During a period of time that lasted over a decade when Arkansas had maybe the best group of kickers in college football, Steve Little was the best of the group.
The brash, blonde, good-looking guy out of Shawnee Mission, Kan., learned how to kick footballs when in Sweden while his father, an executive with Caterpillar, was working in Europe.
Unable to speak the language, Little spent hours kicking balls into a mountain.
“At least I didn’t have to chase the balls down,” he said later. “It was crazy boring, so all I did was kick.”
When he was recruited in 1974, he was a prep superstar in Kansas and Missouri. He was fully capable of playing at the big-time college level as either a quarterback or defensive back.
In a time when there were no limits on the number of home visits a coach could make to a recruit, Broyles visited the Little’s home seven times. It got to be they didn’t know if he was a visitor or a family member popping in all time.
“It didn’t take long to figure out any coach would be crazy risking him doing anything but kicking,” said Broyles on the Southwest Conference Skywriters Tour that year.
Broyles even gave Little No. 12, which had been retired after Clyde Scott played in the 1940’s. No one has worn the number since.
Little was to be the placekicker in 1974-75 while first Mike Kirkland, then Tommy Cheyne handled the punting duties. It was always interesting in the Friday practices to watch Little catch Cheyne’s punts (Little didn’t do any kicking on Fridays to save his leg) and rifle the ball back to the punters in what had to be the best-looking passes on the team.
His extra points were often kicked out of War Memorial Stadium and his kickoffs were usually out of the end zone.
In his first game as a Razorback, against USC in Little Rock, Little only had one kickoff returned and Anthony Davis brought that one back 109 yards with Little running in front of him, trying to get an angle. Davis turned him completely around and Little fell, but learned a valuable lesson.
“I never saw anybody bring a kickoff back that fast,” he said. “He turned me every which way and I finally tripped myself, but decided after that just go tackle ’em.”
He didn’t have to do that much. Few kickoffs were returned. He was named an All-American as a junior in 1976 as a kickoff specialist.
In 1975, Texas A&M signed Tony Franklin and Texas Russell Erxleben and suddenly kickers were superstars in the SWC. Within three seasons, all three kickers had multiple 60-yards-plus field goals and Erxleben and Little booted 67-yarders, a record that stood the test of time.
“Might as well try it,” Little always said. “If you miss it, they’re starting at the 20.”
The rules were different then. The kickers used a two-inch tee and they could use balls that were, for lack of a better term, extremely well used and completely slick.
Little got his share of the record in 1977 against Texas. He scored all of the Hogs’ points in a 13-9 loss to the No. 1 Longhorns and Earl Campbell, but the 67-yarder came just before halftime.
A strong north wind pushed the ball into the south end zone at Razorback Stadium, but it would have been good without the breeze.
“I wish I could have put it back four or five more yards,” he said later, laughing.
Little never had a better, more disciplined season than 1977 when the Hogs went 11-1 and finished No. 3 in the nation.
Lou Holtz had taken over for Broyles and one of his first one-on-one meetings was with Little. Lou had heard about all of the fun Little was having off the field and he informed him if he heard about any of that going on, he was going to inform NFL teams.
He buckled down and had his best season his final year, both kicking and punting after assuming those duties for the 1976 season.
In the 1978 NFL Draft, Bud Wilkinson chose Little with the 15th pick of the draft. Just a couple of years later, Little’s life changed completely.
Cut by the Cardinals in October, Little’s sports car careened off the road in the rain and was wrapped around a pole. Nothing was left but twisted metal and shattered glass. It took seven people to get him out of the car.
His neck was broken, and Little was paralyzed from the neck down. He learned to enjoy life over the years and in the 1990’s was even working with young kickers.
Later in the decade, he wanted to go into sports radio.
“If I was dead, I’d be bitter,” he said years later, reflecting on how he finally accepted his injury and began having fun again.
“When I first got hurt I was ready to give in,” he said. “I said, ‘I’ll never be able to do anything.’ But once I got past that, I said, ‘God, things are starting to get fun again.’ I’m living. I mean, I don’t know what I’m still here for. I’m not real sure yet, but I’m here for something.
“I used to get tired of people coming up to me and saying, ‘How do you feel?’ Oh yeah, it’s wonderful sitting here in this chair. But now it is wonderful. I’m still here. I’ve got me a pretty little girl. It’s life. I look at some of these people and they just sit around and feel sorry for themselves. They don’t want to be anything. They should say, ‘I defeated being handicapped,’ rather than, ‘Handicapped defeated me.’ ”
Little passed away in September 1999 after living in hospice care with his brother Gene in Little Rock for a number of years.