Radio play-by-play announcer Bill King called him “Old Man Willie” during a memorable 75-yard interception return in Super Bowl XI to put away a 32-14 win over the Minnesota Vikings at the Rose Bowl.
That was at Super Bowl XI in Pasadena.
So at age 68, and a veteran of 204 games, it’s not fair to assume Raiders assistant coach Willie Brown will correctly remember all of the details of the last time the Raiders played on Thanksgiving Day.
“It wasn’t fun because they jumped out on us,” Brown said this week. “They had us 14-0 at halftime, I believe that’s right. Fred Biletnikoff was having a great game, especially in the second half. I remember that. We bounced back, came back, tried to do what we could do. It was a tough game.”
No problem. Thirty-nine years is a long time.
Dating myself, sad to say, I remember the game differently, with the Raiders taking a quick lead and then having it evaporate.
It was the first year of the AFL-NFL merger, when teams from the two leagues played against each other in the regular season. Pride among AFL players was huge against NFL member teams.
Brown was half right about how the day worked out. The Raiders jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter on 23- and 21-yard touchdown passes to Biletnikoff. The rest of the day at Tiger Stadium, where the Lions would play until 1974, was dominated by quarterback Greg Landry as Detroit prevailed 28-14 before 56, 597 fans.
Admission: I remember the Raiders taking the lead on the Lamonica-to-Biletnikoff passes. I remember quarterback Greg Landry having a great day for the Lions. I remember little else. Might have been throwing a football around with other neighborhood kids in front of my house in Hayward for all I know once they fell behind.
Brown recalls being surprised he even played in the game. Brought to Oakland in 1967 in a trade with the Denver Broncos, Brown was switched from wide receiver to bump-and-run cornerback by Al Davis.
The bumps had begun to catch up to him at that point.
“I separated my shoulder two weeks before that. We were getting ready to play back there and we had a couple of corners get hurt,” Brown said. “So I had them tape my shoulder and I was dressed and everything just in case. Next thing you know, two weeks after operating on my shoulder, I was back in the game, playing. I played pretty much the second quarter in that game.”
Center Jim Otto, like Brown a Hall of Famer, conceded, “That was a long time ago. They say when you get older, you lose recall.”
Otto remembers the game being at Tiger Stadium, and recalls the quick 14-0 lead against an NFL team the Raiders desperately wanted to beat.
“It was always special to several of us guys who had been AFL players for so long,” Otto said. “For a long time, we won our share of those games.”
Otto said it was a big deal, because the game was nationally televised so his family could see it in Wisconsin. He remembers the field being in bad shape because “grass doesn’t grow there late in the year.”
With the pride of someone who won far more than he lost, Otto said, “I can still remember how we handled the defensive line, stuff like that. We just couldn’t win the damn game.”
Otto’s recollection of the particulars?
“I know we dropped a couple of passes that could have been touchdowns,” Otto said. “We jumped out ahead of them right away, then got stymied, and they got those scores to beat us. We had some problems hanging on to the ball.”
According to the Raiders media guide, they played four times on Thanksgiving before the merger. They beat the Broncos 26-10 in 1963, lost to the Bills 31-10 in 1966, beat the Chiefs 44-22 in 1967 and beat the Bills 13-10 in 1968.
En route to Dallas today . . . hope to post later with relayed practice updates before the Raiders leave . . .