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