A Hall of Famer in every sense

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If you live in Las Vegas, you probably already have your favorite Raider player, either past or present. If not, you’ll choose one in a year or two when the Las Vegas Raiders are playing in Allegiant Stadium and capturing the hearts and minds of all locals.

My choice is easy: NFL Hall of Famer Fred Biletnikoff. There are a couple of reasons:

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First, an interview I did with the great wide receiver in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, in June of 1974 was the first I had ever conducted as a professional journalist. It also marked a total failure on my part and left me questioning whether I should perhaps take up another profession.

I had just started a job as a sportswriter for the Spokane morning paper, the Spokesman-Review. My first assignment was to drive to North Idaho and conduct two short interviews with NFL stars conducting a football camp for high schoolers. My subjects were Biletnikoff and Jim Plunkett, who was then with the New England Patriots but would go on to win two Super Bowls with the Raiders years later.

I approached Fred first, and he said he’d be happy to answer a few questions. As I had a full day to prepare for the assignment, I crammed at the paper’s library and learned what I could about my subjects.

One of the odd facts I uncovered was that Biletnikoff had dated Carol Doda, a topless dancer in San Francisco who had undergone major breast augmentation surgery and become a national celebrity. Ms. Doda had overnight gone from a 34 bust to a 44 DDD. This landed her on the cover of TIME magazine and into the monologues of Johnny Carson and other late-night TV hosts.

I asked Fred just one or two questions about his work with the young ballers before I popped the Doda question on him. He gave me a blank stare, looked down at a woman sitting on the grass behind me, and walked away. “This interview is over,” he said.

I was embarrassed and instantly realized I’d asked an inappropriate question. I took a few moments to gather myself, then walked across the practice field to Plunkett, who fortunately had not heard my previous faux pas.

The former Heisman winner gave me a terrific interview about his college years and brief professional career. He was pleasant and highly quotable.

When I returned to the newsroom that evening, my editor asked how my maiden interviews had gone. “I was one for two,” I said.

I then explained why I could provide only one story. The guys on the sports desk all got a good laugh out of my rookie blunder.

“Journalism lesson number one,” my editor said. “If you have a difficult question to ask a subject, save it for the end of the interview so you don’t end up empty.”

Fast forward nine years to Lake Tahoe. I’m playing in the Fred Biletnikoff Invitational Celebrity golf tournament, hosted by Caesars Tahoe. I think long and hard about approaching Biletnikoff, who is with his wife, and reintroducing myself. I finally decide a late apology is better than none at all.

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We shake hands and I say, “Do you remember a guy interviewing you in North Idaho years ago … and it didn’t go well?”

Fred gave a knowing look to his wife, and she says, “I sure do! Was that you?”

We then rehash the infamous episode and have a good laugh about it.

“You’re forgiven,” Biletnikoff says. “It took guts for you to explain yourself to us.”

We then talked golf and football for another 20 minutes and I saw what a cool dude he was.

Here’s another reason Fred’s my favorite Raider: In 1999 his 20-year-old daughter Tracy, who had battled drug addiction, was murdered by her boyfriend after they’d had a fight over whether he had relapsed.

Fred turned that horrific event into a positive passion to help other troubled young women. Two decades later, the good work of the Biletnikoff Foundation has helped thousands of young women get their lives back on track.

The man is a Hall of Famer in every sense.

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About the Author

Jack Sheehan

Vegas Vibe columnist Jack Sheehan has lived in Las Vegas since 1976 and writes about the city for Gaming Today. He is the author of 28 books, over 1,000 magazine articles, and has sold four screenplays.

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