With the NFL so tightly wrapped these days, with coaches and players all acting like they are passing kidney stones, looking at a microphone like it was rattlesnake about to bite them, up steps Cliff Branch to remind us of the days when having a personality didn't violate club policy.
"My dad was a Catholic and my mom was a Methodist," said the former Raiders wide receiver. "There were four kids in the family. My parents said two of us would have to be Catholics and two of us would have to be Methodists. I asked my dad how long each service was. My dad said Catholic Mass was one hour and the Methodist service was an hour and a half.
"Great. So I became a Catholic!"
One doesn't play in the NFL for 14 years without being a bit of an independent thinker. Such independence will be quite obvious Friday night at the Furth Center in Windsor. Telling that Catholic-Methodist story, among others, Branch is a keynote speaker at a benefit fundraiser for "Fence At The Top," a Rohnert Park-based youth mentoring program. Having played at just 170 pounds and yet one of the best deep threats to ever play the game, Branch couldn't have caught 67 touchdown passes at that size without a strong sense of self, even if that belief separated him from conventional thinking.
For example, Branch, 65, doesn't own a computer. "If you want to get a hold of me," he said, "call me."
Branch, as another example, had no problem with driving nonstop from his Santa Rosa home to Denver last Friday, 19 straight hours on the road. Branch went to the Broncos-Raiders game Monday night, then hopped in his Mercedes 30 minutes after the game and drove straight back to Santa Rosa. Alone. Listening to KNBR 680 radio. With a five-hour energy drink to keep him company.
"Driving is a meditation for me," said the man who played on three Super Bowl champion teams. "It clears my head. I get to travel through great places. When I go to Houston (where he was born) it's 31 hours nonstop from Santa Rosa to get there. I get to pass through places I knew as a kid or cities I played in when I was in college (Colorado) or in the NFL. I get to see how people live. I love it."
Branch played 183 games in the NFL from 1972-85. That many games, in an era in which wide receivers were beaten like pi?tas, should have left Branch with a stack of medical bills thicker than Tule fog.
"I was never injured," he said. "I am blessed. I had a pulled hamstring once. That was it. I work out every day. I play tennis and golf."
Even though he's 15 pounds heavier and 28 years older than when he played, Branch has aged quite well.