Living to his early 70s, Cliff Branch was a “former” to many things, including being an NFL player, Oakland/Los Angeles Raider, Colorado Buffalo – and a Pioneer for the Wharton County Junior College sports program.
According to media reports, Branch, 71, died on Saturday, Aug. 3, two days after his birthday. He died in a hotel room in Bullhead City, Ariz., but police reported that his death was due to natural causes based on an initial investigation.
Nearly four months earlier, he had been in Wharton to witness his former coach, Gene Bahnsen, have a WCJC gymnasium named after him. On Monday, Aug. 5, Bahnsen said he was quite surprised by the news of Branch’s death considering how good he looked during the April 17 ceremony. “I was shocked when I got the word,” Bahnsen said. “I didn’t think anything was wrong.”
Branch was born in Houston and attended Worthing High School. He would eventually move to Wharton County and compete in various sports for WCJC.
Bahnsen said Branch was an athlete here for two years, 1967 through 1969. He played football (running back, receiver, punt and kickoff returner) and also ran track (sprints). Branch did not get a degree from WCJC, transferring to the University of Colorado where he continued his football career.
“He was a good kid and a super athlete,” said Bahnsen, who helped coach Branch. “He had tremendous speed.” Bahnsen said Branch “had a good attitude and was a nice kid with a friendly personality.”
Bahnsen noted that Branch was recruited heavily by other universities during his final year at WCJC and took many trips to visit these schools.
After Colorado, Branch was drafted by the Raiders in 1972, a fourth round pick (98th overall).
He would go on to win three Super Bowls with the Raiders in 1977, 1981 and 1984. He went to the Pro Bowl four times, was receiving scoring leader twice, first-team All Pro three times.
Like all NFL teams, the Raiders also began training camp in preparation for the upcoming season. Many players wore a #21 jersey, the same number Branch wore when he played for the team decades before. Among them were quarterback Derek Carr, who was raised for part of his young life in Sugar Land.
Said Oakland coach Jon Gruden via the team’s Twitter: “We’re going to miss Cliff Branch. It’s a terrible loss to the Raiders, to football, and to anyone who knew him. Our players paid tribute to him today. Our prayers are with his family.”
Ironically, Branch never earned an induction into the NFL Hall of Fame, which was held the same weekend he passed away. Many who are enshrined there and are still living have voiced their disapproval of Branch not being enshrined despite his impressive pro football resume.
Bahnsen said despite Branch’s credentials, he always stayed rooted in Texas despite living in California.
“He stayed in touch with WCJC after he left here,” Bahnsen said. “He had a good experience here.”
Moreover, on the day of his ceremony, Bahnsen didn’t know Branch was coming here until he saw him in the building.
“He definitely surprised me with his visit,” said Bahnsen, who coached at WCJC over 60 years.