Each house flattened by the wildfires was in its own way a photo album. The people who lived there still see in their mind’s eye dad’s favorite chair, that swing in the backyard, that rug grandma gave them. That vacation to Yellowstone was captured by mom’s silly old camera she refused to surrender. On the wall near the bedrooms were those little tick marks with a pencil that showed the date and height of every kid who grew up in that house. Maybe there was even a little heart drawn next to each entry.
Each house vaporized was a memory inside, containing so much emotion, maybe even more than a mind could bear. Could be overwhelming. Probably is. Probably should be.
Imagine, therefore, how stuffed Cliff Branch’s head is. His ears are leaking memories.
“I am a Raider hoarder,” said the legendary Oakland Raiders wide receiver. “No, correct that. I am a professional Raider hoarder.”
In his house on Stonefield Lane in Santa Rosa there were three bedrooms, a TV room, a living room and a formal dining room. Yet, there was only one place to sit that wasn’t occupied by something, only one place to put one’s feet on the floor without kicking something. It was a chair placed in front of a television. Everywhere else was occupied. Everywhere, Branch emphasized with a certain panache.
“I used to have fun with Freddie Jensen, who owned the (now closed) Music Box,” Branch said. “I’d say, ‘Hey, Freddie, come on over and I’ll cook you dinner!’ Freddie would scream back — ‘I can’t come over. There’s nowhere to sit!’ And he was right. It was the only place to sit.”
Walking into Branch’s house, one would have to enter sideways because the wall on the right had a display case with three Lombardi trophies, replicas of the three the Raiders won in Super Bowls in which Branch played.
“Should have seen the eyes of the guy who came to fix my plumbing,” said Branch, 69.
The eyes of any newcomer remained wide open as they advanced forward. Where to start to describe? I made the mistake of saying it was like trying to describe the Smithsonian museum.
“It WAS a museum!” Branch quickly corrected.
Branch had eight Raiders helmets from the 14 years he was with the team. He had the four helmets from his Pro Bowl games. He had the football from his 500th reception.
He had 50 Raiders jerseys, all his Raiders helmets. His University of Colorado jersey, too.
Basically, if it was something he wore while playing football, Branch had it. Undergarments not included.
He wall-papered the house with pictures. Branch preferred 8x10 photos. More room for others. Like Branch with Freddie Biletnikoff. Branch with Muhammad Ali. All autographed. Like the one with Ken Stabler. Or the one with Tiger Woods. And Charley Taylor. And Paul Warfield. Jim Brown. Tim Brown. Bob Hayes. Don Maynard. Mike Singletary. Lenny Dawson. All signed.
“I even got a Barry Bonds jersey from the year he hit 73 homers,” Branch said.
There’s Branch with the Temptations. Posters. Lithographs. And so on and so on and so on …
And one special picture. Of Dick “Night Train” Lane. “He was my favorite player,” Branch said. Interesting Branch would say that. Night Train is a Hall of Fame defensive back. Branch caught 67 touchdown passes against a lot of defensive backs. Maybe it’s because Night Train played like a Raider.
“Mark Davis (Raiders owner) came here and couldn’t believe it,” Branch said.
Branch is contracted through Townsend Public Affairs to make public appearances. And so what does a legendary Raider do when he’s out there speaking? He brings miniature Raiders helmets, 192 of them to be exact, to begin every football season, most of them gone. He went to Las Vegas recently for Townsend with Raiders helmets that had “LV Strong” on them.
Branch had a Mercedes ML 350 which he called his “work” car. Probably had, he guesses, about $30,000 worth of memorabilia in it, available at a moment’s notice for a Branch on-site presentation. The Mercedes didn’t make it. It was in the garage with another Mercedes, an SL 550. That car didn’t make it, either.
It was 1:45 on that Monday morning when Branch’s phone rang. He didn’t answer it. Wrong number, he thought. Then the power went off. The television went dead. He usually falls asleep with the television on, especially since he has it on while he reviews the tape of that Sunday’s Raiders game.
“From a coach’s point of view,” he said.
So Branch checked the message left in the phone. It was from his Santa Rosa attorney, Jack Montgomery.
“Jack lives in Montecito Heights,” Branch said. “He said I had to go. I looked outside and saw smoke and flames everywhere.”
Branch went to his safe, got his three Super Bowl rings and some cash. He got out wearing a T-shirt, shorts and slippers. All festooned in Raiders colors. Got in his 2006 Mercedes E350.
Seconds later the fire marshal came by: “You gotta go. Now.”
Branch didn’t quibble: “I’m right behind you.”
Branch spent the night at the Futon Shop, a Santa Rosa business owned by his next-door neighbor and friend, Victoria Summers-Ligotti. Branch then moved to a Holiday Inn in Dublin owned by his former coach John Madden.
Branch wasn’t sure if his house in Fountaingrove survived. Three text pictures sent to him by Summers-Ligotti were clear evidence it didn’t. It was an ash pit. The ML 350 was blackened metal. He has no desire to return to see if anything survived. The idea of inspecting rubble has no allure for him.
“I don’t wanna look,” Branch said. “I’m not gonna dig through things. It already hit home. To go, no, I wouldn’t want to be available for that.”
The museum is gone. So is Branch. He’s not rebuilding. He’s going to Vegas. He has a home in his native Houston. In both a physical and emotional sense, Branch is moving on.
“Be in sorrow in death,” Branch said. “I’ve said that all my life. Yes, material things are gone. But I’m still alive. I got my life. So the show must go on.”
Branch lived on Stonefield Lane for 26 years. He knew his neighbors and his neighbors knew him as a genuine guy. That also will be the photo album he will keep in his mind’s eye. Victoria isn’t going anywhere. Blink and he’ll see her. Blink, and he’ll see the trophies and jerseys and pictures. Memories don’t disappear, even if his home has.
“I was hoping to get a fresh start in Vegas,” Branch said.
Meaning, he was hoping he could leave his hoarding days behind. And then he looks at his bed at the Holiday Inn. On it is a big picture of Tom Flores, Ken Stabler, George Blanda, Jim Plunkett and Daryle Lamonica.
“I caught touchdown passes from every one except Flores,” Branch said.
But, um, Branch said he wanted to stop the hoarding, the collecting, the accumulation, so people could have a place to sit.
“Yeah, I thought I was going to be free of this,” Branch said.
I could feel his smile through the phone.