliating thing for a five-time Pro Bowler who retired with the words "future Hall of Famer" riveted to his name, who was once introduced that way by Rozelle; no, it's the second-most humiliating thing, behind the bigger face slap: Floyd has never even been a nominee. He has kept that pain in a vault, cracked open now and then only for a few loved ones and dear friends—Why not me? I worked so hard—and exposed in public only when it was just too much. Like that time in the early '90s when Floyd was sitting beside his son, Marc, in the same booth at The Varsity restaurant in Syracuse that he'd frequented in his college days and two young men approached to ask him to settle a bet over what year he'd been enshrined in the Hall. "What do you think?" Floyd asked.
"I say 1982," one replied. "My friend here says '84."
Floyd raised his hands. "Gentlemen," he said, "I have never even been nominated." The sadness his son saw in his face got buried again till the day in '93 that the calls began coming in: "Congratulations, Floyd!"
"They're putting you in the Hall of Fame!"
"Huh?" His heart began pounding. "You s-----n' me?" His breath became a pant.
"No, I just heard it! Way to go!"
Floyd reached for the radio, turned on the sports station. Not a word. He called his best old Broncos buddy Billy Thompson, who found the list of new members and read it off. "Naw, Floyd," said Billy, "it's Larry Little!"
It felt, Floyd would say years later, as if someone had jammed a hand down his throat and ripped out his heart. Now he's pouring all that out to this stranger, and the stranger's vowing to help get that heart back.
Floyd pauses, finally, and looks right at Tom. "Why are you doing this?" he asks.
"Because you were my hero," Tom says, "and you did things the right way on and off the field, and this is wrong." Something catches Tom by surprise. He just heard his voice crack.
Enter a team.
Two men who need each other to fulfill their dreams. Two men standing side by side, each turning to grasp at something that keeps emerging, moment by moment, and vanishing again: his life. The black man trying to secure his grip on it by reaching forward, for immortality. A bronze bust in Canton that guarantees he'll live forever. The white man turning the other way—the way most of us, more ordinary, do—and reaching into his past, for the life that disappeared behind him.
Tom goes home on fire. He's going to bake up a batch of the best, most thorough stories he has ever written, convince important newspapers to publish them and make millions of people aware of Floyd Little's plight. He's going to frame Floyd's career for the under-40s who never saw him rip open a crowded football field with one zigzag slice and reframe it for the over-40s who forgot him because they never saw him on a playoff stage. Tom's going to lay siege to the 39 sentries at the holy gates.
Nine of them are all he must target in Phase One, he learns, the nine Senior Selection Committee members who meet in a rotating group of five each August to decide which two old-timers to place before the full membership for a vote at the Super Bowl. He begins combing the Internet to learn all he can about those nine journalists, their past exposure to Floyd, their preferences and aversions in candidates. He begins combing NFL records and his own encyclopedic memory of the sport to find comparisons no one ever thought to make. Hey, look: Over Floyd's career, '68 to '75, only one man gained more yards rushing or more yards from scrimmage—O.J. Simpson. And look: Floyd retired as one of only seven NFL players to average more than 100 all-purpose yards per game, 104, more than the averages of Emmitt Smith, Marcus Allen, Leroy Kelly and Lenny Moore, Hall of Famers all. And look: The players who ranked seventh in alltime NFL rushing in 1980, '85, '90, '95 and 2000 are all in the Hall of Fame. Why not the guy who ranked seventh in '75, especially since all six of the men in front of him are already enshrined?
Numbers begin filling the margins of Tom's day planner at work. Numbers begin filling notebooks. Numbers scribbled after his wife goes to sleep at midnight, numbers scribbled when he awakens at 5 a.m. Holy crap, look at this: Of the six running backs in history with more rushing yards than Floyd had when he retired, five of them had two or three Hall of Fame offensive linemen blowing open holes for them, and the sixth had one. Floyd? Zero. Among those six, Jim Brown ran behind offensive linemen named to 17 Pro Bowls, Leroy Kelly behind linemen named to 13 Pro Bowls, Simpson behind linemen named to six. Floyd's blockers? Three Pro Bowls. One day, Emily stumbles upon page after page of those numbers and thinks, Oh, God, this is just like that scene in A Beautiful Mind in which the wife finds calculations and words all over the walls and realizes that her schizophrenic husband has galloped right over the edge.
