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Raiders’ legend Willie Brown recalls glory days

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All-time football great Willie Brown, in his 12th year as an Oakland Raider, intercepted a Minnesota pass in Super Bowl XI and ran 75 yards for a touchdown. The play cemented a Raiders win, and it also made for one of the most famous highlights in National Football League history.

“He’s going all the way! Old man Willie! Touchdown Raiders!” said Hall of Fame announcer Bill King, in a live call that accompanied NFL Films’ iconic, close-up view of Brown as he ran for the score.

Brown, 77, was at National Sports Memorabilia in Petaluma on the Friday before Christmas to sign autographs. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1984, his first year of eligibility.

The 6-foot, 1-inch tall Grambling State product was undrafted but undaunted. Brown brought a new technique, the “bump and run,” to the American Football League, and he quickly became one of the best cornerbacks in professional football.

His Raiders career included a team-record 39 interceptions, five AFL All-Star games, four Pro-Bowls, and a Super Bowl championship. He also played for the Raiders in Super Bowl II.

Raiders owner Al Davis acquired Brown from the Denver Broncos in 1967 via a trade.

“Well, that was the greatest day of my life,” Brown said with a laugh. The Broncos only won 12 games in Brown’s four years in Denver. “I had an opportunity to get out of there and come to the Raiders. I thought it was great.”

Davis was building an aggressive defense, and Brown was a perfect fit. He brought a new style to the Raiders. Dubbed “bump and run,” the technique, now called “press coverage,” is a fixture in today’s game.

“Nobody had seen bump and run,” said Brown, “until they saw me play it.”

Alongside Brown in the secondary were Skip Thomas, Jack Tatum and George Atkinson. Together, they became one of the most feared defensive units in the NFL. The “Soul Patrol” terrorized receivers in the 1970s, all the way through Oakland’s Super Bowl XI victory.

Before Brown and the Raiders won that ultimate prize, the team had to endure a Super Bowl II loss to Vince Lombardi’s Packers. It wasn’t such a crushing defeat at the time, though.

“Green Bay had a lot of older players that had been together for a long time. They had a great coach. I think with us, we were just glad to be in the Super Bowl,” Brown said.

Oakland was an underdog by nature. The AFL and the NFL were in the process of joining to create one league, but they hadn’t merged yet. The Packers were at the tail end of a premier dynasty in the more established NFL.

“So finally at halftime, we realized that we could beat these guys, you know? So we came back, and it was a tough game for them, and for us,” Brown said.

The Raiders lost, 33-14, but the game didn’t carry nearly the weight it would just a few years later. We call the game Super Bowl II now, but at the time it was known as the second NFL-AFL World Football Championship.

“You could get a ticket for $10, $15 back then,” Brown said.

When Brown’s career started, there was no NFL-AFL World Football Championship, let alone a Super Bowl.

Brown, who played football at historically black Grambling State University, didn’t expect to be drafted.

“Back in 1963, there weren’t that many black players in the National Football League,” said Brown, a Yazoo City, Mississippi native. “And Grambling had so many great ballplayers, teams knew that they really didn’t draft us, they could sign us as free agents.”

After being signed and released by the AFL’s Houston Oilers, Brown joined the Denver Broncos. Brown became a starter halfway through his rookie year. In his second year, he had nine interceptions.

“I wasn’t worried about being drafted. I just knew if I pursued a career playing ball, I knew I was good enough to play,” Brown said.

Brown most fondly remembers the Raiders’ Super Bowl XI win, intercepting four passes in one game with the Broncos, and grabbing 54 career interceptions.

But Brown didn’t mention his highlight-for-the-ages touchdown against the Vikings at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena in 1977.

For Brown, it’s not just that play that defines him.

“I think that one play, sure you see it all the time, but I just think of it as part of my career,” Brown said. “When you played as long as I played, and get 54 interceptions over your career, it was good.”