Biletnikoff spoke to a sold-out crowd packed into the banquet hall at Holiday Inn to hear stories of his rough-and-tumble years in professional football and to help the Salvation Army deliver more than $1 million in annual services to the local community.
In addition to the estimated $33,000 the luncheon raised for shelter, kitchen and year-round emergency services, the event brought in a $15,000 donation from area Food City stores and their shoppers who purchased paper Souper Bowl footballs in advance of the luncheon.
Biletnikoff began his remarks telling the crowd his practice is to check out the work done by charitable organizations he speaks for, and he was pleased by what he learned about the Salvation Army.
“It’s phenomenal what the Salvation Army does internationally and right here in Johnson City,” he said. “We have a foundation, too, and we wish we had a crowd like the one here today to support us.”
On his long and celebrated football career, he kept his comments brief, sticking to the lighter moments of what were at times some very heavy life circumstances, then opening the floor to as many questions as time allowed.
The son of a Russian immigrant, Biletnikoff said his dad was a fighter with a mean left hook who taught him early “how to go around this guy and jump over that guy.”
“Years ago, when the Raiders came to town, they said, ‘hide the women and children.’ They said, ‘they brought their bondsmen with them.’ ... That was our kind of motto.”
“I played 14 years with the Raiders. ... Now (that) I’m older, looking back, I wonder how the hell I got to be 71.”
In his first two years in professional football, Biletnikoff said he earned $20,000 a year and parked cars in the offseason to pay his bills.
After a knee injury ended his second season early, he received no salary and was home with two young children and his leg in a cast when he was notified by mail the Raiders wanted to let him go.
He said his response was “do whatever you want to do” and he was expecting to be cut the following year when the Raiders sent him to training camp and kept him benched through the entire preseason and all but the last four minutes of their 1967 season opener.
Biletnikoff ended that game with a four-yard touchdown reception and the following year led the league in receiving with 61 receptions, 1,037 yards and six touchdowns.
“Life is what it is. You get beat up. You go through things. ... You take your beatings like everybody else does,” he said.
On recent allegations of teammate bullying among members of the Miami Dolphins, Biletnikoff said, “What went on in the Dolphins’ locker room went on our locker room all the time. No one thought anything of it. It was camaraderie.
“I made $157,000 my last year. Some of these guys in the NFL today are making over a million dollars a year. If I’m making over a million dollars a year and someone’s harassing me, I’d say ‘Go ahead. I’m making over a million dollars. I don’t care.’
“If I go out drinking and I have too much, I call someone to come get me. And this week, a guy beating up his (fiancee).”
Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was charged with simple assault after an incident with his fiancee at an Atlantic City, N.J. casino. She was also charged with simple asault.
“Today’s NFL players, I don’t get it. You’re making money. You have a good life. You can do whatever you want to do. They’re stupid. There’s no other word for it.”