Editor's Note: Today is the eighth edition of a 10-day celebration of this year's Colorado Athletic Hall of Fame induction here at CUBuffs.com, profiling each of this year's inductees, leading up to Saturday's football game against Iowa State. Today, we look at the career dual-sport star Cliff Branch. The 10 new Hall of Fame members were officially inducted in ceremonies on Nov. 11 and will be honored again today at halftime of the CU-Iowa State football game.
If one was to visit Folsom Field on a given Saturday during the fall of 1971, he or she may have been fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of one of the most dynamic football players ever to adorn the black and gold-just a glimpse, however.
Those expecting to see anything more than a blur would need to wait until after the final whistle had sounded. Cliff "Speedy" Branch was, quite simply, one of the most electrifying players ever to strap it up for the Buffaloes on Saturdays. Standing 5-feet, 11-inches tall and tipping the scales at 170 pounds, he was hardly an imposing figure, yet Branch struck fear in the hearts of defenses and gave opposing coaches nightmares week in and week out. As former teammates and coaches would attest, he was a threat to score every time he touched the ball.
Branch came to CU in 1970, after a two-year stint at Wharton County Junior College in his home state of Texas. There, he was an All-American in track and football. After his junior college eligibility had expired, Branch departed for Boulder, where he hoped his dominance on the track and the gridiron would continue.
Being from Texas, Branch would be attending college far from the comforts of home. In fact, friends approached him with concerns about the harsh weather in Boulder. "Why would you want to go to Colorado where it snows?" they would ask. "Why would you want to run track and play football in the snow?"
His response was simple and direct. "There are [weather] elements no matter where you go," he would reply.
It's a good thing he remained undeterred, because his decision leave the Lone Star State for Colorado was one that he would never regret. "I got out to Colorado and it was breathtaking. It was so beautiful," Branch gushed. "I felt at home there, and I never went back to Texas."
When Branch arrived in Boulder, he didn't miss a beat, leaving an indelible mark on the CU track and football programs.
On the football field, Branch quickly established himself as one of the most explosive kick returners in the country. CU's original "Speedy" returned a combined four kicks and punts for touchdowns as a junior and added four more as a senior.
Never before had a player at the college level, let alone at Colorado, performed such a feat. In fact, it has only been done once since. The CU record still stands, and it took more than three decades for Branch's national mark to be bested. Branch's six career punt returns for touchdowns also remains the Colorado benchmark.
Branch was also a prolific pass-catcher during his time in Boulder. In an offense that centered on a strong running game, he hauled in 36 balls for 665 yards and 11 touchdowns and boasted an 18.5 yards per catch average, which was a school record at the time.
"At Colorado, we didn't throw the ball much, but when we did, we threw it deep," Branch said, "I had a really high [yards per catch] average when I was drafted."
A dual-sport threat, Branch (center) holds several CU track records
Branch was drafted by the Oakland Raiders in the fourth round (98th overall pick) of the 1972 NFL entry draft. He played all 13 seasons of his Hall-of-Fame-caliber career for the Raiders, where he was a three-time All-Pro selection and a four-time Pro-Bowler. He won three Super Bowls with the Raiders, and in 1983, was on the receiving end of the longest pass play in Raiders' history.
Branch's first Pro-Bowl appearance came in just his third NFL season, and he credits his coaches at Colorado for his smooth transition into the Sunday game. "At CU, they taught me to always work back to the ball," he said. The Raiders taught that when I got to the NFL, and I was always a step ahead. It was such an advantage."
Many of the tools that made Branch such a remarkable football player were honed on the track. A world class sprinter, Branch set several CU records in track, none more prevalent than a 10.0 second mark in the 100-meter dash at the 1972 NCAA Outdoor Championships. He ran the anchor leg on CU's 4X400 and mile relay teams, each of which still hold school records in their respective events. Branch finished his collegiate career with school records in the 60-yard dash and the 300-yard dash, and during his junior and senior seasons, he was the Big Eight Conference indoor champion in the 60-yard dash.
While he enjoyed participating in both sports at CU, Branch was particularly fond of the team-oriented nature of football. "On a team, everybody needs to be on the same page," Branch said. "Playing on a team is more gratifying than an individual sport because it's about a group of guys trying to achieve the same goal. You have to be unselfish."
Football taught Branch to be unselfish, so upon learning of his pending induction into the Colorado Athletic Hall of Fame, he thought of those who helped him along the way. He was particularly fond of one individual, his old ball coach. "Eddie Crowder was a very, very honest, straightforward, special man, and he had a deep love for me," Branch said. "He is the one person I would always seek out when I came back to Colorado."
A Buff at heart, Branch has represented the University of Colorado well, both in his athletic endeavors and his steadfast dedication to the university. As an alumnus, he has remained a loyal supporter of an athletic department that has had its share of successes and failures. He is an asset to CU, where as a student-athlete he was nothing short of spectacular, and as an ambassador has been equally awe-inspiring.
"It's a very special honor to be recognized by your alma-mater," Branch said. "I feel truly blessed. I'm a Buff all the way."
As to how close he has remained to football, he deferred to his long-time friend Michele Pierre. "He looks like he can still suit up and play with those kids today," she said.