At 70, Biletnikoff relishes his past

Jeff Birchfield • Feb 21, 2014 at 10:12 PM

While it seems like a no-brainer today, it was a tough decision at the time for Fred Biletnikoff.

In 1965, he was drafted by both the Oakland Raiders of the upstart American Football League and by the Detroit Lions of the established National Football League. Ultimately, Biletnikoff chose Oakland, where he would spend 14 years as a wide receiver and another 18 years as a coach.

Now 70, he said there’s never been a time he regretted going with the Silver and Black, even before the league merger when it meant choosing the AFL over the NFL.

“I was there almost half my life until I retired from coaching five years ago,” Biletnikoff said Friday before the Salvation Army’s annual Souper Bowl for the Hungry luncheon at Holiday Inn. “To me, there’s nothing better. We always had the teams filled with controversy, but that was our team. Hide the women and children, the Raiders are coming to town. When you go back over your life and times, I wouldn’t change anything with the decision to play for the Raiders.”

The shining moment for the 1988 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee was being named Super Bowl XI MVP. Biletnikoff had four catches for 79 yards, but three of those catches set up short touchdowns in Oakland’s 32-14 victory over the Minnesota Vikings.

While the Raiders had Hall of Fame tight end Dave Casper and the steady Cliff Branch, Biletnikoff was the one most trusted by quarterback Ken Stabler.

The left-handed quarterback nicknamed “Snake” and the lanky receiver were more than just teammates. They remain very close friends to this day.

“Kenny and I lived together for a period of time when we were both going through divorces,” Biletnikoff said. “We still have a great relationship, very close friends, and we were able to go through a lot of tough personal things together. But playing football, we had a great time. Kenny’s demeanor on that field, he was very calm. He could take command of a huddle and make you feel comfortable where you felt he was going to put you in a great position to go out there and perform. He was a very cool guy who had total control of everything on the field.”

Before Biletnikoff wore No. 25 for the Raiders, the son of Russian immigrants played both wide receiver and defensive back for Florida State. Highlights included a 99-yard interception return for a touchdown against rival Miami, and making the game-winning catch against Georgia.

He saved his best college performance for last.

After leading the nation with 1,179 receiving yards and earning All-American honors his senior season of 1964, he had 13 catches for 192 yards, both Gator Bowl records, in a 36-19 victory over Oklahoma.

Before coming to Johnson City to speak at the Salvation Army fundraiser, Biletnikoff did a little research about the place. He couldn’t resist taking a swipe at a famous former resident, who happened to be a college rival of his.

“I saw this was home to Steve Spurrier,” he said. “One thing about Steve, we were the first ones from Florida State to beat the University of Florida when we played against each other. That demeanor Steve had after that loss is the same demeanor Steve has now. It was good to see him miserable. But we’ve been friends for years and he’s been a big asset to football.”

Biletnikoff caught a 55-yard touchdown in the first half of the Seminoles’ 16-7 victory, while Spurrier’s six-yard run in the third quarter was the Gators’ only touchdown.

Finishing his career with 100 catches, including 20 touchdown receptions, Biletnikoff was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1991. For the past 20 years, the Fred Biletnikoff Award has been awarded to the best wide receiver in college football.

In the pros, he had 589 receptions for 8,974 yards and 76 touchdowns. A six-time Pro Bowl selection, he is described by the Pro Football Hall of Fame website as having fluid moves, deceptive speed and great hands.

Those great hands were needed, playing with three different styles of quarterbacks with Daryle LaMonica, George Blanda and Stabler.

“(Raiders owner) Al (Davis) wanted someone with a strong arm, and Daryle was just a fantastic player,” Biletnikoff said. “He was a very intense guy who was ‘rah, rah, rah,’ wired from beginning to end. We were able to play in the championship game (Super Bowl II) against Green Bay and against all of those Hall of Famers which we lost.

“When George came in, he was in his middle-40s at the time. He was somebody who could still throw the football. He would lick his fingers, call the plays and say, ‘Let’s go.’”

Biletnikoff played with his share of Hall of Famers, 10 of his former teammates in all. Another Hall of Famer is Blietnikoff’s former coach, John Madden, who went on to even greater fame as a broadcaster and the namesake behind the popular video game.

Davis, the team’s late owner, is also a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Biletnikoff cherishes their relationship, although he said it was challenging at times.

“Al always had control of the team and he was never going to change that, whether it was good or bad,” Biletnikoff said. “I loved Al, but it wasn’t always easy. I saw both sides of him, coaching and playing.

“Playing was easier, but coaching was a real pain. Coaching for Al, he was on top of you all the time. Willie Brown and I were on the staff, and he was on us all the time because we were his guys. We had our battles, we were nose-to-nose at times. But it was all to do one thing, to win. Anytime you talked, you talked about winning.”

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