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HENDERSON, Nev. – Cliff Branch had just finished sixth grade when his father’s 4th in July with a company picnic in Houston, boys of all ages and sizes lined up for today’s main event – a foot race.
“They held up a box of Chinese cubes,” recalled the branch’s sister, Elaine Anderson, who runs her brother’s estate. “He beat everyone. Older boys. Bigger boys, All. And all the way home, he howled and raved about the game of Chinese checkers.
“That was when we realized he could run. This little bit of something. That was when we knew he could run. “
And with Thursday’s announcement that Branch, the former Raiders deep-threat receiver, who was all 5-foot-11 inches (in lift) and 170 pounds (with stones in his pockets and soaked wet), was selected for Pro Football Hall of Fame as a senior finalist to be admitted in August, Branch’s spirit continued just by running … to Canton, Ohio.
It comes two years, six months and a week after Branch died of natural causes while in Bullhead City, Arizona, by a memorabilia signed two days after his 71st birthday.st birthday.
Raiders owner Mark Davis once served as Branch’s agent in contract negotiations with his father, the late Al Davis.
“He was my best friend,” Mark Davis told ESPN.com. “What a wonderful journey we had together. We’ve been through it all. I’m just so disappointed that his life was cut short. I love him with all my heart. I’m very happy that his family gets the recognition he deserves. Two days after he lost his home [in the Santa Rosa, California] fires, he was here in Las Vegas helping the victims and families of the October 1 shooting. That’s the kind of guy he was.
“There’s no one earning more. You’re watching videos, and it’s unbelievable how big a player he was. What a game changer he was. How he changed, how defenses should cover people, and how people should look for a receiver. “Every team now needs at least one speedster. This guy put fear in their hearts.”
A four-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro selection in a career that lasted from 1972-85, Branch was the epitome of the Raiders’ acclaimed vertical passing game, and Elder Davis spent the last quarter of a century of his life trying to find the next Cliff Branch.
Branch was a fourth-round pick from Colorado – where, of course, he was also a track star – and he caught 501 passes for 8,685 yards (17.3 yards per catch) and 67 touchdowns in his NFL career. He was one of six players on all three Raiders Super Bowl championship teams (1976, 1980 and 1983) and had a total of 14 catches for 181 yards and three goals in those title fights.
He was better when the lights were stronger. In 22 career-after-season games, Branch caught 73 passes for 1,289 yards (17.7 ypc). Both numbers were NFL records when he retired, and his receiving yards in the playoffs are still in fifth place.
Branch, who also had five post-season touchdown receptions, learned on the knee of Hall of Famer Fred Biletnikoff and called him “dad.” Branch led the NFL with 1,092 receiving yards and 13 touchdown receptions in 1974, and his 12 touchdown catches led the league in 1976, averaging 24.2 yards per carry. catch.
His 99-yard, catch-and-run TD from Jim Plunkett in Washington in 1983 is a draw for the longest in the league’s history.
“I know I’m biased,” Anderson said, “but he should have been there already [the Hall]. Just look at his stats. They could not figure out how to cover him. They literally could not catch him. “
Branch, who ran 100 yards in 9.3 seconds at Houston’s Worthing High School, said daily competition and handling the bump-and-run with the Raiders made him a better receiver.
“I went through Willie Brown for seven years and then Mike Haynes for three years, and both of those guys are in the Hall of Fame,” Branch said in 2014. “So going against the best defensive backs in practice every day made it easy for me on Sunday. “
Branch had never been more than a semifinalist on the regular Hall poll despite having statistics comparable to or better than contemporary Hall of Famers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. Then, after his death, he was a finalist in the Blue Ribbon Committee’s Centennial Class in 2020, but was bypassed in favor of Harold Carmichael. After Drew Pearson (who had also been a Centennial finalist in 2020) came in as a senior candidate last year, Branch was the nominee this time.
Early in his career, Branch ran in the International Pro Track Association and competed in Tokyo in the offseason. Branch also said he and safety George Atkinson, inspired by African-American tennis star Arthur Ashe, later took up the game as another form of offseason work.
After losing his home in the 2017 Santa Rosa firestorm, Branch escaped with his Super Bowl rings, his car, and some cash he had in a safe. Lost was his collection of Raiders memorabilia, which, Mark Davis said, could have housed a museum.
“I once asked him about everything he lost,” Anderson said, “and he just said to me, ‘I thank God for my life. I thank God for my life.'”
Anderson was strangled.
“He was right,” she said. “He was right.”
Branch, which captured a pass against all NFL teams that existed between 1960 and 1994, is the 29th Hall of Famer to be recognized as a Raider by the organization.
And when it came to his Hall of Fame mates, the Branch led the NFL with 6,047 receiving yards between 1974 and 1980, improving the production of Gold Jacket holders Stallworth, Swann, Carmichael, Pearson, Charlie Joiner and Steve Largent across that stretch .
Andre Hall of Famers chimed in.
“In one game,” Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Blount said, “he embarrassed me and got me on the bench.”
Added Seattle Seahawks Hall of Fame safety Kenny Easley: “I lined up 13-15 yards from him and that was not enough. He had a mandate for two defenders.”
It was actually his speed that set him apart.
“We were a power-running team and he helped it by taking the top of the defense and demanding more defenders so they could not fill the box,” said late Hall of Famer John Madden, Branch’s coach with the Raiders’ first seven seasons . “He was always a key, whether we ran or passed.”
“A lot of the Hall of Fame guys couldn’t play today’s game,” said Hall of Fame running back Marcus Allen, the 1982-85 Branchs Raider teammate. “Cliff is one of those guys who could play yesterday and today. If he played today, he would ruin the league.”
And as his younger sister of three years said, Branch being voted into the hall is really bittersweet.
“Bitter because he’s not here to receive it,” she said. “But sweet because he would go into the story. So I look at it in a positive way. It would give us great peace of mind to know how everything ended. That’s the ultimate for him.
“He literally said, ‘I’m going [into the Hall of Fame] either in 2019 or 2020. ‘ He understood that his time was near. He said, ‘If I go in ’20, I’ll be the first Raider to the new stadium in Las Vegas. And if I go in ’19, I’ll be the last Raider from the old stadium in Oakland. “
Branch, who carried No. 21, was elected as a senior candidate in 2021 before being voted for the Hall in 2022.
Had Branch been alive to take the call, Anderson had a congratulatory gift idea ready for his big brother.
“I was going to go on Amazon.com,” she said, “and introduce him to a game of Chinese checkers.”