Cliff Branch: Alive in our hearts

I’ll never forget the excitement I had that day. The sports editor at my local newspaper, the Petaluma Argus-Courier, called me up and said he had an assignment for me: Raiders legend Cliff Branch was in town, go talk to him. 

My experience at that point consisted of junior college articles and high school sports coverage. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Another aspect that was difficult to grasp: why the heck would J.J. my editor, full name John Jackson, kick me this story? This was Cliff freaking Branch. But that’s what stringers are for. If I was covering the odd high school game, J.J. was buried in them. The news business is like a game of Plinko — that game on “The Price is Right,” when a puck bounces down toward its fate with no reason what-so-ever. And I got a lucky bounce. 

I was giddy. I’ve followed the Raiders since I was about 10 years old, for the majority of those years as an ardent fan. But I was a reporter now. Though I was working as a pantry and pizza cook to pay the bills. Regardless, I didn’t show up in my Raiders gear to meet Cliff, as I always imagined I would. I raced to National Sports Memorabilia in Petaluma after my shift was done, left my gray chef coat on for some reason, put on my plain black hat and my drab, warm jacket. It was December 2017. 

I walked in, and there he was. Raider greatness. Hall of Fame worthy, but wrongly snubbed. Raiders’ speed personified. He struck fear in opponents. Fans of his era of NFL football — not just Raiders fans — knew that defensive backfields had better watch for No. 21, or he’d burn them for six points before they knew what hit ‘em. The story of the NFL cannot be told without this man. 

I figured I’d get a 10-minute interview, at best. We talked for nearly two hours. 

He sat and signed autographs, and I sat beside him. I was fascinated by every word he said, entertained by his cool demeanor, and impressed with how he interacted with fans. (Including when I went back the next day for a follow-up and Cliff was talking to a young woman, in her late twenties, I’d say. He was smiling, she was giggling, and definitely leaning his way).

He answered every question of mine, though some of his comments remained off the record. It was clear he followed the current team; his insights on the history of Pro Football were invaluable; and he predicted the new owner, Mark Davis, would get the club turned around. (Cliff told me Davis was ready to take charge. It seemed like something was about to go down. I wrote a story about how Mark was acting more like Al, but nobody picked it up. Not long after our talk, Davis fired Jack Del Rio and hired Jon Gruden.) 

I wrote the story for J.J., staying up until four in the morning to do so. The excitement hadn’t nearly run out. It was a lot of work, to be sure, especially with all the material I had. But it was a writers’ dream. When it was published, I brought copies for Cliff. He loved the story and asked for more Argus-Couriers. That was one of my proudest moments and still is. 

After my story on Cliff, I figured I had some credibility and I started a Raiders podcast with my longtime friend and fellow Raiders fan, Larry Marbley. Not long after we started, The Raiders Wire noticed the show and asked us to write for the website. My current project, another podcast, only exists because of Cliff Branch and is inspired by his play on the field. For all of this, I’m beyond grateful to Mr. Branch.

I made sure to have my fan moment with Cliff in the midst of our professional relationship, showing up to another one of his signings at National Sports Memorabilia in full Raiders gear, including a jacket I’ve only worn twice. I told him I was writing about the Raiders on the internet now, and I had a podcast. He was genuinely happy for me. I thanked him profusely. I got an autographed picture from him. “Luke-Continued Success,” he wrote. I have that photo proudly displayed on my desk, as it will always be. 

He granted me more interviews over the next few years. I was constantly amazed I had fostered such a relationship. But that was Cliff: genuine, personable, and he loved to talk football. 

Through it all, It was evident Cliff felt he should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he would never say so. He only said his wide receivers coach upon entering the league, and head coach, Tom Flores, should be in. He reminisced proudly about his HOF teammates. 

But he knew his day of induction would come. He also was aware that he might not witness it in this world. He saw Ken Stabler inducted posthumously, as the entire Raider Nation did. He was still upbeat, always in motion. I texted him on his birthday, just two days before he passed. He thanked me for the birthday wishes and sent me some photos, as was his custom. 

