Bee File

Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, left, talks with player Cliff Branch some time between 1972 and 1985. The Sacramento Bee file photo

Hometown Report: Raiders great Cliff Branch still going strong at 64

Published: Friday, May. 17, 2013 - 5:46 pm
Last Modified: Sunday, May. 19, 2013 - 10:49 am

Cliff Branch can still fly.

"I go to the track three times a week to run, to see what I've got," the retired Raiders receiver great said. "My girlfriend, Victoria, she tries to beat me. She's cocky. We'll run the straightaway and walk the curves, and then she'll take off."

It's not long before she's caught.

"That's when I put on the jets," Branch added with a howl of laughter. "I bet if I warm up, I can still run a 4.5 40. OK, maybe a 4.6. Hey, get me a free-agent contract."

Unlike many of those he played with and against in the NFL of the 1970s and early '80s, when head-hunting and body slams were a fabric of the game, Branch is still in one piece. He calls life "grand" and says he is of sound mind and body at 64. Branch tours the state teaching football, and on June 1-2, he'll stop at Del Campo High School as part of the Elite Celebrity Youth Football Camp, with some of the proceeds going to the Del Campo program.

Flanked by ex-Raiders teammates such as Rod Martin and Kenny King, Branch explains at camps that the key at any level is to be coachable "and to listen and learn." He also offers receiving tips, and he might run a post pattern as an example, provided he warms up.

Branch also stresses safety. Playing recklessly slows you down later in life, he said. He regularly golfs, plays tennis and runs without discomfort or dizzy spells, never mind those Steelers forearms to the forehead.

"I didn't have one injury in my 14 years with the Raiders, and I played tough," Branch said. "I had a pulled hamstring once. Other than that, no broken bones. No back problems, no knee surgeries. I'm very fortunate, blessed.

"Kids can learn how to play the right way. There's a way to be active without being stupid. It's a physical game, but it's the mental part that is the way to survive."

Branch resides in Santa Rosa, five minutes from the the Raiders' former training camp of the 1970s. The El Rancho Tropicana motel was a haven for rowdy Raiders behavior during training camp that included barroom drinking contests, sometimes punctuated with a jukebox hurled through a window. A line of Costco gas pumps and a strip mall occupy the El Tropicana site now.

"I go to Costco, and all the ghosts come out," Branch said. "I can feel them: the old days, the blood, the two-a-days, the guys, the memories."

Branch wonders what he would have done in today's NFL, his old No. 21 zipping downfield. He was a world-class sprinter at Colorado, where he still holds track records, and a fourth-round pick by the Raiders in 1972. One of the great deep threats in NFL history, Branch had 501 receptions for 8,685 yards (17.3 average) and 67 touchdowns in a career that included four All-Pro mentions and three Super Bowl championships (1977, 1981 and 1984).

"Can you imagine, catching 100 balls a year and being able to run with it?" Branch said. "It was bump-and-run coverage for most of my career when defensive backs could beat on you, unlike now."

Branch is delighted when fans recognize him and ask for an autograph and to rehash Silver and Black tales. He often is asked about the Pro Football Hall of Fame, for which he was a semifinalist in 2004 and 2010.

"Hopefully, one day I'll get in," Branch said. "I think I deserve to be in there. I got a lot of double-team coverage and still produced. I helped make (Hall of Famers Fred) Biletnikoff and (Dave) Casper better."

Branch said he is forever indebted to Al Davis, the late Raiders owner who loved players who could go vertical in a flash.

"I miss him every day," Branch said. "Al would tell me that I was his kind of player, that I was the MVP of the team. He knew that, deep down, teams had to stop me because I created havoc."

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