Fred Biletnikoff wasn’t that big or that fast, but the legendary wide receiver of the Oakland Raiders was big enough and fast enough to make it all the way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The 6-1, 190-pound Biletnikoff was selected by the Raiders in the second round (No. 11 overall) of the 1965 NFL Draft out of Florida State, and Al Davis signed him under the goalpost after he caught 13 passes for 194 yards and four touchdowns as the Seminoles beat Oklahoma, 36-19, in the Orange Bowl.
“Every scouting report we had was fantastic,” said Davis, the Raiders coach and general manager. “They all said Fred was outstanding in college, but they questioned his speed and weren’t sure he would be outstanding in the pros.
“But we felt, with our approach to total pass offense, that speed wasn’t the only consideration, that we could tailor our offense to our players.”
Those were the days of the AFL-NFL war and Biletnikoff also had been drafted by the Detroit Lions.
Biletnikoff played mostly on special teams in the first six games of his rookie season in 1965, but in the seventh game against the Boston Patriots he caught seven passes for 118 yards and the Raiders knew exactly what they had.
In 14 seasons with the Silver and Black, Biletnikoff made 589 receptions for 8,974 yards, a 15.2-yard average, and 76 touchdowns. In addition, he caught 70 passes for 1,167 yards and 10 touchdowns in 19 post-season games—all NFL playoff records at the time.
He was a two-time All-AFL selection, made the Pro Bowl in the first four seasons after the AFL-NFL merger was complete, and was selected All-Pro in 1972.
It didn’t matter if Tom Flores, Daryle Lamonica, or Kenny “Snake” Stabler was the Raiders quarterback.
“I knew I could count on Freddie whenever I needed him,” Stabler said. “Even if he wasn’t the first option on a play, I knew that I could make all my reads and if nothing was there when I looked for Freddie he would be open, or if I put the ball in the right place he would catch it even if a defender was there, too.”
Biletnikoff was the master of his craft, running precise patterns and being particularly effective on comeback patterns, driving his defender down the field before coming back to catch the pass.
That allowed Biletnikoff to fool defenders and occasionally get open down the field.
When speedy wide receiver Cliff Branch came to the Raiders in 1972, Biletnikoff taught him the tricks of their trade and they became perhaps the most lethal wide receiver duo in the NFL.
In Super Bowl XI, with the Minnesota Vikings paying strict attention to Branch to keep from being beaten deep, all Biletnikoff did was catch four catches for 79 yards, and although he didn’t score, he took three of those passes inside the two-yard line to set up TDs in a 32-14 victory.
Biletnikoff was selected as the game’s Most Valuable Player.
“I was surprised to be named MVP,” Biletnikoff said. “Anybody (on the Raiders) could have been named MVP. You look at Clarence (Davis’) performance, the offensive line’s performance, Dave (Casper’s) performance, the defense’s performance, Kenny’s performance. If it was up to me, I would have made Kenny MVP.
“ … With Kenny Stabler, you couldn’t ask for anybody better to run the team. He knew how to handle the personnel on the field and knew when to get the ball to different receivers.”
Said Stabler of Biletnikoff in the locker room after the Super Bowl: “We’ve been together so long we know exactly what to expect from each other. I know where he’s going before he gets there and he knows where I’ll be throwing almost before I do. Like a great pianist, he is tops in his field. I look at him sometimes and wonder how he does the things he does.”
Biletnikoff was a perfectionist, not only in running his pass patterns but in catching the football. He had great hands and rarely dropped a pass, which to him was something of a mortal sin.
Once, after dropping a pass at training camp in Santa Rosa, north of Oakland, he knocked down a portable fence next to the practice field with one swift kick.
“The thing that is most impressive about Fred is that he is a man-made receiver,” Hall of Fame Raiders Coach John Madden said. “He has to work hard for everything he’s got. He can catch anything he can touch. That’s no accident. Some receivers might catch 15 or 20 passes in practice. Fred will catch 100.
“ … If he dropped a pass in practice, he would not only cuss himself out but after practice, he would get one of the quarterbacks to throw him that pass, sometimes as many as a hundred times. He did it with hard work.”
After retiring from the Raiders in 1978 and playing one season with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League in 1980, Biletnikoff spent more than 20 years coaching receivers, including with the Raiders from 1989-2006.
These days, Biletnikoff and his wife Angela operate the Biletnikoff Foundation, a non-profit organization which is dedicated to supporting youth, primarily from low-to-moderate income neighborhoods or backgrounds. The goal is to help them realize their potential through community and educational programs that effectively address the related problems of substance abuse and domestic violence.
The foundation commemorates the life of Biletnikoff’s daughter, Tracey, who was murdered in 1999 at the age of 20.
Even off the field, Fred Biletnikoff is a difference-maker.
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