- Rich Cimini, ESPN New York Jets reporter
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SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Nearly a half century after he left Syracuse to embark on his NFL career, Floyd Little returned to his alma mater Thursday, quoting lines from a Robert Frost poem to describe why he decided to give up a cushy retirement to be back at school.
"I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep," said the Hall of Fame running back, who was introduced as Syracuse's special assistant to the athletic director.
Mostly, it was a promise to the late Ernie Davis, whom he described as the most influential person in his life, that brought Little back to Syracuse. It is a pay-it-forward act of loyalty, his way of thanking his mentor and completing the vision of a man who never saw his 24th birthday.
Davis, of course, is one of the most tragic figures in sports history. The first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy, he was chosen No. 1 overall by the Cleveland Browns in the 1962 NFL draft, but he was stricken with leukemia and never played a down in the NFL.
Because of a recruiting pitch by the dying Davis, Little picked Syracuse over West Point. That meant spurning a remarkable offer from Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who, Little says, told him he'd ascend to the rank of general if he enrolled at West Point and played football for Army.
Tempting, but Little chose Syracuse after hearing the news of Davis' death. He called it the best decision of his life.
"Coming to Syracuse, I've tried to emulate what Ernie was and what he would be," the former Denver Broncos star said in a quiet moment after Thursday's news conference. "My life has been tied to Ernie's life, because I wanted to be the Ernie Davis that he couldn't be. That's how I lived my life, because of Ernie Davis not having a chance to live his."
Little, 68, is an eloquent speaker, capable of quieting a room with a whispered sentence. He has an aura, and Syracuse expects that aura to help the athletic program with everything from fundraising to recruiting. "Royalty," athletic director Dr. Daryl Gross called him.
After being inducted last year into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, fulfilling a three-decade quest, Little could've kicked back and enjoyed an easy life in his home outside Seattle, where he once owned car dealerships. But the pull of his alma mater brought him back. He's always been involved with the school; now he's on the payroll and has an office on campus.
"It's like going out and getting the No. 1 recruit in the country from an excitement standpoint," said football coach Doug Marrone, a Syracuse alumnus who revived the Orange last season with an 8-5 record -- their first winning season in a decade.
Hall of Fame basketball coach Jim Boeheim knows Little from their days as SU students. They competed against each other in spirited intramural basketball games, with Little claiming he owned Boeheim on the court.
"I told Daryl, 'This is the best guy you've ever hired,'" said Boeheim, who has coached the Orange since 1976. "Even if he hired me, this would've been the best guy he ever hired. ... When you have legends in the building, it's never a bad thing."
That Little's return coincides with the 50th anniversary of Davis' Heisman is poetic symmetry. "Surreal," Little called it. Davis meant so much to him.
Before Davis showed up at his house in New Haven, Conn., Little was planning to attend West Point after a year at a military school in Bordentown, N.J. The Army wanted him so badly that it summoned Little to a suite in the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan, where he was introduced to African-American baseball stars Roy Campanella and Elston Howard.
And, of course, Gen. MacArthur.
"General MacArthur pretty much guaranteed that I'd become the first African-American general," Little said. "When you think about that, I could've been Colin Powell's boss. I could've been General [Norman] Schwarzkopf's boss. I could've been General [David] Petraeus' boss. Just think about that."
Davis didn't need a fancy suite or famous friends to win over Little. He did it with charm and class -- and a steak-and-lobster dinner at a restaurant near the Yale campus. Little told Davis he'd sign with Syracuse, but he didn't make it official until the day he learned of Davis' death a few months later.
Little was blindsided, as very few knew of the illness. Out of his grief came a life-altering decision. He called legendary coach Ben Schwartzwalder and told him he was committing to the Orange, fulfilling the promise he'd made to Davis.
In his new job, Little said his objective is to tell others about Syracuse, "just like Ernie did for me." Syracuse isn't the first school to hire a famous running back. Archie Griffin, a two-time Heisman winner, is the president/CEO of the Ohio State alumni association.
Little said he expects to make a bigger impact than Griffin because his job will allow him to do more things, including interacting with the student-athletes on a daily basis. He made a lasting impression this past fall on running back Delone Carter, who enjoyed a career year and was drafted in the fourth round by the Indianapolis Colts last month.
After speaking to the team on the eve of the 2010 opener, Little called up Carter in front of the room and let him try on his new Hall of Fame blazer. It was too big for Carter's 225-pound frame, but in a meaningful way, it was the perfect fit.
Afterward, a choked-up Carter called home, telling his uncle how much that gesture meant to him. His uncle shared the story with Little, who smiled the approving smile that Davis never had a chance to.
A promise to keep. Still miles to go before he sleeps.
At age 68, Hall of Famer Floyd Little chooses the Cuse all over again.