“I truly believe it’s going to happen. I think about 2019, 2020,” Branch told me back in ‘17, of his Hall of Fame induction. “Madden said ‘It’s going to happen, so you gotta be patient — patient and stay alive.’” 

Sadly, that’s not what happened. He won’t be with us when he is finally, and rightfully, enshrined. But Cliff Branch is alive in our hearts, and he will never, ever be forgotten. 

 

Raiders’ Lincoln Kennedy talks Jon Gruden, Derek Carr from #vanlife tailgate presented by 76

Lincoln Kennedy looked a bit out of place sitting in the front seat of a 1975 Volkswagon Microbus. But it was fitting. Kennedy — a former All-Pro offensive lineman with the Raiders — was telling the story of how his illustrious football career began.

The 6-foot-7 Kennedy, who’s not far from his playing weight of 335 pounds, stood out for his size when he was discovered by his high school coach, John Shacklett, as well. He was as big then as he is now, and while he was on the football field when Shacklett first saw him, he had yet to play a snap. Kennedy was playing trumpet for the school marching band.

“He asked me what grade I was in,” Kennedy said of Shacklett. “I told him ‘ninth grade.’ He said, ‘You’re coming out for football in August.’ And the rest is history.”

He was cruising to the Pac-12 Championship game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, where he represented the conference at a tailgate put on by the game’s sponsor, 76 gasoline. While there, Kennedy revealed insights about his primary employer, the Oakland Raiders. After broadcasting from the sideline for years, Kennedy is now the team’s color analyst.

Kennedy is perfectly positioned to be in the know in regards to the Raiders’ first-year coach, Jon Gruden. He played for Gruden during the coach’s previous stint in Oakland, and he also played against him in Super Bowl XXXVII. Now, Kennedy covers his old coach’s new Raiders squad.

Gruden’s return was supposed to bring a Super Bowl run before the team moves to Las Vegas in 2020, but the plan has floundered. Gruden and the Raiders traded superstar defensive end Khalil Mack before the season began and shipped Pro-Bowl wide receiver Amari Cooper out of town once the campaign was off the rails. The team is 2-10 heading into their Week 14 game against the Steelers.

“They’re just not very good,” Kennedy said. “It’s nothing personal. They still have to learn how to play with one another, they still have to have other weapons.”

But they still have franchise quarterback Derek Carr. The relationship between him and Gruden is of the utmost importance moving forward. The Raiders are rebuilding again, after building up to a 12-4 record in 2016, but Kennedy says the season may have been destined to go this way.

“With the money Khalil Mack was asking for, even if they were to strike a deal, I don’t know how you could [keep Carr, Mack and Cooper]. You might be hog-tied by those contracts and really prevent you from building depth,” Kennedy said. “Khalil Mack’s a game changer and you see what he’s been able to do with Chicago, but they also have a few more pieces on defense. It’s not just him doing his own thing.”

Chicago’s defense does have more players in place to help Mack thrive. But one thing was clear after the first day of Gruden’s return campaign: The Raiders may have traded their season away in dealing Mack.

Mack’s career with the Bears started with a tsunami-sized splash on Sunday night football Week 1. He recorded a sack, a forced fumble, an interception and a touchdown. The Raiders were waiting to play on Monday night against the Rams and undoubtedly saw the show — or at least heard all about it.

The Mack deal was an appropriate re-introduction to the NFL for Gruden, according to Kennedy. The coach last patroled an NFL sideline in 2008 with the Buccaneers, and he’s faced plenty of questions about whether he could thrive in the league today.

“He’s the same. The game is the same,” Kennedy said. “The only thing that’s different is the attitude of the players. That’s something that Gruden has to get used to and he also has to deal with – the business side with the players. Now, there was always the salary cap when he was coaching so it’s not anything new”

“But the economics of it has to weigh into how you conduct business as a general manager slash head coach. These are all things Jon Gruden needs to be prepared for in today’s NFL.”

Quarterback Derek Carr’s contract is a good example of that. Carr’s $25 million salary made it difficult to pull the trigger on a deal for Mack, who is now the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL.

