Raiders legend, HOF DB Willie Brown passes away

Author of one of the NFL's most indelible images as he raced toward the end zone to score on a Super Bowl XI interception, Raiders legend and Pro Football Hall of Famer Willie Brown has passed away at the age of 78.

A cornerback who played 16 seasons -- four to begin his career with the Denver Broncos and the final 12 with the Raiders in Oakland -- Brown was a nine-time Pro Bowler, five-time All-Pro selection and 1984 Hall of Fame enshrinee.

"It's a very sad day for the Raider nation as a whole," Raiders owner Mark Davis said, in part, in a statement.

"We are deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Raiders' great Willie Brown," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. "As a player, coach, and executive, Willie served as a tremendous ambassador for the Raiders and football for more than 50 years. He will forever be immortalized by NFL Films with his iconic 75-yard interception return in Super Bowl XI as he ran straight into the camera and our imaginations.

"After a remarkable 16-year Pro Football Hall of Fame career that he began as an undrafted free agent, Willie went on to become a Raiders coach and later a member of the team's front office. Willie lived the Raiders' motto "Commitment to Excellence" with integrity and touched the lives of hundreds of NFL players with his wisdom and wit. Willie was always a welcome guest at the NFL Draft and I enjoyed visiting with him each year. He was always enthusiastic and optimistic about the Raiders' picks and upcoming season. We extend our condolences to Willie's family, the Raiders organization, and fans around the world."

Across a decorated career that saw him play in a pair of Super Bowls for the Raiders, Brown terrorized quarterbacks to the tune of 54 career interceptions. The mark currently sits in a tie for 21st all-time, with his 39 while playing for the Raiders franchise tied for tops in the team's history next to Lester Hayes.

There was no Brown interception and perhaps no other interception in NFL chronicle as memorable as his in Super Bowl XI, however. Brown perfectly read a pass into the flats and never looked back, sprinting along the opposing sideline as a close-up perfectly read his run to the end zone and immortality. It was the exclamation point of the Raiders' first Super Bowl title, an emphatic 32-14 win over the Vikings in the Rose Bowl that closed out a 16-1 season for Oakland and one of the most overlooked all-time great teams in league lore.

As memorable as the close-up and Brown's determined expression was, the call by Oakland play-by-play man Bill King made it an unforgettable moment in NFL history.

"He looks and throws ... intercepted by the Oakland Raiders Willie Brown at the 30, 40, 50 ... he's going all the way! ... Old Man Willie! ... Touchdown Raiders!" King bellowed.

Brown's Hall of Fame career came to be despite a dubious beginning. Coming out of Grambling State, he went undrafted in 1963 before he was signed and cut by the Houston Oilers. Signed by the Broncos, also in 1963, he was an AFL All-Star by his second season.

Eventually, the Broncos traded Brown to the Raiders, a transaction that left a franchise-defining mark upon the Silver and Black.

Across 12 autumns with the Raiders, he played in 154 games and Oakland claimed nine division championships during his tenure there. He had at least one interception in every season of his career and was one of just a quartet of players to record a pick in 16 consecutive campaigns.

When 1984 came around, Brown was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He was still and forever a Raider, having joined the coaching staff after his retirement in 1978 and continuing on until his passing as a member of the franchise, listed on the team website under special projects.

An all-time Raider if ever there was one, Brown played in two Super Bowls -- losing in Super Bowl II to the Packers in the DB's first season with the franchise and claiming the team's first crown in Super Bowl XI against the Vikings.

It was against the Vikings in which Brown sprinted into the storybooks, intercepting a pass from fellow future Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton and never slowing on his way to a 75-yard score and an everlasting snapshot of the NFL at its grandest.

"Old Man Willie" is gone, but his memory and the image of him, his arms pumping, his fists clinched, his shoulder pads blazing through the January air will live on for as long as the autumns come and go.

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