Cliff Branch, one of the most underrated wide receivers of his era who was a key component on three Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders Super Bowl-winning teams, died Saturday two days after his 71st birthday.
According to the Bullhead City (Arizona) Police Department, Branch was found dead in a hotel room Saturday afternoon. Police said an initial investigation found no foul play and Branch died of natural causes.
The Raiders released a statement on their website.
“Cliff Branch touched the lives of generations of Raiders fans. His loss leaves an eternal void for the Raiders Family, but his kindness and loving nature will be fondly remembered forever. Cliff’s on-field accomplishments are well documented and undeniably Hall of Fame worthy, but friendship and smile are what the Raider Nation will always cherish,” the statement read.
“Cliff was my best friend…I will miss him dearly,” Mark Davis’ statement read.
Davis cancelled plans to attend a function in Las Vegas upon receiving news of Branch’s death.
Clifford Branch Jr. was born Aug. 1, 1948 in Houston, Tex. and attended Worthing High School. He was one of a number of future NFL players in the final days of segregation in the Prairie View Interscholastic League. These players include Otis Taylor, Joe Washington, Ben Wilson, Winston Hill, Duane Thomas, and Bubba Smith among others.
Branch was denied an opportunity to play in the Southwest Conference because teams didn’t regularly recruit African-American players until the late 1970s. Instead, Branch attended Wharton County Community College before earning a scholarship to the University of Colorado.
At Colorado, Branch set an NCAA record for kickoffs returned for touchdowns with eight. He also was a standout track and field athlete, setting a school and NCAA record in the 100 meters with a time of 10 seconds in the 1972 NCAA Championship semifinal.
It was this combination of hands and lightning speed that caught the eye of Al Davis, who selected him in the fourth round (98th overall) in the 1972 NFL Draft. Branch could have gone on to the Olympic trials for a shot at competing in Munich but the NFL was calling.
“My goal has always been to win the NCAA 100-meter championship,” Branch said after the NCAA final. “This is my last track meet, since I expect to sign a pro contract with the Oakland Raiders within the next two weeks.”
In an era dominated by the running game, Branch ushered in a new age of speedy wide receivers. He was tailor made for what Al Davis termed the vertical passing game and his motto “Speed Kills” couldn’t have described him better. Branch could outrun any defender and was capable of pushing the ball down the field at will. He not only earned the respect of teammates but also from some of the men who had to defend him.
“When you were across from him, there was definitely fear there,” Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott said.
Another Hall of Fame defensive back, Mel Blount, also recognized Branch’s game.
“He changed the game and the way the game was played as a wide receiver. People started going out looking for speed, and looking for guys like Cliff Branch,” Blount said.
Branch teamed up with Hall of Famers Ken Stabler and Fred Biletnikoff to give the Raiders a passing game that was among the NFL’s best. In 1974, he led the league in both receiving yards (1,092) and receiving touchdowns (13). He also led the league in receiving touchdowns in 1976 (12).
In 14 seasons with the Raiders, Branch had 501 receptions for 8,685 yards and 67 touchdowns with an average of 17.3 yards per reception. He was a four-time Pro Bowl selection (1974-77) and three-time First-team All-Pro (1974-76). He is ranked third in Raiders franchise history in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns trailing only the Hall of Famers Tim Brown and Biletnikoff.
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Branch became the fourth of 13 players in NFL history with a 99-yard touchdown reception in a 37-35 loss to the Washington Redskins on Oct. 2, 1983. He is also one of six players to play on each of the Raiders teams that won Super Bowls XI, XV, and XVIII.
Branch saved his best for the postseason. In 22 career games, he caught 73 passes for 1,289 yards and five touchdowns. In the three Super Bowl wins, Branch had a combined 14 receptions for 181 yards and three touchdowns.
Branch spoke of his Super Bowl memories in a 2017 Houston Chronicle interview.
“Getting to Super Bowl XI and winning it after four straight years of being in the title game and not getting there was something to remember,” Branch said. “In 1980, we had Jim Plunkett, who was a Cinderella story who led us on a wonderful journey.
“When the Raiders moved to Los Angeles (in 1982), the first year we would practice in Oakland and they play games in Los Angeles. We were a road team the whole year. Then we moved to Los Angeles full-time, and we had a fabulous team with Marcus Allen that dominated the Redskins.”
Branch retired as the NFL’s all-time leader in postseason receptions and receiving yards. Despite being a player who redefined the wide receiver position and a three-time Super Bowl winner, Branch didn’t the call from the Pro Football Hall of Fame. This omission led to the “Cliff to Canton” movement, a massive marketing and promotion campaign for Branch’s enshrinement.
The Raiders produced videos extoling Branch’s virtues featuring testimonies from both teammates and opponents. The team also lobbied Hall of Fame voters. Fans of the Silver and Black were also a part of the movement, which eventually became a hashtag.
Branch’s family and fans felt his enshrinement should have happened years ago. The call from Canton never came but he took it all in stride.
“I’m still hoping and wishing,” Branch told the Houston Chronicle. “(former Raiders head coach) John Madden told me to be patient, and I am.”
Madden, Al Davis, and 14 Raiders players who played alongside Branch are enshrined in Canton. He showed patience during his lifetime when it came to the Hall of Fame but recognized the significance of enshrinement.
“All my peers that I played against and that are in the Hall of Fame, they tell me that I deserve to be in the Hall of Fame,” Branch said in an interview posted on the Raiders’ website. “It’s the crowning glory, just like getting a Super Bowl ring.”
Branch was a Hall of Fame semifinalist in 2004 and 2010. By comparison, Hall of Fame wide receiver Lynn Swann had 336 receptions for 5,462 yards and 51 touchdowns in his NFL career.
Unfortunately, Branch’s possible enshrinement will be posthumous. In 2020, the Pro Football Hall of Fame will induct 20 players in honor of the NFL’s 100th anniversary, including 10 Senior inductees. The players eligible for induction as a Senior have to be retired at least 25 years. Branch was considered to be one of the favorites for induction as a Senior before his death.
During his playing career, Branch ran in the International Pro Track Association and competed in Tokyo in the offseason. He also said he and safety George Atkinson played tennis as another form of offseason workout. This was met with disdain by Madden, who felt the players were wasting their legs. Branch didn’t agree with his head coach.
“Other players were sore after the first few days of training camp practice. We weren’t. We were already in shape because of tennis,” Branch said.
Branch said he learned how to be an NFL wide receiver from Biletnikoff, whom he referred to as “Father”. He also got his education from his defensive teammates.
“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 a 2014 interview. “So, going against the best defensive backs in practice every day made it easy for me on Sundays.”