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.

"I can still do a 4.6 40," said Branch, who ran a few 4.2s, a 9.2 second 100-yard and a 10-second flat 100 meters.

Oh yeah, I egged him. Show me.

Branch kicked up his legs outside the Starbucks at Coddingtown Mall on Wednesday, first as a slow prance, and he then began pumping them like pistons, about 20-piston strokes to complete a 10-foot circle. Not winded. Not at all. To those who saw this sprinter-football player in his prime, the movement looked all too familiar, so much so I had to say something.

"Al Davis kept looking for the next Cliff Branch," I said.

Responded Branch: "Mark (Davis) told me, 'You really screwed up my dad. He spent the rest of his life trying to find another Cliff Branch.'"

Al Davis never did. That's because Hall of Famers don't come along all that often. Branch is not in Canton but he should be. Branch caught 165 more passes and accumulated 3,423 more receiving yards than Lynn Swann, who is in the Hall of Fame. Branch has more yards than Bob Hayes, also in Canton.

Al Davis bias, that's what is keeping Branch, punter Ray Guy and cornerback Lester Hayes out of Canton.

"People seem to think that now that Al is gone," Branch said, "it's going to be easier for us."

How good was Branch? His opinion on this — in this day in which talent is judged by the size of a contract — I could not disagree.

"My biggest contract was $650,000," Branch said. "Today? When defensive backs can't touch you? Hah! Ten million dollars a year. Easily."

Branch said that without bitterness. He knows he has a good life. He lives in what he calls "God's country." He finds that what his mom and dad taught him as a kid still holds true to this day. Compassion and understanding, these values are as important to him now as when he learned them as a child.

And every time he returns to his native Houston, Branch acknowledges what his mom and dad, now gone, taught him.

"At 7 a.m. Sunday, I go to the same Catholic church I did as a kid and sit in the same seat that I sat alongside my dad," Branch said. "And then at 10:30 a.m., I go to the same Methodist church I did as a kid, and sit in the same seat that I sat alongside my mom. My sisters tell me I'm a good son."

And if that sounds a bit unconventional, a bit out of the ordinary, a bit different, all Cliff Branch would say is this: Thank you for the compliment.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.