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.