The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News both reject Tom's freelance story—the two newspapers in the town where Floyd starred, for crying out loud! He can't tell Floyd. He tinkers with the story, finds new numbers, better arguments, submits variations of it to the Syracuse Post-Standard, the New Haven Register and the Denver magazine Mile High Sports. Yes! They all run it. For a grand sum of 500 bucks. He goes back to his numbers, so fraught with humdingers that he decides to play with Floyd's jersey number and create a booklet, 44 Reasons to Elect Floyd Little to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He spends weeks digging up the addresses of all 39 Hall of Fame voters and writing them personal cover letters, then shells out a couple hundred dollars to print up and mail off the booklets. He and Floyd are both crushed in August 2003 when the senior committee does the same thing it always does: forgets Floyd Little.
Tom reloads. Tom produces a new and improved 44 Reasons for 2004. Tom creates a DVD of Floyd's most jaw-dropping runs. He lobs all that into the inner sanctum. He couldn't do this if he'd become a sportswriter. He'd be too neutral, too jaded, too weary. He's making progress. His stats and reasons are popping up in newspapers and on websites. August arrives. Floyd can barely sleep. Tom can barely work. His fingers can't stop clicking on the Hall of Fame website for the announcement. What? Benny Friedman and Fritz Pollard are the senior nominees for 2005? Tom's got to apologize to Floyd again and tell him that?
Floyd's voice goes dead on the phone. It must be personal, he fumes. Someone must have a grudge. Unless he's inducted, he vows, he'll never set foot in the Hall. But there he goes again, a few months later, helping Tom produce more ammo. He calls Tom one day in 2005: Would he like to write Floyd's biography? Tom can't form words. All his life he's dreamed of writing a book. And so every Tuesday and Thursday for months, at 9 a.m. PST, Floyd's eyes go to the office phone in his dealership just outside of Seattle, awaiting Tom's call. It's the highlight of Floyd's week, now that car sales have tanked and his dealership's a mausoleum. For that hour or two, Floyd sparkles, booms, whispers, giggles, mimicking coaches and teammates and buddies and siblings as he relives his life for Tom.
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?
Of course Tom's blinded by loyalty. Most of the voters are dedicated journalists devoting vast amounts of unpaid time to the task and getting deluged with petitions from entire fan bases, web communities and individuals. It's a mind-twisting endeavor, stacking a Pro Bowl running back from the '70s against, say, an all-star defensive end from the '40s, and there's a whole warehouse of magnificent players, dead and alive, who arguably belong in the Hall.
This time it's Floyd talking Tom down off the ledge. It's O.K., buddy, 2008's our year—Floyd's got an inside tip from a Hall of Famer who'll be acting as a consultant to the Senior Committee and going to bat for him. Geez, says Tom. Great. He keeps up the artillery fire, just in case, and they can't wait for the August announcement.
Bob Hayes ... again? Hayes, a convicted drug dealer, the Cowboys receiver who'd been bounced by the full membership's vote four years earlier. Floyd, now 66, turns to his wife, DeBorah. "If I'm dead and they elect me, tell 'em, 'F--- you,' " he instructs her. "Tell 'em to kiss my ass. The idea's to celebrate and dance with your family and friends when you get this. And tell my son to tell them that too."
He calls Tom. Close friends they'll always be ... but the team's finished. "It's over," Floyd says. "I'm done."
Exit a dream.
There goes Floyd's immortality project, and there goes his second career, the dealership. He has slashed it from 60 employees to 28, and it's still losing a hundred grand a month and bleeding his retirement. In June 2009 he wipes his eyes and tells the last 28—people whose birthday parties and weddings he attended, whose children's children he knows by name—what he told Tom: It's over, he's done.
On the other side of the country Tom stares into a mirror. He knows it's time for him to move on too. He's got a little boy lying in a crib beneath a Broncos mobile, wearing the Broncos jumpsuit sent by Uncle Floyd. There's no time, with a child and a full-time job, for the crusade anymore, and no one to share it with, anyway. Floyd refuses to discuss it. Emily won't either. She loves Floyd, but she's had it. And Tom's just like most guys, helpless to explain to a woman why he has to keep scratching some old itch, keep returning to something simpler and cleaner that sports gave him once upon a time. A windstorm crashes a massive poplar through the roof of the room above the garage where Tom keeps all the Floyd mementos and scrapbooks and NFL trinkets he had collected since childhood, the room he calls Mantown, and now he wonders if even God's telling him to evolve.
