Raiders Great Willie Brown Dies at 78

Willie Brown returns a pass interception 75 yards for a touchdwon to clinch the Raiders' victory over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI.
Tom LaMarre

by Tom LaMarre

Hall of Fame cornerback Willie Brown, one of the most beloved players in Oakland Raiders history, died on Tuesday at the age of 78, the team confirmed.

The cause of death was not immediately revealed, but later in the day it was reported that Brown lost a lengthy battle with cancer.

Coach and General Manager Al Davis acquired Brown from the Denver Broncos in 1967, and in his first season he helped the Raiders reach Super Bowl II, where they were defeated by the Green Bay Packers.

“Probably the greatest memory as a Raider is coming to the Raiders, meeting Al Davis in Denver,” Brown said. “I was playing with Denver and got traded to the Raiders. He took the time to come to Denver, fly in, talk to me about joining the Raiders. That’s probably the greatest moment.”

Raiders owner Mark Davis, Al's son, released the following statement: "It’s A Very Sad Day For The Raider Nation As A Whole.. And For My Family In Particular.. Willie Brown Was One Of The Greatest To Ever Play The Game.. But It Was Off The Field And How He Treated My Mom For Which I Will Forever Be Indebted To Him.. Every Road Trip It Was Willie Who Helped My Mom Up And Down The Stairs Of The Plane.. It Was Willie Who Joined Her For All Dinners On The Road.. It Was Willie Who Came To Her Every Birthday And Mother’s Day Dinner.. It Was Willie Who Was Her Best Friend.. We Loved And Will Miss You Willie…" -Mark Davis-

The 6-1, 195-pound Brown is given credit for inventing and being the chief practitioner of the bump-and-run pass defense, which has since been outlawed.

Brown, who later was an assistant coach for the Raiders, made the all-time American Football League (1960-69) team, was a five-time AFL All-Star, played in four Pro Bowls after the merger with the National Football League, was a two-time All-Pro and was selected to the NFL Team of the Decade for the 1970s.

In addition, Brown played on the Raiders’ Super Bowl XI champions, making one of the iconic plays in the game’s history when he intercepted a pass by Fran Tarkenton of the Minnesota Vikings and returned it 75 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter to clinch a 32-14 victory.

Bill King, the Raiders’ famed radio play-by-play announcer, chortled as Brown ran down the sideline to the end zone at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena: “Old Man Willie, he’s going all the way.”

The Raiders released the following statement: “Willie Brown will forever be cherished as a true Raider. He exemplified the Raider spirit, originally entering the AFL as an undrafted free agent out of Grambling State before joining the Silver and Black in 1967. He remained an integral part of the organization through six decades. His legendary performance on the field changed the way the cornerback position was played and his valued guidance as a coach, mentor and administrator permeated the organization and touched countless individuals both on and off the field. Willie’s loss will leave a tremendous void, but his leadership and presence will always be a major part of the fabric of the Raiders Family.”

During his pro career, Brown made 54 interceptions that he returned for 472 yards and two touchdowns.

Brown was born on Dec. 2, 1940, in Yazoo City, Miss., and played college ball at Grambling State before signing as a free agent with the Houston Oilers of the AFL in 1963.

After being cut by the Oilers during training camp, he signed with the Broncos, with whom he played for four seasons before going to the Raiders and playing in Oakland for the last 12 years of his career.

Brown was defensive backfield coach for the Raiders from 1979 to 1988, including victories in Super Bowlx XV and XVIII, before being head coach at Long Beach State in 1991 until the school dropped football at the end of the season, and at Jordan High School in Los Angeles in 1994.

The he returned to the Raiders as Director of Staff Development, a position he held until his death.

Brown was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in 1984, his first year of eligibility. He also is a member of the Louisiana, Mississippi and African-American Ethnic Sports Halls of Fame.

“The entire Hall of Fame family mourns the loss of a great man. Willie Brown was the epitome of the Raiders’ motto of ‘commitment to excellence’ that was integral to the team’s sustained success,” President David Baker of the Pro Football Hall of Fame said in a statement. “He embodied virtues like passion, integrity, perseverance and always led by example. His character, on and off the field, made all those around him better. His legacy will be preserved forever in Canton, Ohio to inspire generations of fans.”

In 1999, Brown was ranked number 50 on The Sporting News’ list of the 100 Greatest Football Players.

Brown, who settled in Oakland and opened Willie Brown’s Liquors in the Fruitvale District, is survived by his wife, Yvonne, three children and three grandchildren.