Call him Manuel Dexterides. He's the hottest pass catcher in pro football, a speedy, glue-fingered dude of Greco-Hispanic origin who can do it all—stop-and-go, work back, move in or out, up-and-over, short and deep. Not only does he have the proverbial blinding speed (after all, he consistently ran the 100 in 9.4 in college, and even now can cover the football 40 in a tad over four seconds flat), but he also has the guile of an Odysseus when it comes to fooling cornerbacks, an inheritance no doubt from his Greek father. And when the ball gets to him, or he to it, as the case may be, there is never any question of Manuel Dexterides dropping it. He has manual dexterity, the gift of his Spanish mother, who started him playing pelota at the age of three to hone his eye-hand coordination. His fingers are made of epoxy and his bones are made of recast steel. In short, he is the optimum wide receiver.
Of course, there is no Manuel Dexterides, but the Oakland Raiders have the next best thing. It comes in two packages, one named Fred Biletnikoff and the other Clifford Branch. The B-Boys, along with Tight End Dave Casper, have given Oakland the best record and the most accomplished passing game in the NFL. Through the first 12 games of the season Quarterback Kenny (Snake) Stabler connected on 178 of 271 passes for 2,520 yards. Casper caught 46 for 613 yards and seven touchdowns. Branch caught 39 for 994—an average of 25.5 yards—and 10 touchdowns. And Biletnikoff caught 38 for 496 and six TDs. His patented third-down catches—often for short yardage along the right sideline—are classics of their kind, and the stuff of nightmares for defenders. This year 26 of Oakland's first 39 touchdowns came on pass plays. And now it doesn't sound like so much hot air when the Raiders—pro football's most successful regular-season team over the last decade with a 106-25-7 record—say once again that this year is their year for the Super Bowl.
"You think of the great receiving pairs of the past, say Carroll Dale and Boyd Dowler of the Lombardi Packers, and the first thing you see is that they had great running backs to take the pressure off of them," says Oakland Coach John Madden. He doesn't say exactly that Clarence Davis and Mark van Eeghen of the Raiders are scarcely Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor, but the fact is that Oakland's ground game is at best fair-to-middling. "Both Branch and Biletnikoff run great routes, different kinds of routes but complementary, and neither of them drops passes," Madden says. "When a defense throws a double zone on us, then Casper goes up the middle. Zingo! Just like that."
Not only do the two wide receivers complement one another on the field—Branch the deep threat with his sprinter's speed, Biletnikoff the master of the short routes—but the B-Boys lead complementary lives off it as well. Biletnikoff is the quiet, diffident 12-year veteran, soft-spoken but tough beneath his blond, Caspar Milquetoast mustache. Branch, who is in his fifth season with Oakland, is the flashy dresser, ebullient on the field and off, "the happiest man on the team," Madden says. After a home game, Fred usually jumps the next plane south to spend a day of rest with his new wife, Jennifer, on his 80-tree avocado ranch in Valley Center, Calif. Clifford ("not Cliff, please") jumps into his bottle-green 1935 Dodge sedan with the mohair seat covers and goes home for a game of backgammon with his wife Essie. Either that or a horror movie. "He loves those grisly picture shows," says Essie Branch, who was Clifford's girl at the University of Colorado, where he starred in track and football. Theirs is a racially mixed marriage, but watching them no one sees colors, just affection and mutual respect. "She beats me at backgammon," says Branch, grinning, "and at air hockey, too!"
Branch was born and raised in Houston, where his father worked on the docks and his mother taught school. "I was always fast on my feet," he recalls. "I could run away from anyone on the block. Even the big kids. It was a God-given grace, and I knew I had to do something with it." The man who helped him find out what was Oliver Brown, then a coach at Branch's junior high school. Brown worked on Branch's running technique, and then followed his prot�g� to Worthing High, where Branch became the first schoolboy in Texas history to run the 100 in 9.3. In fact, he did it twice. "I still see Coach Brown when I go back home," says Branch. "He's a good man, a good friend."
At Colorado. Branch ran track and played football. A return specialist, it took him just two seasons to establish an NCAA career record for punt- and kick-off-return touchdowns. He gained 354 yards rushing, 755 returning kickoffs, 733 carrying back punts, 665 on pass catches and scored 16 touchdowns. In 1972, his senior year, Branch set a world indoor record of 9.3 for the 100, and twice during his Colorado career he did 9.2 outdoors. Though he qualified for the 1972 Olympic Trials, by then his main interest was football. The Raiders had made him their fourth draft pick that year, so Branch chose the NFL over Munich.
"We drafted him mainly as a return man," says Madden, "but I've always had the feeling that any player who can get open can be taught to catch a pass. Hands can be developed. But if a guy can't get open, it doesn't matter whether he can catch or not. He'll never have a pass thrown to him. Clifford can get open. I'll tell you."
It took Branch two seasons, however, before he could catch Stabler's zingers with any consistency. Most track stars who come into pro football have similar problems, and many of them—like Jimmy Hines and John Carlos—drop out, discouraged because they can't hold on to a football. Not Branch. He endured his second-string status (behind Mike Siani) without complaints, and he kept his eye on Biletnikoff, who is perhaps the finest practitioner of ball-glomming in the game.
"I still look at Fred," Branch says. "It's the best education a pass catcher can get anywhere. The other day he was out there working on his cradling. He stayed on after practice and just kept practicing how to cradle the ball, in case his hands get busted in a game and he can't use his fingers. Sometimes he'll just practice catching it with one hand, like you have to do sometimes but you don't want to.
Just catching it on one hand and batting it across to the other. Trick catches, sure, but he works at them. Then he's ready when he needs them."