Carr earned his deal by playing at an MVP level in 2016. The Raiders were on an upswing at the time, and they’ve got to rebuild around their fifth-year quarterback once again. Carr’s play has suffered in spots this season, leaving some to doubt his standing with Gruden.

But Kennedy sees a quarterback that’s playing at a disadvantage.

“He doesn’t have enough weapons to go to. Secondly, his offensive line hasn’t done a good job protecting,” Kennedy said of Carr. “So how can you truly evaluate him when all these obstacles and circumstances are against him?”

The Raiders traded Cooper, the man that was to be their No. 1 target. Wide receivers Jordy Nelson and Martavis Bryant have both battled injury. Running back Marshawn Lynch is out for the year. And the offensive line has allowed 39 sacks this season, the most since 2006.

The poor performance from the line comes despite heavy investments in the front five. Center Rodney Hudson and guards Kelechi Osemele and Gabe Jackson are all signed to lucrative deals. Rookie left tackle Kolton Miller is a first-round pick, and the Raiders traded up to draft right tackle Brandon Parker two rounds later.

The line’s development, like the entire rebuilding process, will take time, according to Kennedy.

“Offensive line play is hell-bent on consistency. It succeeds when you keep the guys together,” Kennedy said. “There is so much miscommunication and non-communication between say, Parker and Jackson on the right side, and Kolton and Kelechi are getting a little bit better. But still, when you watch other teams run stunts and games against this offensive line, see how quickly those guys break down.”

Kennedy was Gruden’s starting right tackle from 1998-01, only missing two games and making the Pro Bowl team twice during Gruden’s first tenure in Oakland. Kennedy was voted All-Pro in 2002, the year the Raiders lost to Gruden’s Buccaneers in the Super Bowl.

The Raiders offensive line was a force during all five of those campaigns. They blocked for quarterback Rich Gannon, who was the league MVP in 2002. Gannon was an elite scrambling quarterback that had mastered Gruden’s offense, and he had superb skill players around him. Yet Gruden and Gannon were known to argue on the sideline and elsewhere, much like Carr and Gruden have been spotted doing.

“[They argued] quite a bit. I mean they were constantly against one another,” Kennedy said of his former coach and QB.

Kennedy says the creative friction between Gruden and Gannon was beneficial, and the same dynamic can work with Gruden and his new pupil, Carr.

“You want to have sort of that combative nature. You basically have two quarterbacks going at it,” Kennedy said. Gruden was a backup QB at Dayton in the early 1980s. “One sees one thing and the other sees the other thing.”

Carr needs to mimic Gannon in one other way, according to Kennedy.

“I think the relationship could work because I do think that Derek Carr’s a quarterback that can make every throw. However, he has limitations. This offense has limitations. I firmly believe that there are times when Derek holds onto the ball too long. He should just take off and run — much like Rich Gannon did,” Kennedy said.

Gruden agrees with his former lineman.

“We would like to get more rushing yards from him because he is capable of doing it,” Gruden said of Carr, during the Raiders’ Week 14 edition of In the Huddle with coach Gruden.

Gruden also said this about being able to make something out of nothing: “That’s what I think the great quarterbacks do.” Gruden was talking about Colts QB Andrew Luck before Indianapolis came to Oakland Week 8.

Kennedy says Carr’s key to unlocking a Gannon-like command of the offense, whether he becomes a scambler or not, is to make his thoughts a bit more elementary.

“There are times when Derek overthinks things. Gruden’s offense really is simple. It really is. But if you tend to complicate it or try to over-read things then you put yourself in a disadvantage.

“And he tries to come off [the field] and explain himself, why he’s thinking, and that infuriates Gruden. It’s dropping drives. It’s not scoring points. It’s giving up a turnover, it’s that type of thing,” Kennedy said.

And that’s where the Raiders are right now. A depleted roster stitched together with Gruden-endorsed veteran free agents, an underperforming offensive line, and a high priced coach and quarterback that have to figure each other out and lead the franchise.

But the Raiders have assets — five first-round draft picks in the next two years, thanks to the Mack and Cooper trades, and loads of salary cap space. Gruden and general manager Reggie McKenzie had a good draft haul in 2018, and their magic needs to continue if the team is to be on the rise again in 2020.

