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Ex-Raider Cliff Branch, a longtime Santa Rosa resident, dies at 71

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Cliff Branch, one of the Raiders’ career-leading wide receivers who won three Super Bowls in 14 seasons with the franchise, has died. He was 71.

Branch lived in Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood for 26 years before the Tubbs fire destroyed his home. He was planning on moving to Las Vegas, where the Raiders will move next year.

Branch was found dead Saturday in a hotel room in Bullhead City, Arizona, the city’s police department said. It said an initial investigation revealed no foul play and that Branch died of natural causes.

“Cliff Branch touched the lives of generations of Raiders fans,” the Raiders said in a statement on their website. “His loss leaves an eternal void for the Raiders Family, but his kindness and loving nature will be fondly remembered forever.”

One of the game’s top deep threats from 1972 to 1985 in Oakland and Los Angeles, Branch was an All-Pro three straight seasons (1974-76) and made four Pro Bowls. He scored 67 touchdowns through the air, leading the NFL in TD receptions in 1974 with 13 and in 1076 with 12. Branch also had a league-high 1,092 yards receiving in 1974.

He was a force in the postseason, with 1,289 yards receiving. The Raiders won Super Bowls after the 1976, 1980 and 1983 seasons — the last one in Los Angeles, where the franchise moved in 1982 after protracted court fights before returning to the Bay Area in 1995.

In 1983, Branch tied the NFL record with a 99-yard touchdown catch in a regular-season game. He stands third among Raiders pass catchers in yards receiving with 8,685, trailing Tim Brown and Fred Biletnikoff — both Hall of Famers.

Branch was a semifinalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004 and 2010.

“All my peers that I played against and that are in the Hall of Fame, they tell me that I deserve to be in the Hall of Fame,” Branch told the Raiders’ website in a recent interview.

Branch lost almost all of his Raiders and other memorabilia when his Fountaingrove home burned. He saved three Super Bowl rings from the firestorm, but lost many other items including jerseys and helmets, and hundreds of photographs.

“Be in sorrow in death,” Branch said in an interview with The Press Democrat in the weeks after the fire. “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 made numerous local appearances over the years, including this past winter at Friar Tuck’s in Cotati as part of a contingent of former NFL players who appeared at an event as the AFC and NFC championship games were played.

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