Padecky: Former Raider Cliff Branch, always moving, stopped too soon

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Had lunch with Cliff Branch one day. Running behind schedule, I said I was sorry I was late.

“Don’t say you’re sorry,” Branch said. “You got nothing to be sorry for.”

Victoria Summers-Ligotti laughed. She was on the phone when I told her the story. She was Branch’s next door neighbor on Santa Rosa’s Stonefield Lane for 20 years.

“That sounds like Cliff, all right,” she said.

Cliff Branch wasn’t fond of looking backward, thinking of what could have been. For Branch, rummaging around in the past, even if it was 10 minutes late for lunch, was like looking at old clothes that didn’t fit. Why waste your time? Can’t change what’s already happened. Empty words. Babble.

So when Branch’s house burned to the ground in the 2017 Tubbs Fire, Branch never went back to see what was left. To see if anything could be salvaged. Instead, Branch asked Summers-Ligotti to take a picture and send it to him. Wasn’t easy for her, either. Her house burned to the ground along with his.

Branch was never going to rebuild. He was going to Las Vegas with the Raiders. Branch was, as he had always been, on the move forward. He was that sprinter Raiders fans knew, the wide receiver who couldn’t be caught, wouldn’t be caught. He ran like he lived — fast and forward. Branch was the embodiment of that old Satchel Paige line — don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.

Seemingly, Cliff looked like he could outrun anything …

“I just bawled and bawled,” Summers-Ligotti said. It was Aug. 3. She just found out Branch was found dead in a hotel room in Bullhead City, Arizona. Natural causes, they said. What natural causes? Like what, his heart stopped? Details have yet to come, if ever.

Summers-Ligotti was gobsmacked. Where did this come from? Cliff may have sniffled. Once. Branch worked out every day. Played tennis. Golfed. Said he was never injured in the 183 games he played in the NFL. When he would drive from his native Houston to Santa Rosa, he drove nonstop. Thirty-one hours, straight through. Was — should be no surprise if you have read this far — a guy obsessed with movement. He was motion incarnate.

“I could still run a 4.6 40,” the then-69-year-old Branch told me two years ago. I believe I saw his jaw jut out a little bit. Being a bit of an imp, I said, “Oh, really?” Branch said follow me. We stepped outside the Santa Rosa restaurant and after a couple leg pumps he scorched the sidewalk. I felt his tailwind. Sure felt like a 4.6.

Once, Summers-Ligotti didn’t know Branch from a box of rocks. When he moved next door in 1996, Branch seemed like a nice enough guy to her. And then …

“I walked into his house,” she said. The entryway had the three Super Bowl trophy replicas. The house, as Branch so proudly proclaimed, was a Raiders museum. Actually, he was wrong. It was a sports museum. There was only one place to sit, a single recliner. The rest of the house was filled with — STUFF. Eight Raiders helmets. Fifty Raiders jerseys. Autographed pictures — Cliff with Muhammad Ali, Cliff with Tiger Woods, Cliff with Jim Brown, Cliff with The Temptations, Cliff with … well, you get the picture.

Of course, all that could turn anyone’s head. But Victoria didn’t become “very good friends” with Branch because he was a famous football player. They didn’t go to movies like “Avengers” because he was a Raider. They didn’t speak nearly every day — even after the Tubbs Fire — because Cliff was a Hall of Fame player yet to be inducted.

Summers-Ligotti was not a newbie to the real world. She owns the Futon Shop in Santa Rosa. She is a real estate agent. She is well-schooled in the art of conversation, knows how to make people comfortable (so to speak).

“Cliff was one of the most generous people I have ever met,” Summers-Ligotti said. “He was very direct. You never guessed what he thought. He just enjoyed a good story. He loved stories.”

So I told Summers-Ligotti one she hadn’t heard. It was at that lunch I had with Branch. He was telling me about what his foot speed could do (Cliff once ran a 9.2-second 100-yard dash).

“Kenny (Stabler) and I had a little thing worked out,” Branch said. “I’d come back to the huddle after a play and tell him, ‘The corner (back) is playing me tight. He’s jamming me.’ Kenny would smile. I would smile. He never called a play. Didn’t have to. I was going deep. He took the snap and threw long for me to run underneath it.”

I told Summers-Ligotti that Branch had this mischievous twinkle in his eye when he told me the story. I think she liked the twinkle even more than the story itself.

“That’s Cliff,” she said. “He was such a happy spirit. He’d liked to stir the pot, to get things moving.”

His speed took him to so many places, but it hasn’t taken him to Pro Football’s Hall of Fame. Branch made that Raiders offense work. Spread defenses. The Raiders of the 1970s aren’t the Raiders of the ’70s without Branch.

“Stay alive so you can go to the Hall of Fame,” John Madden once told Branch.

Branch didn’t. The wide receiver with more reception yards than Lynn Swann and Bob Hayes, more touchdowns than John Stallworth and Charlie Joiner, isn’t in Canton; the others are. Branch will make it, once those who still carry an Al Davis grudge move on.

To Summers-Ligotti, that doesn’t matter. Cliff Branch will always be her neighbor. She’ll remember and savor those James Bond movies they saw together. She’ll never forget him calling her “Red” because she is a redhead. She’ll never know why Cliff also called her “Niagara” and she won’t care why.

Instead she’ll remember her neighbor this way: A week after our 2017 interview, Branch sent me an autographed Raiders mini-helmet to be used in a fundraiser I was holding for those impacted by the Tubbs Fire. Grounds were still smoldering. He lost everything except his three Super Bowl rings as he sprinted from his house. Yet, Branch sent me a helmet he had in storage.

“Yes,” Summers-Ligotti said one last time, “that’s Cliff.”

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