The life and career of one of professional football's all time great receivers was now reduced to a single paragraph in a Raiders press release. I briefly spoke to Biletnikoff Monday evening, just prior to his meeting with new coach Lane Kiffin, Chief Executive Amy Trask, and Managing General Partner Al Davis, to discuss his future with the club.
I think he sensed the end was near; the 2006 season had been to say the least extremely difficult, and that the "new look Raiders" were likely headed in the preverbal "another direction," but I was still both surprised and saddened when a friend over the phone informed me Thursday morning that Freddie had retired.
He certainly wasn't the biggest, nor was he the fastest, but oh how he could play the game of football.
Biletnikoff was born and raised in Erie, PA on February 23rd, 1943, the second of three sons of Ephrim & Natalie Biletnikoff. Both his parents were outstanding athletes. His dad was a regional golden glove champion. Biletnikoff's younger brother Bob was a promising left handed signal caller at the University of Miami, but he left after his sophomore season to sign a six figure bonus contract with the New York Yankees.
While attending Tech Memorial High School in Erie, Biletnikoff became a three sports star, and upon graduation accepted a scholarship to attend Florida State. Four years later, he became the school's first consensus All American football player. He was selected by the Raiders in the 2nd round of the 1965 AFL draft and went on to spend 32 of the next 41 years in their employ, including 14 years as a player.
And what a glorious 14 years it was for fans of the Silver and Black!
During his 190 game, star studded career in Oakland, Biletnikoff caught 589 balls for 8,974 yards, a 15.2 yard average, and scored 76 touchdowns. But it was in the post season where he truly shined snatching 70 balls for 1,167 yards and 10 touchdowns. He played in four Pro Bowls, two American Football League All Star games, in the Super Bowl II loss to Green Bay, and was the MVP in the Raiders Super Bowl XI (1976) victory over the Minnesota Vikings.
Some might say his playing statistics were somewhat modest when compared to the numbers put up by today's receivers, but let me first state that Biletnikoff's totals were compiled over a 14 game schedule, and that his receptions were generally down the field and not the glorified handoffs that we see in today's contemporary lateral passing offensives.
To this day, I can still remember the Raiders epic matches versus Hank Stram's Kansas City Chiefs squads in the early 70's, and Biletnikoff's personal one on one battles against the great Jimmy Marsalis. Back then, corners were not limited to a five yard bump rule and could literally accost a receiver down the field, and that is exactly what the talented Marsalis did!
During my career as a talent scout, I have had the good fortune to view many of the great and near great at the wide receiver position, but have seen few who I believe possessed Biletnikoff's catching ability (I never saw him drop a ball), route running skills, ability to uncover, and his overall playing character (No Fear). His tenacity, clutch receiving skills, and the way he worked back to the ball were simply a thing to behold, and how I later came to base my standards when evaluating the position…
In July of 1988, Biletnikoff was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio and was presented by his former coach and mentor Al Davis. Three years later in 1991 he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, and finally in 1994 The Biletnikoff Award was established to annually honor the nations top college receiver.
I was first introduced to Biletnikoff by a mutual friend Lary Kuharich in 1985, prior to the final USFL Championship game between the Oakland Invaders and Philadelphia Stars, and the two of us have remained friends since that time. For the past eight to ten years I, along with a number of friends and colleagues have had the pleasure of celebrating his birthday in Indianapolis, since it has corresponded with the annual NFL scouting combine. I, for one am sure going to miss those nights at Shula's, Buca's, and the Canterbury!
The Oakland Raiders Football Club have always been about family, most of the scouts, administrators, coaches, and support staff have a long history of service and association with Al Davis, and such was the case with Biletnikoff.
When Fred rejoined the family (Raiders) as a receiver coach in 1989, after honing his coaching skills in both the USFL and CFL, I guess you could say that he had finally come full circle. It must have seemed like a fairy tale ending to a great career for Biletnikoff and his beautiful wife Angela; a coaching job in his adopted home, for the only team that ever really mattered, but that all changed on February 15, 1999 when Biletnikoff's 20 year old daughter Tracey from a previous marriage, was tragically murdered.
At the time of her death, Tracey who had herself battled substance abuse, but had successfully overcome her addiction and was working at a San Mateo treatment center.
I believe nothing in life is as traumatic and indescribable as the loss of a child, and in the blink of an eye all of hopes and dreams that this caring, beautiful, young lady had to help other young people in the Bay area overcome their addictions appeared to be forever dashed, but the phrase "giving up" has never been a part of the Biletnikoff vernacular.
Spearheaded by Angela, a tireless worker, and aided by Fred, their daughter Dacia, and many other volunteers throughout the country, The Biletnikoff Foundation was founded to provide funding for the establishment of a safe house for adolescent girls called "Tracey's Place of Hope". The house provides for a gender violence prevention program and summer activities which gets boys and girls off the streets of Oakland.
Tracey's compassionate spirit for the troubled lives of the youth is reflected in the positive example and alternate activities provided to them by the foundation that now carries her name.
When one opens the website, a side from the many great events that are conducted on an annual basis, you are greeted with a message from this very decent man; "I could not save my daughter…. But maybe together we can save yours."
So in closing, on behalf of your many fans throughout the United States, I want to say thank you Fred, thank you for the many thrills you have given them over the years, and thank you Fred (and Angela) for the work you have done to keep Tracey's spirit alive, thank you for your efforts on behalf of the children of the street, many of whom society has long since given up on, thank you for your friendship that you have extended to me over the years, and thank you for being the man that you are today. You're without question the best of the best.