Napa, Calif. — Cliff Branch, who played on three Super Bowl championship teams and played his entire 14-year with the Raiders, died Saturday, the club announced.
Branch turned 71 on Thursday. No cause of death has been released. According to the Bullhead City (Arizona) Police Twitter account, Branch was found dead in his hotel room at 3:40 p.m.
“The initial investigation revealed no suspected foul play and that Mr. Branch died of natural causes,” according to the tweet.
Branch’s passing was recognized by the team on the Raiders’ 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 his friendship and smile are what the Raider Nation will always cherish.”
The prototypical Al Davis deep threat, Branch was close to Raiders owner Mark Davis.
“Cliff was my best friend. I will miss him dearly,” Mark Davis said in the first statement released by the team.
Drafted by the Raiders out of Colorado in 1972, Branch caught 501 passes for 8,685 yards and scored 67 touchdowns, averaging 17.3 yards per reception. A sprinter at Colorado in addition to playing football, Branch struck fear into opposing defenses with his ability to get deep.
After struggling for his first two seasons to consistently catch the ball, Branch had a breakout year in 1974, catching 60 passes for 1,092 yards and 13 touchdowns. Two years later, Branch had 46 receptions for 1,111 yards and 12 touchdowns with a long of 88 yards, averaging a career high 24.2 yards per catch. He was a first-team All-Pro for three consecutive seasons from 1974-76.
Branch teamed with Hall of Fame receiver Fred Biletnikoff to give the Raiders one of the most dynamic receiving duos in NFL history.
In 20 playoff games, including Super Bowl victories following the 1976, 1980 and 1983 seasons, Branch had 73 catches for 1,289 yards and five touchdowns.
The sprinter’s speed Branch brought to the game was in evidence throughout his career, as he produced his longest play from scrimmage by catching a 99-yard touchdown pass against Washington at age 35 — the year the Raiders won their last Super Bowl.
News of Branch’s death came on the day a new class was being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A case can be made that Branch belongs there as well. He is considered a candidate for induction in 2020, when as many as 20 candidates could be inducted during the NFL’s 100th anniversary as a way to ease the logjam of worthy candidates.
Branch was a semifinalist for Hall induction in 2004 and 2010.
“There is no way Cliff Branch should not be in the Hall of Fame,” Al Davis told reporters at the 2009 NFL owners meetings.
Former Michigan and Raiders star Charles Woodson gave Branch is due on Twitter, relating his death to that of quarterback Ken Stabler, who died in 2015 of colon cancer and was inducted in 2016.
“Another great player that won’t be able to see himself inducted,” Woodson tweeted.
Because of his fun-loving and jovial nature, Branch was one of the most popular Raiders among former players. Former Raider Jacoby Ford was like many Raiders receivers who were also track athletes.
“He always had nothing but a smile on his face every time I saw him and always said I reminded him of himself,” Ford tweeted.
Branch was born on Aug. 1, 1948, in Houston, where he starred in high school and at Wharton Junior College. He played two seasons at Colorado, catching 36 passes for 685 yards and four touchdowns for a run-oriented offense. He excelled as a return specialist, running back eight kicks and punts for touchdowns in two seasons for a Colorado record that still stands. He also rushed 31 times for 385 yards in runs from scrimmage.
Excelling as a sprinter, Branch had a best time of 10.0 seconds in the 100 meters in the NCAA championships in Eugene and was a candidate for the United States Olympic team, but opted to sign with the Raiders after Al Davis drafted him in the fourth round, No. 98 overall.
In 2017, Branch lost his home and all his Raiders memorabilia as wild fires ravaged Santa Rosa. Branch, after receiving a call from his attorney, escaped with his life as homes burned in his neighborhood.