In the early 1970s when he was a star cornerback with the Denver Broncos, Billy Thompson would often take the short drive to Boulder on Saturdays to watch the University of Colorado play. The Buffaloes featured a speed receiver from Houston by the name of Cliff Branch.
Thompson was blown away by the kid wide out. Little did he know that Branch would later haunt him on Sundays twice a year.
“Normally, when we were getting ready to play a team, the coaches were very general. But when we got to play against the Raiders, my coach would say plenty of the things about Cliff. He liked to go deep. I’m telling you, he was very, very quick,” Thompson, who was a three-time Pro Bowl player and played against Branch for 10 seasons, told Silver and Black Pride. “Dangerous. He was a guy you had to pay attention to. He was one of the fastest receivers I saw play. Of course, he played college (at the University of Colorado) and I would go see some of his games. So, I knew what was coming. When he went to the Raiders, I said ‘Oh my God, here we go.’ He was unbelievable. He is a speed legend.”
On Saturday, the Raiders’ legendary wide receiver will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Branch died at the age of 71 in 2019. He spent his entire NFL career with the Raiders and was part of all three Super Bowl-winning teams
Branch is considered as an NFL groundbreaker. He was one of the first great vertical threats and he is the poster child of Raiders’ Hall of Fame owner Al Davis’ fascination for speed receivers. Branch helped revolutionize the NFL deep pass plays.
He averaged 17.3 yards a catch in his career and had 67 touchdown catches in his career. Branch, a fourth-round draft pick, was slow to get his NFL career going. He struggled to marry his game-changing speed and his hands. Once, he figured it out, though, Branch became a star. In his third season, he led the NFL in receiving yards. He was a first team All-Pro selection from 1974-76 and he played four straight on Pro Bowl teams.
“When Cliff first came into the NFL, he dropped a lot of balls. He may have been fast, but you have to catch it, too,” said Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano, who was teammates with Branch for eight seasons, told us. “But, finally, when learned to catch with that speed and that mentality, it all came together. I give George Blanda credit for working with Cliff after practice. Blanda must have thrown him a million balls. It took about two years, but, when it did, Cliff was a monster weapon.”
Fellow former Branch teammate, cornerback Lester Hayes lauded Branch for his special gifts.
“No. 21 was a super stud. Fred Biletnikoff taught Cliff Branch movement in pass routes,” said star Lester Hayes. ‘It wasn’t just vertical. Cliff had flexible speed. Most speed guys are straight line, but Cliff had such flexible joints, hips and in his knees. Cliff was different. He was blessed with speed. His body was flexible. A receiver with flexible speed is very unique. It was a gift.”
Unlike Hayes, Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback Mike Haynes had to deal with Branch as an opponent in his days with New England, before teaming up with Branch for three seasons. Haynes enjoyed that time much better.
“There is no doubt he was one of the greatest receivers during his time,” Haynes said. “I was fortunate to have him on my team after covering him earlier in my career. Having him on my team was a lot more fun. It would be hard to find one single defensive back who enjoyed covering him. There weren’t many guys who could accelerate like he did. In fact, there was no one like him.”
Raiders’ Hall of Fame running back Marcus Allen won a Super Bowl with Branch and can’t wait to celebrate him in Canton this weekend. Yet Allen can’t help but be a bit melancholy that Branch isn’t alive to experience his induction. Many people believed Branch is being enshrined much later than he should have been. His career statistics compare favorably to many receivers who have already been enshrined.
“I’m beyond thrilled he’s finally getting in but it’s also a bittersweet time because he’s not going to be there,” Allen told Silver and Black Pride. “I will be there and it will be really bittersweet. I just wish he would have lived to see this. He was a great teammate. If you look at what he did and compare his stats to receivers who got there before him, I just wish the election committee would have gotten him in sooner. He belongs.”
It’s sadly ironic that like his quarterback Ken “Snake’ Stabler, Branch will be going into Canton after his death. Stabler was enshrined in 2016, the summer after he died at the age of 69. Stabler’s daughter, Kendra Stabler Moyes, cherishes the fact that Branch was at his father’s enshrinement and wishes they could have seen each other get in. They were close friends until her father’s death.
“I’m thrilled for the Branch family, but I’m so sad because it meant so much to Cliff,” Stabler Moyes told us. “Like my dad did, he deserved to be there. I just don’t understand why it took until after they died. Their stats and accomplishments didn’t change. So confused; I don’t understand ... My dad would be thrilled. He and Cliff, like the whole team, all remained so close. That was special. Cliff came to Canton (in 2016) when my dad went in and he spoke at the after party. He was so excited and he had to be thinking ‘I’m next.’ I’m sure my dad and Cliff are having their own party, with coach (John) Madden and the other guys.”