The Raiders franchise found some magic when they signed Kennedy in 1996. A former No. 9 overall pick for the Falcons in 1993, Kennedy started just six games his final two years in Atlanta. Al Davis, the late owner of the Raiders, came calling.

“When I heard that Al Davis was going to make a play for me, when I got here, I talked with Al Davis and Joe Bugel, who was the offensive line coach at the time, and they were like ‘look, your a Raider, you’re here,’ and so I was happy to get another chance to prove myself,” Kennedy said.

When asked about some of his best memories playing for the Raiders, Kennedy highlighted his All-Pro nod, winning the AFC championship against the Titans, playing in the Pro Bowl, and playing in the Super Bowl in his hometown of San Diego.

“I wish we could have won the game,” Kennedy said. “But it really was a dream come true.”

Kennedy is, of course, still a Raider. Plus, he’s the co-host of “The Fellas” on Fox Sports Radio on Saturday mornings, a Pac-12 studio analyst and he’s found time to be a motivational speaker for about five years now.

And he owns his own cigar company, El-K Cigars.

“It’s more of a fun hobby,” said Kennedy, who created his own custom blend. “I’ve been smoking cigars … even back when I was playing. I’ve always enjoyed having them to relax.”

There was no smoking at Great America, the site of our tailgate, as far as I could tell, but it was one heck of a party — complete with two marching bands. Although Kennedy’s trumpet-playing days are over.

Plus, Kennedy’s alma mater, the Washington Huskies beat Utah for the Pac-12 crown. It was just another busy day for Lincoln Kennedy, who was enshrined into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2015. But his most demanding endeavor, covering the Raiders, makes everything worthwhile.

“The opportunity after I hung up my cleats, to still be a part of it in some capacity is another blessing itself,” Kennedy said. “To be an ambassador for people in the organization, being a conduit, to be able to keep the passion alive, it’s special to me.”

 

 

 

Note: Photo credit- Aubrey Aquino

Former ‘All-World’ NFL tight end Russ Francis still flying high

Former NFL tight end Russ Francis has accomplished quite a bit in his life thus far. But all he ever wanted to do was fly.

He’s done just that. And his football career empowered him to soar even higher.

Francis won a Super Bowl with Joe Montana and the 49ers after the 1984 season. Before that, he made three Pro Bowl teams as a New England Patriot. 49ers coach Bill Walsh convinced Francis to end a promising career in broadcasting — the tight end had retired early to pursue off-the-field interests. Namely, he had a passion for skydiving, surfing, motorcycles and aviation.

Although he lives in Wyoming, Francis regularly attends 49ers alumni weekend. He was in town for Week 2 of the NFL season to serve as co-host on “The Point After” with Mark Ibanez on KTVU Channel 2, and the “Mercedes Benz Sports Report,” a 49ers pregame show on the same station. He also found time to galavant around the Bay Area with Petaluma memorabilia maven and agent Rob Hemphill.

While his love of flight prompted his early retirement, it was also the reason Francis, 65, chose to play professional football in the first place.

“I wasn’t really thinking clearly because I had an addiction,” Francis said, intentionally misleading his audience. “The decision for going into football, a lot of it had to do with being able to pay for that addiction. That addiction was an addiction for airplanes.

“I thought ‘I’ve got to play football because they paid me enough money. So I really did play football so I could fly.”

Francis’ fondness for the air grew from an early infatuation with natural flight.

“When I was younger I used to draw birds,” Francis said. “Taking off, with their wings coming back and pushing, creating thrust, and then rotating up for lift. And when they come in they rotate the other way to stall, to tiptoe in. I was fascinated by that.”

His boyhood wonder was still intact when he attended the University of Oregon, where he was an accomplished decathlete and baseball player before taking up football. Francis walked eight miles from the center of campus to the Eugene Airport. He knew there was a flight school there, and he walked right in.

“Guys are in there smoking cigars, grey haired guys,” Francis recalled. “I said I didn’t have any money. And they said ‘you don’t need any money. We’ll take you up.’”

