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When 17-year-old Sean Tucker came to Syracuse University for an unofficial visit in September 2019, he and his father were among a group of recruits on campus for the Syracuse-Clemson game. But at a certain point during the visit, the two were pulled aside from the others — SU legend Floyd Little wanted to meet with Tucker, privately.
Steve Tucker, the current running back’s father, said he wasn’t sure how often Little met with other recruits one-on-one. But to him and his son, it was a special opportunity. Tucker had never met a Pro Football Hall of Famer or anyone who’d worn the famed No. 44 jersey for SU. Steve and his son had walked past the bronze statue of Little, part of SU’s Plaza 44 outside the football practice facility. And Tucker looked up to Little.
“It felt like a big moment,” Steve said.
During their conversation, Little pointed out similarities between himself and Tucker. Both were running backs of similar heights with similar styles. Both could potentially end up on similar paths, going from SU to the NFL.
“It definitely had an impact, just knowing what he’s done in his past and in football,” Tucker said. “It definitely meant a lot to me.”
Little died on Jan. 1 this year after being diagnosed with a rare cell cancer. All season, the Orange have commemorated the Syracuse legend by wearing a patch with the No. 44 embroidered with Little’s initials. On Friday, the Hall of Fame running back will be honored during a halftime ceremony — Floyd Little Life and Legacy Day — in the Carrier Dome.
“We’re looking forward to the Floyd Little weekend,” head coach Dino Babers said during his press conference on Monday. “He means a lot to this program — he’s the first person who I allowed to speak to the team. I can still remember that talk, I can still remember that speech, and it was very moving.”
Little, a three-time All-American for Syracuse from 1964-66, went on to play nine seasons with the Denver Broncos. He was a five-time Pro Bowl selection before being inducted into the Hall of Fame.
In 2011, a year after Little’s Hall of Fame induction, the SU legend returned to campus and became an SU ambassador. Little had an office and met with recruits, among other tasks — he wanted to replicate what Ernie Davis did for him, when Davis convinced Little to attend SU.
When Tucker met Little on Sept. 14, 2019, Little was still in that role. Steve remembers believing that “talent recognizes talent.” Little must’ve seen something about Tucker on film, whether that was via Twitter or Hudl, that sparked his interest about the 17-year old running back, Steve said.
“He probably felt like, ‘Yeah, this kid looks like he’s balling, and I want to meet this kid,’” Steve said.
— Sean Tucker (@seantucker2020) January 4, 2021
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Little showed Tucker and Steve his gold Hall of Fame jacket and explained the induction number that was inscribed on the inside of the jacket. They drove from SU’s practice facility at Manley Field House to the Carrier Dome in the same car and took more pictures on the field before the game started.
Steve hoped that Little would serve as a mentor and a friend to Tucker because of the “lasting impression” of their meeting, he said. He and his son were heartbroken when they heard about Little’s illness and death.
“It just gave me the impression that he would love to be involved in trying to help Sean once he got there, so that was big for me, to feel that,” Steve said.
In the Carrier Dome, Little and Tucker talked one-on-one about school, football and life in general, Tucker said. The current SU running back described the only SU No. 44 he’s ever met as “a great person.” Little shared inspirational words of encouragement with Tucker, his dad said.
The meeting gave Tucker someone to chase as a competitor, but also someone to look up to who’s been in a similar position, said Dan Harper, Tucker’s position coach at Calvert Hall College (Maryland) High School. That “extra sidebar” may have played a role in Tucker’s decision to attend SU too, Harper said.
At the start of this season, fullback Chris Elmore sparked a discussion about the potential of Tucker wearing the legendary No. 44, previously donned by Little, Davis and Jim Brown, among others. It’s become a hot topic of discussion among Syracuse fans, many of whom are advocating that Tucker be given Little’s former number.
When asked about the situation, Babers said that it’s up to the former No. 44s — not him — to decide. He said it “may be above my head” but added that should the committee decide that Tucker is worthy, he knows the current SU running back would wear the jersey with pride.
“Just the tradition and legacy behind it, and meeting Floyd Little once on an official visit. If I have the opportunity one day, it’ll be a great one,” Tucker said of the No. 44.
At one point, Tucker posted an edited graphic with him in the No. 44 jersey on Twitter that’s since been deleted. He said on Tuesday that he hasn’t discussed that with anyone from the athletics department yet.
“I know just for him to have 44, but especially with Floyd Little weekend coming up, it’d just be a big tribute to him as well, and the guys who have worn 44,” Elmore said.
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