His name was tough to spell and he was equally tough to stop on a football field. Fred Biletnikoff was the grandson of Russian immigrants who went on to become one of football’s best receivers. Considered one of the all-time great Raiders, number 25 turns 80 years old on Thursday. His football journey began in the 1960s and didn’t end until 15 seasons ago when his coaching career came to a close.
A terrific route runner with deceptive deep speed and sure hands, Biletnikoff spent 14 years in the silver and black–and one last season north of the border.
Here’s a career chronicling look back at his career through eight memorable football cards.
After leading the nation in receiving yards during his senior season at Florida State, Biletnikoff was selected by Oakland in the second round of the 1965 AFL Draft and in the third round of the NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions. He chose the younger league’s offer, but spent the first half of the season playing mostly on special teams.
Sporting a far different look than we’d see later in his career, the clean cut pass catcher’s rookie card is one of the keys to the “tall boy” 1965 Topps set. It won’t cost you as much as Joe Namath’s, but it’s a single print and even a mid-grade copy will cost several hundred dollars.
The Raiders acquired “The Mad Bomber” before the 1967 season and Daryle Lamonica’s arrival helped Biletnikoff’s career take off. He averaged nearly 22 yards per catch as the Raiders won the 1967 AFL title and played in Super Bowl II.
Topps didn’t work too hard to snare fresh photos of the up and coming receiver, using the same image for his first three cards in the AFL. The ’67 Topps is usually available in nice condition, ungraded, for $20 or less.
In an era dominated by running backs, the Raiders continued to open things up, with Al Davis running things behind the scenes. Biletnikoff topped 1,000 yards receiving in ’68, the only time in his career when he topped the mark.
Topps set the Raiders on their sides in ’68 and finally found a fresh Freddy photo to use. The back is part of a Bart Starr puzzle, a bop on the nose for Raiders fans who had watched the Packers beat their team in Super Bowl II several months earlier.
Most ungraded examples are available for under $10 today.
It wouldn’t be right to do a story on this guy and not to include something designed to stick somewhere. Fred was famous for his generous use of Stickum, a pine tar-like goop that he smeared all over his hands and uniform in an effort to make sure the ball stuck to him.
In ’69, he caught a career high 12 touchdown passes and was named 1st team All-AFL in the last year before the league merged with the NFL.
It’s appropriate that he shares the card with Otis Taylor also one of the premier receivers in the AFL and one of the Raiders’ big rivals.
Full panels can be had for under $10, with single Biletnikoff stamps available for just a couple bucks.
1970 Topps Glossy
Topps really stepped up its insert game with the beautiful 1970 glossy inserts. These shiny marvels were an offshoot of the ’69 baseball test issue.
Biletnikoff made the first of four Pro Bowl appearances in 1970, averaging over 17 yards per catch.
He’s one of several Hall of Famers in the glossy set, which is plagued by poor centering. Less than $10 is still all that’s needed to own a decent one.
1972 Topps League Leaders
Biletnikoff had no trouble transitioning to the new league and with Lamonica tossing passes his way, he led the NFL in receptions with 61 in 1971, earning the top spot in the ’72 leaders card. He also snared nine touchdown catches.
It’s an easy score at a buck or two.
After losing to the Packers in Super Bowl II, the Raiders claimed victory nine seasons later. Biletnikoff catches from Ken Stabler set up three Raiders touchdowns in the 32-14 win over Minnesota. He was named the game’s MVP.
The long scraggly hair and grit that most fans remember him for is in full view here as he rests on the bench, a perfect glimpse of the decidedly non-corporate Oakland Raiders of the 1970s. And again, this one can be had for less than the cost of a fast food meal.
1978 Slim Jim
1978 was Biletnikoff’s final NFL season (although he did have a card in the ’79 Topps set). After taking a year off, he scratched the itch by signing with the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes in 1980. His NFL career was complete after ’78 with 589 catches for 8,974 yards and 76 touchdowns.
It wouldn’t have been shocking to see a few 1970s Raiders snacking on a Slim Jim and in ’78, the company had a deal with the NFL to put two players on the back of every box. The disc cards from MSA were a popular food promotion at the time, especially in baseball, but you had to really love jerky (or tolerate it) to put a set of 1978 Slim Jim Football boxes together.
Singles are less expensive than the two-player boxes and not easy to find.