But he can't. He needs every ounce of it now, the doggedness of the boy who once numbed his throbbing right foot with ice and ran his best two-mile time, then found out the foot was fractured. He tracks down the last 18 Hall of Famers he needs and mails off 44 Hall of Famers on 44 Floyd Little: a booklet in which 44 legends insist that Floyd should be admitted to their tribe. Floyd blinks back tears as he reads Elway calling him "the greatest Bronco of us all," Steeler Jack Ham calling him "the most complete back I ever played against" and Colt John Mackey, in a letter written before dementia stole his mind, saying, "If you can't find space for Floyd Little, please take me out of the Hall of Fame and put him in."
Aug. 25, 2009, dawns. Floyd's in bed at 9 a.m.; he's an unemployed man. Tom, too sick at heart to enslave himself to the Hall of Fame website, leaves his computer to buy another $3.99 hoagie and despair alone in a park.
Floyd's phone rings. His wife answers. "This is Joe Horrigan from the Pro Football Hall of Fame," says the voice, and DeBorah, wide-eyed, hands the phone to Floyd. His eyes begin to shine. He jabs the speaker button and croaks, "I want you to say that again for my wife!"
"Floyd, it is my pleasure and honor to tell you that you've been nominated to the Pro Football Hall of Fame!"
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.
The room's as quiet as a prayer. All eyes drop to the floor. Floyd leans forward in his chair, head tilting closer and closer toward the TV. All anyone can hear, from under his breath, is Ohboy ... ohboy ... ohboy....
Final cut. The envelope, please. Floyd's eyes shut. His nose leans past his shoe tips. His fists come up to his forehead.
"Breathe, Floyd, breathe," Tom murmurs.
"Dick LeBeau!" cries the emcee.
LeBeau—not me! Floyd's mind screams.
Floyd pitches and lands face-first on the floor. He rolls onto his back and throws up his arms and legs as a TV crew bursts in and his children dive on him and his glasses fly off and his daughter swallows her gum and their sobs fill the room.
The 46-year-old white ad-copy writer, standing on the edge of the family pile, what's he supposed to do? Tom slaps Floyd's up-poked leg, yelps, "You're the man!" and backs off, dialing Emily. "This is all because of you!" Tom cries to her. Floyd grabs the phone, thanks Emily and kisses Tom on the neck, and everyone entwines arms in a circle for a prayer, a dance and a whoop.
Enter a man and a boy.
The man's walking toward his mailbox carrying a toddler, both of them wearing Broncos colors. The man's planning the website he's going to launch, truegridiron.com, and his first entry, an eyewitness account of Floyd Little's induction in Canton, Ohio, on Aug. 7. Tom opens the mailbox and pulls out two small envelopes with the handwriting he knows so well.
He has no way of knowing if Floyd would've gotten into the Hall of Fame without him. No way of knowing if a senior committee that had been tossing Floyd's name around for years would've finally nominated him regardless, or if the flurry of late phone calls to the 44 voters by broadcaster Jim Gray—who grew up in Denver idolizing Floyd—did the trick, or if Jeff Legwold, the Rocky Mountain News writer who melted the 44 voters with his five-star Floyd presentation, would've been just fine without all those reasons Tom supplied to help quell every doubt, or if the voters finally picked Floyd, as Broncos p.r. man Jim Saccomano exclaimed when the announcement was made, just to get Tom Mackie off their backs.
All Tom knows is what Floyd told the world twice on that stage in Fort Lauderdale—that he never would've gotten in without Tom—and what Floyd keeps telling anyone who'll listen: "He took me out of the depths of hell. There's no way in my wildest dreams that I'd have gotten in without him. I was his hero. He became mine."
Tom opens one envelope: Tom, because of you I am living a dream.
He opens the other: I love you man! Thank you!
He smiles and walks toward the house to show Emily. He'll be back at the mailbox tomorrow, of course, the boy who once waited four years for his hero to write back. It'll take weeks to get all 44 thank-you notes from Floyd Little.