Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series on the history of the Raiders.
In the often regimented world of football, uniqueness stands out.
Raiders legend Fred Biletnikoff, with his flowing locks of hair, skin-tight uniform pants that left no room for padding and stickum-covered limbs, was as original as they come.
Don’t try to pigeonhole him as a stereotypical possession receiver, even though part of his Hall of Fame resume crafted over 14 years with the Raiders was built on the reliability and trust he built with quarterbacks Daryle Lamonica and Ken Stabler.
Going back to his track and field days at Technical Memorial High School in Erie, Pennsylvania, Biletnikoff was a versatile and accomplished athlete. He was a champion high jumper and all-conference in basketball, baseball and football. At Florida State, as a two-way player, his 99-yard interception return for a touchdown in 1962 stood as the school record until a guy by the name of Deion Sanders took one back 100 yards in 1987.
Biletnikoff, now 76, wasn’t blinding fast, but he could stretch the field — as evidenced by the 21.9 yards per reception he averaged in 1967.
So his evolution into the wide receiver version of a ballet-dancing artist with incredible footwork and body control should have come as no surprise. His physical skills, along with incredible focus and hand-eye coordination that enabled him to find and secure footballs despite the maze of arms and hands impeding him, made him one of the more dangerous receivers of his generation.
All of which was accentuated by a work ethic fueled by the desire to be perfect.
“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,” former Raiders coach John Madden wrote in his book, “One Knee Equals Two Feet.”
Like so many players of his time, Biletnikoff had a decision to make upon graduating from Florida State in 1965. He was drafted by the NFL’s Detroit Lions in the third round and the American Football League’s Raiders in the second. On one hand, the Lions offered much more security playing in the more established NFL. But the 5-year-old Raiders, playing in the still fledgling AFL, offered something even more enticing to Biletnikoff: A chance to play wide receiver in the more innovative, wide-open brand of football that then-Raiders coach Al Davis preferred.
On the recommendation of Bill Peterson, his college coach at Florida State and a friend of Davis, Biletnikoff opted to play for the Raiders. He signed his contract under a goal post immediately after torching Oklahoma for four touchdown catches in the Gator Bowl.
After a slow start to his rookie season in 1965, Biletnikoff had seven catches for 118 yards against the Boston Patriots. Two years later, with the arrival of the strong-armed Lamonica, Biletnikoff reeled in 40 passes for 876 yards and five touchdowns. His 21.9 yards per reception led the NFL. A year later, he caught 61 passes for 1,037 yards and six touchdowns.
What followed was a run of consistent production that made Biletnikoff an eventual Hall of Famer. He was typically at his best in the playoffs. He retired as the NFL’s all-time leader in postseason receiving yards (1,167), receptions (70) and touchdown receptions (10) and earned MVP honors in the Raiders’ 32-14 win over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI.
Biletnikoff played in 19 playoff games. He exceeded 100 yards in receiving in five of them.
In an era when teams ran the ball more than they threw it, Biletnikoff finished his career with 589 receptions for 8,974 yards and 76 touchdowns.
He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1988 and served as the Raiders’ wide receivers coach from 1989 to 2007. His son, Fred Biletnikoff Jr., is the head football coach at Coronado High School in Henderson.