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. 

 

Advertisements

Raiders legend Cliff Branch bolstered by support as he waits on Pro Football HOF

Raiders legend Cliff Branch is still waiting to hear from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he’s got the support he needs to get him to that glorious moment.

“The Raider Nation, Raiders.com, the Raider organization, a lot of the sports writers, that goes into representing me. Art Shell, and former players like Mel Blount, Joe Greene, Mike Haynes and Marcus Allen and you know, guys speaking up for me, that I deserve it. It’s very supportive, man,” Branch said from National Sports Memorabilia in Petaluma, located in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

Branch, 70, was selected as an NFL All-Pro three times, and he won three Super Bowls with the Raiders. Branch made an impact in the big game, and in the playoffs in general. He was the NFL’s all-time leader in playoff catches and yards when he retired in 1985.

A former world-class sprinter at the University of Colorado, Branch helped form the identity of one of the NFL’s most iconic franchises. The Raiders are known, to this day and likely forever, for having speed to burn. Without Branch, a fourth-round draft pick by legendary former club owner Al Davis, it’s questionable whether the Raiders would have that reputation — or own three Lombardi Trophies.

Branch has to be selected by the Pro Football Hall of Fame Seniors Committee in order to make it to Canton. It didn’t happen this year, as the group nominated former Chiefs safety, Johnny Robinson, according to the PFHOF official website.

But Branch is still optimistic. A good word from another Raiders legend bolsters his spirits.

“John Madden says it’s gonna happen,” Branch said. “He says ‘be patient and stay alive.’ I truly believe it’s going to happen, I think about 2019, 2020.”

Branch is well aware of the fate of fabled Raiders quarterback, Ken Stabler and his wait for the Hall of Fame. One of the most worthy players of being immortalized in Canton, Stabler passed away before the honor was bestowed upon him.

“He got his due, but he just didn’t get a chance to enjoy it,” Branch said of his one-time QB.

That heavy reality doesn’t seem to weigh on Branch. He’s lively as ever — interacting with fans while signing autographs, and performing charity work in Sacramento. He still awaits word from the Hall of Fame, but the support he gets from Raiders fans and players and even adversaries makes the time more than bearable.

Raiders legend Cliff Branch offers thoughts on potential last game at Coliseum

Legendary Raiders wide receiver Cliff Branch is signing autographs this holiday weekend at National Sports Memorabilia in Petaluma while he prepares for what could be his old team’s last game at the Oakland Coliseum.

But for Branch, a three-time Super Bowl champion with the Raiders, Monday night’s game against the Broncos doesn’t carry the feeling of finality.

“To me, it’s not the last game yet. I don’t feel it’s the last game because it’s not official,” Branch said.

The Raiders have broken talks with the city of Oakland in relation to renting the Coliseum for one more season. Team owner Mark Davis brokered a deal to move his club to Las Vegas, and his team will play there starting in 2020.

The Raiders were supposed to play 2019 in Oakland. Now, multiple options are on the table, including San Francisco’s AT&T Park. It still remains a possibility the Raiders will play in the Coliseum in 2019.

But when the Raiders and Broncos kick off Monday night, nobody will know the Coliseum’s fate with certainty. With the date of the Raiders’ departure from Oakland possibly moved up an entire year, fans, players and anyone affiliated with the team will have to put their emotions on hold until an official word.

“If we knew it was the last game, that’s when it’s real and it hits really hard,” Branch said.

Mark Davis a lot like Al, according to Raiders greats

Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis is becoming more like his late father, Al Davis, according to two Raiders legends with close ties to the organization.

Cliff Branch, a four-time All-Pro for the Raiders, and Hall of Famer Willie Brown talked about Davis from National Sports Memorabilia in Petaluma, CA.

“He’s just like Al,” Branch said. “Smart. Brilliant. He knows the game, and he knows that he needs to be a little more hands-on. That’s going to be the next step for him.”

Mark Davis, who has controlled the Raiders since 2011, guided his franchise to a 12-4 record in 2016, but the Raiders fell apart this season after starting 2-0. Their record sits at 6-9 after losing to the Eagles on Christmas night.

Jack Del Rio may be coaching to save his job, according to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk.  Offensive coordinator Todd Downing will almost surely be fired, according to the same report.

“It’s been really hard on [Davis] because we were expecting to get back to the playoffs,” Branch said.

Branch does community and public relations for the Raiders and sometimes travels on the team plane. Brown, according to the Raiders’ website,  works for Oakland’s squad development department.

“He’s getting tougher, and meaner,” Brown said, with a chuckle, of Davis. “He’s having fun you know? It’s not as good when you’re losing of course, but he’ll get it all together.”

Davis has already made Oakland’s dreadful years that followed its Super Bowl XXXVII loss a distant memory.

“The era of bad drafts, and bad coaches,” Branch recalled. “[Mark Davis] brought in Jack, Jack has turned this thing around.”

The Raiders’ performance towards the end of the season, however, may be the deciding factor when it comes to Del Rio’s future in Oakland. Mark Davis, much like his late father, wants to win. And he’d rather not wait.

“His goal is to try and win a championship in Oakland before we go to Las Vegas,” said Branch, who earned three Super Bowl rings playing for Al Davis. “I have a lot of respect for Mark, and I think he’s doing a hell of a job.”