Late Raiders great Cliff Branch races his way to Pro Football Hall of Fame

Cliff Branch not only was one of the most feared deep threats in NFL history, but he also helped lead the Raiders to three Super Bowl Focus on Sport/Getty Images

HENDERSON, Nev. -- Cliff Branch had just finished the sixth grade when, at his father's 4th of July company picnic in Houston, boys of all ages and sizes lined up for the day's main event -- a footrace.

The prize?

"They held up a box of Chinese checkers," recalled the late Branch's sister, Elaine Anderson, who runs her brother's estate. "He beat everybody. Older boys. Bigger boys, Everybody. And all the way home he was ranting and raving about the game of Chinese checkers.

"That's when we understood he could run. This little bitty something. That's when we knew he could run."

And with Thursday's announcement that Branch, the former Raiders deep-threat receiver who was all of 5-foot-11 inches (in lifts) and 170 pounds (with rocks in his pockets and soaking wet), was selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a Senior Finalist to be inducted in August, Branch's spirit kept right on running ... to Canton, Ohio.

It comes two years, six months and one week after Branch died of natural causes while in Bullhead City, Arizona, at a memorabilia signing two days after his 71st birthday.

Raiders owner Mark Davis once served as Branch’s agent in contract negotiations with his father, the late Al Davis.

"He was my best friend," Mark Davis told ESPN.com. "What a great journey we had together. We've been through everything together. I'm just so disappointed that his life was cut short. I love him with all my heart. I'm very happy for his family to get the recognition he deserves. Two days after he lost his home [in the Santa Rosa, California] fires, he was here in Las Vegas, helping the victims and families of the Oct. 1 shooting. That's the kind of guy he was.

"There's nobody more deserving. You watch videos and it's mind-boggling how great of a player he was. What a game changer he was. How he changed how defenses had to cover people and how people had to look for a receiver. Every team now needs at least one speed receiver. This guy put fear in their heart."

A four-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro selection in a career that lasted from 1972-85, Branch was the epitome of the Raiders' vaunted vertical passing game and the elder Davis spent the last quarter century of his life trying to find the next Cliff Branch.

Branch was a fourth-round pick out of Colorado -- where he was also a track star, naturally -- and he caught 501 passes for 8,685 yards (17.3 yards per catch) and 67 touchdowns in his NFL career. He was one of six players on all three Raiders Super Bowl championship teams (1976, 1980 and 1983) and had a combined 14 catches for 181 yards and three scores in those title games.

He was better when the lights were brighter. In 22 career postseason games, Branch caught 73 passes for 1,289 yards (17.7 ypc). Both figures were NFL records when he retired, and his receiving yards in the playoffs still rank fifth.

Branch, who also had five postseason touchdown receptions, learned at the knee of Hall of Famer Fred Biletnikoff, calling him "father." Branch led the NFL with 1,092 receiving yards and 13 touchdown receptions in 1974, and his 12 touchdown catches led the league in 1976, when he averaged 24.2 yards per catch.

His 99-yard, catch-and-run TD from Jim Plunkett at Washington in 1983 is tied for the longest in league history.

"I know I'm biased," Anderson said, "but he should have already been in [the Hall]. Just look at his stats. They couldn't figure out how to cover him. They literally couldn't catch him."

Branch, who ran the 100-yard dash in 9.3 seconds at Houston's Worthing High School, said daily competition and dealing with the bump-and-run with the Raiders made him a better receiver.

"I went through Willie Brown for seven years and then Mike Haynes for three years and both of those guys are in the Hall of Fame," Branch said in 2014. "So going against the best defensive backs in practice every day made it easy for me on Sundays."

Branch had never been more than a semifinalist on the regular Hall ballot despite having stats comparable to or better than contemporary Hall of Famers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. Then, after his death, he was a finalist on the Blue Ribbon Committee's Centennial Class in 2020, but was passed over in favor of Harold Carmichael. After Drew Pearson (who had also been a Centennial finalist in 2020) got in last year as the Senior Candidate, Branch was the nominee this time.

Early in his career, Branch ran in the International Pro Track Association and competed in Tokyo in the offseason. Branch also said he and safety George Atkinson, inspired by African-American tennis star Arthur Ashe, later took the game up as another form of offseason work.

Having lost his home in the Santa Rosa firestorm of 2017, Branch escaped with his Super Bowl rings, his car and some cash he had in a safe. Lost was his collection of Raiders memorabilia that, Mark Davis said, could have furnished a museum.

"I asked him once about everything he lost," Anderson said, "and he just told me, 'I thank God for my life. I thank God for my life.'"

Anderson choked up.

"He was right," she said. "He was right."

Branch, who caught a pass against every NFL team that existed between 1960 and 1994, is the 29th Hall of Famer recognized as a Raider by the organization (defensive lineman Richard Seymour, who was with the Raiders from 2009-12, is No. 30 after also being announced Thursday night).

And when it came to his Hall of Fame peers, Branch led the NFL with 6,047 receiving yards between 1974 and 1980, bettering the production of Gold Jacket holders Stallworth, Swann, Carmichael, Pearson, Charlie Joiner and Steve Largent over that stretch.

Other Hall of Famers chimed in.

"In one game," Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Blount said, "he embarrassed me and got me benched."

Added Seattle Seahawks Hall of Fame safety Kenny Easley: "I lined up 13-15 yards off him and it wasn't enough. He mandated two defenders."

Indeed, it was his speed that separated him.

"We were a power-running team and he helped that by taking the top off defenses, requiring multiple defenders so they could not load the box," said late Hall of Famer John Madden, Branch's coach with the Raiders his first seven seasons. "He was always a key whether we ran or passed."

Transcendent much?

"A lot of guys in the Hall of Fame couldn't play today's game," said Hall of Fame running back Marcus Allen, Branch's Raider teammate from 1982-85. "Cliff is one of those guys who could play yesterday and today. If he played today, he would destroy the league."

And as his younger sister by three years said, Branch getting voted into the Hall is indeed bittersweet.

"Bitter because he's not here to receive it," she said. "But sweet because he'd be going into history. So, I'm looking at it in a positive way. It would give us great peace to know how everything ended. That's the ultimate for him.

"He literally said, 'I will go [into the Hall of Fame] either in 2019 or 2020.' He understood his time was near. He said, 'If I go in '20, I'll be the first Raider for the new stadium in Las Vegas. And if I go in '19, I'll be the last Raider from the old stadium in Oakland.'"

Branch, who wore No. 21, was selected as the seniors candidate in 2021 before being voted to the Hall in 2022.

Were Branch alive to take the call, Anderson had a congratulatory gift idea ready for her big brother.

"I was going to go on Amazon.com," she said, "and present him with a game of Chinese checkers."