Francis was in the air for the first time on a Monday. On Friday of that week, he took his first solo flight.

The school’s owner, Milt Ruburg, took a liking to the then 21-year-old athlete. He co-signed on Francis’ first airplane purchase. Francis needed a larger aircraft to fit his 6-foot-6 frame.

When Ruburg passed away, Francis kept the school going.

“The name of the company is McKenzie Flying service. Same name — I stole it, in honor of Milt,” Francis said.

His love for being in the air led to a passion for skydiving. Francis has over 3,000 jumps under his belt.

“It’s like being a bird,” Francis said, emanating the satisfaction of a dream fulfilled.

Francis was selected in the first round of the NFL draft — a dream for many young athletes — in 1975, although he played just one full season of college football. His career with the Patriots included two playoff games to go with his Pro Bowl selections. He was regarded by some as the best tight end in the game when he retired for the first time at age 28.

By the time Francis announced he was leaving football on legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell’s “Sportbeat” show, the two had fostered a relationship while appearing on ABC Sports’ “Superstars” competition together. Cosell had seen enough to find Francis a spot at the network.

Francis called college football games with another broadcasting legend, Keith Jackson. He was also slated to work the 1984 Olympics, and Francis was in line for the coveted “Monday Night Football” job.

In fact, when Walsh recruited Francis, it was after the retired tight end had interviewed him at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii — the state in which Francis was raised. Walsh opened his pitch with the notion of a Super Bowl win. His 49ers had won the NFL title the year before. Francis said no. That didn’t interest him. Walsh took it a step further.

“He [Walsh] said, ‘You’ll never get a chance in your life to work with people who are as dedicated to getting better every day as these players are. Since you’re not interested in Super Bowl wins, how about being the best there is in the league, or the world, at your job? Who can say that?’

“I thought about it and said, damn, he’s right. These guys are the best at what they do. I handed over the Monday Night Football gig and the ‘84 Olympics,” said Francis, a member of the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame.

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Francis played six seasons in San Francisco. He had five catches for 60 yards in the team’s Super Bowl XIX win. He would often fly to practice in a 1941 Stearman biplane during those days.

“I’d love to wave at the fans coming across the San Mateo Bridge. I’d get right down on the water in that flat section and the section that goes up. I’d go up with them. And they’re all stuck in traffic bumper to bumper,” Francis said.

The 49ers fans would wave back. Raiders fans gave Francis a less friendly hand gesture.

Francis may have been destined to fly, but he was also meant to play football — despite the fact he was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in 1974 and barely missed making the Olympic track team while at Oregon. He even dabbled in pro wrestling. His father, Ed Francis, was a wrestling promoter in Hawaii.

But at 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds with a 4.5-second time in the 40-yard dash, he was an early prototype of the modern NFL tight end. Francis was dubbed “All-World” by Cosell in his first season that saw him make the NFL All-Rookie Team. More recently, he was listed on the Pac-12 All-Century squad.

And Francis still loves the 49ers. He’s excited about quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who has also been a Patriot and 49er, and defensive lineman DeForest Buckner, an Oregon alum. He has affection for the team’s fans, too.

“The fans were so knowledgeable. They knew what our plays were called,” Francis said.

He told a story about a Hawaiian family that had seats near the player entrance at Candlestick. They have similar seats at Levi’s Stadium. The family asked Francis to flash them the Hawaiian “shaka” hand gesture during an alumni weekend. In what must have been an exciting moment for the family, Francis gladly obliged.

“Well,” said Francis. “It was a thrill for me.”

It seems Francis’ entire life has been thrilling. He currently exhilarated about the 49ers’ 2018 season and his television appearances on KTVU. Also, there’s the prospect of doing business at Hemphill’s National Sports Memorabilia storefront at the Petaluma Premium Outlets in the future. Francis loves to visit the Bay Area, a place he still enjoys.

Above all, Francis was born to fly. He didn’t hesitate to chase his boyhood dreams, and his two main passions — aviation and football — went hand in hand.

“It was my therapy,” Francis said of flying. “And it really, truly worked.”