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Cliff Branch's long battle for NFL career recognition

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Former wide receiver aims to be Colorado's first alumni inducted in Canton

David Cupp/The Denver Post via Getty Image

Cliff Branch was a force to be reckoned with on the football field. Before his 14-year career in the NFL with the Oakland Raiders as one of the most dynamic wide receivers of his time, the man referred to as No. 21 was the original "Prime Time". A 5-foot-11, 170 pound receiver wouldn’t put fear in most defenders, yet for Branch, it was an art forum to pick apart opposing defenses at-will.

Branch said it best himself, "When teams prepared for the Oakland Raiders, number one-- they had to stop me."

After a two-year junior college stay at Wharton County in Branch’s home state of Texas, he decided to move north and commit to the University of Colorado in 1970. The two years spent in head coach Eddie Crowder’s "Old-Oklahoma" offensive system didn’t complement Branch’s talents for pass catching and speed. The Buffs relied on running the ball in the 1970’s, giving less opportunities for the track champion to fully display his skills. Branch however found his niche as the team's kick returner and remains tied for the NCAA's record in kick returns for touchdowns with eight; a mark that is subjective to argue.

"I should have that record by myself", Branch said. "I had three punt returns called back and should of had a total of eleven scores."

In the days when Steve Prefontaine was blazing a trail at Oregon becoming the best long-distance runner the world had ever witnessed, Branch was building his own track legacy at Colorado. Unlike Prefontaine, Branch was a sprinter not a distance champion and in 1972 took a share of the NCAA record time of 10.0 seconds in the 100 meter dash. When Branch got to see the great Oregon runner, he was astounded by how graceful Prefontaine’s running style was.

"(Pre) ran the distance like a sprinter," Branch explained. " In the last lap he would still have the power and the energy to run like a sprinter. He was phenomenal."

As a two-sport athlete at CU he was named the team MVP for football in 1971 and set school records for the 100 meters and relay event. Some critics say if Crowder would have used Branch to his full capacity, he might have been a Heisman candidate. After being drafted by the Raiders and playing his entire career with the team from 1972-85, Branch finished with 501 receptions for 8,685 yards and 67 touchdowns. Being part of the Raiders franchise coming out of Colorado was "an ideal dream for a successful pass receiver with a prolific offensive team," according to Branch who thrived by taking his talents to the next level.

The all pro wideout was part of three Super Bowl winning teams (XI, XV, XVIII) under coach John Madden along with playing in seven AFC championship games. Not to mention a four-time pro bowl selection (1974-77). Branch fit the mold of being an elite target for his time.

Put aside the championship and pro bowls, the biggest accolade of Branch's illustrious career has not been given to him. An honor that should have been bestowed upon Branch years ago with an induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Branch's case for the league's highest honor is more than legitimate.

Out of the twenty-five wide receivers that have been enshrined in Canton, ten of them played in Branch’s era, including Lynn Swann, Charlie Joiner, Chuck Hayes and John Stallworth. All four have comparable stats to Branch and yet, he remains out of the discussion for the Hall.

"The four times we played together in the Pro Bowl I was the starting wide receiver and they were always the backups", Branch recalled. "In head-to-head situations our Raider teams were better. Maybe not against the Steelers because they beat us two out of the three championship games. Even though, the Raiders had more wins against Pittsburgh overall."

Here's a look at the numbers by comparison.

Receptions Yards Yard Per Avg. TD Years played
Branch 501 8,685 17.3 67 14
Joiner 750 12,146 16.2 65 18
Stallworth 537 8,723 16.2 63 14
Hayes 371 7,414 20.0 76 11
Swann 336 5,462 16.3 51 9

"I'm disappointed. l think I deserve to be in the hall of fame", Branch remarked.  "If you want go on numbers with some of the players that are in the Hall of Fame, my numbers are better."

There could be a deeper reason why Cliff Branch has been skipped over numerous times for the hall of fame. He believes a prejudice has existed for many decades with the silver and black revolving around the Raiders late owner.

"I think it's a political thing because a lot of the players are blocked from being in the hall of fame with the Raiders because of Al Davis. (He) was the most hated owner because of his lawsuit against the NFL and he won lawsuits against the league. The sportswriters have always had hatred towards Mr. Davis because of his pioneer way and being very successful. You think of all the people that went into the hall of fame and all the times Al Davis presented players from not only the Raiders-- I think there's a lot held against Mr. Davis because of his players."

How could it be that a voting pool made up of 46 sportswriters and professionals consistently get it wrong? In the twenty-six years that Branch has been eligible to be inducted, only twice was he voted a semi-finalist (2004 & 2010).

Branch would like voters to recognize him for his body of work.

"I only missed the playoffs twice in my career. I played in three Super Bowls and out of a 14-year career, I was one game away from the Super Bowl half of my career. I was a feared deep threat in the National Football League in the 70's and 80's. With all that said-- all those things should have a lot of credibility with me getting into the Hall of Fame."

The numbers don't lie. Branch was one of the best receivers of his era. The call to have his name enshrined in NFL history is well overdue. Al Davis might have represented a time in NFL history that was tainted for some people; mostly harsh critics. Love him or hate him, Davis was instrumental to the modern day progress for pro football. If he was alive today, he would be fighting for Branch to be in the hall of fame.

The process has become more difficult for Branch to be inducted over the past two years. He's now considered a senior eligible nominee due to his career elapsing more than 25 years since retirement. The hope is that Branch's chances for the Hall of Fame haven't died along with Davis' legacy.