What does Branch work on?
"My hands," he says, spreading his fingers and flexing them. They're not big hands, but they're strong. "I squeeze a lot of Silly Putty at home to get them strong. I also shoot a lot of pool and play Ping-Pong to help my eye-hand coordination. Lately I've been playing some tennis. Good for the legs, you know, gives you those quick breaks when you make your move on a pass route. But Freddie, he doesn't believe in Silly Putty. His hands are huge, and strong enough as it is. He works with a speed bag now and then to make sure both hands are equally quick. But otherwise, that's about all I do—that and watch Freddie."
"Cherchez Biletnikoff," says his wife, who majored in psychology and French at Colorado.
It's a practice day for the Raiders, and Biletnikoff is back from his farm. The fog has blown from the Bay, carrying with it the ghost of Jack London, which had haunted the dank streets all morning. A mild sun gleams on the golf course and the city dump which flank the field. Biletnikoff trots off with the taut bounce of a pointer coming in from a day working quail. His eyes are a bland, watery blue that match the sky. He proffers one of the renowned hands, and in the grasp one realizes why Freddie Biletnikoff drops so few passes. He is without doubt the gluiest man in the game.
"Oh, that's just the stickum I spray on there," he says. "I don't know what they call it. It's just there on the sidelines, so I use it." Indeed he does. When the Oakland defense is on the field, Biletnikoff sits on the sidelines apart from his teammates—attentive and unmoving, balanced atop his silver helmet. But when the offense is ready to return, he lopes to the training table and squirts his taped calves and forearms and finally his hands with quick shots of Hold-Tite Spray.
"You can't hear good hands," Madden likes to say. "There's no loud slap of leather on skin. That's because with a good receiver the fingertips are stopping the ball, not the palms." Madden doesn't talk about stickum, and clearly Biletnikoff would rather not, either. The conversation shifts briefly to avocados and avocations.
"That last storm uprooted some of my trees," he says laconically, "so I had to get them stuck back in the ground. Mainly when I'm down there, or at home in San Francisco, I just lie around and listen to music."
What kind of music?
"All kinds of music," he answers softly, his eyes clouding over. Then he turns and stares directly into the questioner's eyes. "Anything but jazz," he says.
A sudden image: Biletnikoff running his routes to an inner symphony. Les Sylphides? G�tterd�mmerung? Rocky Raccoon? We will never know.