Branch Finally Gets The Call: Pro Football Hall of Famer
BOULDER – The long wait is over.
University of Colorado Athletic Hall of Famer Cliff Branch, who passed away in 2019, finally had his dream come true Thursday as he was selected for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in its 2022 class. The induction will take place in Canton, Ohio, in August.
The NFL announced the full class and Branch was selected by the veteran's committee along with former Super Bowl-winning head coach Dick Vermeil. Last August, Branch was selected as the Senior finalist and Vermeil the Coach finalist by a five-person panel of selectors for the Hall of Fame.
While there will be 10 Buffaloes in the College Football Hall of Fame with the induction of the late Rashaan Salaam this December, Branch, a three-time All-Pro, is the first with a CU connection who will be enshrined in the Pro Hall.
Branch, who many say changed the game after he was selected by the Oakland Raiders in the fourth round of the 1972 NFL Draft, as he was deemed a "football player with speed and not a speedster who played football." And he would become one of the most dynamic receivers of his era as the speedy deep threat who stretched opposing defenses. He caught 501 passes for 8,685 yards and 67 touchdowns in 14 seasons (1972 to '85) for the franchise, and added 73 receptions for 1,289 yards and five touchdowns in the postseason (only Jerry Rice, Julian Edelman and Michael Irvin have more postseason receiving yards than Branch). He averaged 17.3 yards per reception over his career (17.7 in the postseason).
He was a part of three Super Bowl championship teams with the Raiders (two in Oakland, one in L.A.), and led the NFL in touchdown receptions twice, with 13 in 1974 and 12 in 1976. He was a first-team All-Pro in 1974, '75 and '76.
He will forever be etched into the NFL record book: on Oct. 2, 1983, he co-owns the NFL record for longest pass reception, 99 yards from Jim Plunkett in a 37-35 loss at Washington. The Raiders, which had relocated to Los Angeles the year before, revenged that loss by beating the Redskins later that season in the Super Bowl, 38-9. Branch caught six passes for 94 yards with a TD in that game (he had 14 receptions for 181 yards and three TDs in the three Super Bowls).
He was a rookie in 1971, the same year Hall of Fame Coach Tom Flores began his first assistant coaching job with the Silver and Black. Flores was quoted on raiders.com Thursday on Branch's selection.
"I had him from his first day ever as a Raider. I watched him grow up, watched him make big plays and just watched him grow as a person," Flores said. "I was so proud of him and what he became. He was a game-changer. He not only had incredible speed, he changed the game. I'm very happy for him. I loved him. My kids loved him. I hope our busts are close by, so we can talk," Flores said with a laugh.
At Colorado, in two seasons, he caught 36 passes for 665 yards and three touchdowns (averaging 18.5 yards per), while rushing 31 times for 354 yards and five scores (11.4 per carry). He returned eight kicks for touchdowns (six punts, two kickoffs); he averaged 25.2 yards per kickoff runback and 16.7 per punt try. He amassed 2,507 all-purpose yards in just 22 games, seventh-most in school history at the time (the six ahead of him all played three years). A member of CU's All-Century team, he helped the Buffaloes to a 10-2 record and No. 3 final ranking as a senior in 1971 – the school's first 10-win season and highest ranking at the time.
Branch is not eligible for the College Hall; he was not recognized as a first-team All-American by one of the five organizations that the National Football Foundation requires for minimum eligibility. Though he was a first-team pick in 1971 by the Football News, it has never been among the five. He was inducted into CU's Athletic Hall in its eighth class in 2010.
He died at the age of 71; his sister, Elaine Anderson, said in a call with Hall of Fame president David Baker that her brother "dreamed of this" and "wanted this so bad, he could taste it."