Former Lions president Matt Millen lifts spirits of Raiders’ family

Jerry McDonald
Bay Area News Group
Matt Millen greets a friend before the Raiders play the Rams last week in Oakland.

Oakland, Calif. — Finally, a feel good story for the silver and black.

It was a gloomy offseason for the Oakland Raiders, one that went far beyond wins and losses. That feeling was at least temporarily lifted Saturday evening by the presence of Matt Millen in the broadcast booth less than eight months after a Christmas Eve heart transplant that saved his life.

Millen, 61, who worked as an analyst with Rich Gannon along with play-by-play announcer Beth Mowins on the local Raiders television broadcast, was his typically buoyant, positive and self-deprecating self.

Walking back up the steps from the field to the elevator, Millen paused for a moment and said, “You know something? Last year I couldn’t even walk up these stairs.”

Once in the elevator, Millen, the former Detroit Lions team president, relayed that as he waited in the hospital for the transplant, doctors would tell him every day how good he looked. When Millen came to following the surgery on Christmas Eve, they told him how bad he looked.

After a few years of struggling with his health, doctors finally determined in 2017 that Millen, who played for the Raiders from 1980-88, had amyloidosis, a disorder where the protein amyloid damages internal organs.

On the field before the game, Millen exchanged hugs with Raiders owner Mark Davis and members of the organization he has known for years. Say what you will about Davis, but he watches over what he considers members of the “Raider family” in a manner reminiscent to his late father, Al Davis.

And it’s been a rough year for the family. One of the roughest.

Davis and the organization are reeling from the death of wide receiver Cliff Branch, who died of natural causes Aug. 3 at age 71 in a hotel near the Arizona-Nevada border while making an appearance at a memorabilia show.

“Cliff never had a bad day,” Millen said on the broadcast. “Cliff always had a smile on his face. He used to come over to the house for dinner, and what I’ll always remember is he played with my kids constantly.”

The day after Millen received his new heart, Josh Atkinson, the 26-year-old son of former Raiders safety George Atkinson, died unexpectedly on Christmas Day.

So it made for a bittersweet moment when George Atkinson greeted Millen on the field with hugs and laughter.

During a break in the game, the Raiders ran an “In Memorium” feature on the scoreboard that included Josh Atkinson, wide receiver Warren Wells, linebacker Duane Benson, defensive end Cedrick Hardman, running back Clem Daniels, linebacker Dan Conners, assistant coach Bob Zeman, friend of the organization and Oakland native MacArthur Lane, assistant coach Gunther Cunningham and finally Branch.

In all, that’s 10 deaths in the Raiders family since Millen was given new life.

Scheduled to arrive Thursday to watch the Raiders practice against the Rams, Millen was a day late when his flight was cancelled. Coach Jon Gruden first saw Millen on Friday and talked about what it meant to have Millen present following a 14-3 win over the Rams.

“With losing Cliff Branch, we’re emotionally torn up about it,” Gruden said. “All that (Matt) has been through with the heart and coming back to the broadcast team and back to the silver and black, it was emotionally very exciting to a lot of people.”

Millen, who worked up to last October before being advised to rest and await a transplant, will work the Raiders preseason games and resume his analyst duties for the Big Ten Network.