Former Raider star signing autographs in Grass Valley
As one of just six Raiders have been a member of all three of the franchise’s Super Bowl-winning seasons, Cliff Branch knows a thing or two about the franchise’s “Commitment to Excellence.”
And even though the former Raider and his teammates haven’t seen much excellence on the field in Oakland since the team’s 2002 Super Bowl appearance, it doesn’t seem to stop Branch from beaming with pride about being a Raider.
Or, at least, being a member of what he calls the “bad-ass Raiders” of the 1970s and ’80s.
Branch, a bona fide legendary Raider, is signing autographs and talking football at the Safeway grocery store in downtown Grass Valley this week in order to raise funds and awareness for breast cancer. While making an appearance at an Auburn event in support of the March of Dimes, he met a Safeway manager who first mentioned the opportunity to come up to Grass Valley in October as part of breast cancer awareness month.
He plans to be there, signing autographs between a pair of frozen food aisles, every day this week.
Branch, who was joined by his daughter, Danielle, at the store Tuesday, says he fortunately has not had a family member or loved one stricken with breast cancer, but the former Oakland Raider star receiver still hopes to raise funds and awareness for the disease during a week-long effort at a Grass Valley grocery story.
“This month is breast cancer awareness, so the manager of the store approached me about coming up here,” Branch said. “Fortunately, I haven’t had a family member or know someone who has had breast cancer, but I believe it affects one of every eight women now.”
Branch said he was, at first, taken aback by the NFL’s decision last year to have players wear pink as part of their uniforms in honor of breast cancer awareness month. And when he saw the Raiders wearing pink once again last weekend, it struck him that he’s not so sure he and his Super Bowl teammates would have donned the gear back in the ’70s and ’80s.
“I don’t think the bad-ass Raiders would have done that,” he said with a laugh. “The old Raiders of the ’70s? The Raiders of John Madden and John Matuszak? I just don’t think we would have worn that. But that’s the NFL today, the show and the biz.
“But it really is a great cause and it’s a great promotion for the NFL to be tied in with that charity.”
The show business side of the NFL is perhaps the greatest change since his playing days, Branch said. And along those lines, the pay day for players is quite a bit greater as well.
When he broke into the league, after a college career at the University of Colorado that saw him return an then-NCAA record eight kickoffs for touchdowns, Branch said he and his fellow Raiders were just your typical next-door neighbors in Oakland area communities, ones who actually often worked part-time jobs during the offseason.
“It was really different than today,” he said. “Today, it’s such a biz and such a show that it’s just unbelievable.”
Branch, who ranks third all-time among Raiders in receiving yardage behind Tim Brown and Fred Biletnikoff, put up Hall of Fame type of numbers – 501 catches, 8,685 yards and 67 touchdowns – in his 14 years with the team. But he’s yet to get the call from Canton, Ohio.
But ask him about his own playing days and the guy talks about his team.
“Every year in training camp, it was all about going to the Super Bowl,” Branch said. “John Madden had those type of teams and Tom Flores had those type of teams. We won a lot of games, but from the beginning it was all about trying to get to the Super Bowl.
“And Al Davis was committed to doing that. Al Davis was hiring free agents, before there was free agency, with all these cast-offs from around the league. Al opened his arms and didn’t worry about anything but winning. For Al Davis, it was all about just playing hard and winning on Sunday.”
Since the Raiders fell to their former coach John Gruden and his Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl XXXVII, wins haven’t come very often on Sundays for the “Raider Nation.”
The team, currently 1-3, is hoping to snap its streak of seven straight seasons with at least 11 losses. Coach Tom Cable, now in his third season at the helm, is squarely in the hot seat, Branch said.
“This could be Cable’s last year,” he said. “With it being his last year on his contract, he’s got to be 8-8 or better. We’ve had enough 4-12 years and 5-11 years.
“And what did I read? The crowd was 32,000 Sunday (at the Oakland Coliseum in a 31-24 loss to Houston)? We used to get 32,000 back in our AFL days. That’s just bad.”
Branch, who still works for the Raiders in a community relations role in traveling around the region along with making game-day, luxury-box apppearances, said it’s tough for Raiders fans right now. The team has a young and talented roster, but fans have been waiting for a winner in Oakland for so long that patience isn’t exactly prevalent.
“They’re a young football team,” Branch said. “They play well enough to win. You see them move the ball up and down the field. But as soon as they get into the red zone, they can’t score.
“I’m sorry, but that’s coaching … and youth.”
Though he’s now 62 years old, Branch looks fit enough to head out on the field and give the Raider defensive secondary a run for its money. The disappointing downward trend that continues for his team actually has him thinking of a return to the game, although one on the sidelines.
“It makes me want to go coach and go help their young receivers like (Darius) Heyward-Bey and (Louis) Murphy,” he said. “All this losing, really, it makes me seriously want to go out there and coach.”
Contact Sports Editor Brian Hamilton via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 477-4240.
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