Sports

Raider great Fred Biletnikoff lost his daughter 20 years ago. The hurt still fuels him

Fred Biletnikoff endures his share of of aches and pains.

One knee and one hip have in recent years been surgically replaced. Both shoulders are tender to the touch.

There’s the mangled finger that looks as if it diagrams routes he once ran as a shifty, sure-handed receiver for the Oakland Raiders.

Biletnikoff has also overcame prostate cancer – twice.

But the most deeply rooted pain for the 76-year-old Biletnikoff is of loss and sadness, of anguish and anger. None of it traces back to his 14-year Hall of Fame career as a wide receiver.

This hurt is personal, a violation of his family heart.

Biletnikoff lost his daughter, Tracey, 20 years ago, in the most brutal way imaginable. Just 20 and recovering from demons of substance abuse, Tracey was strangled at the hands a defiant and intoxicated boyfriend she was trying to help get back into drug rehabilitation, where they had met.

Her body was disposed of as if it had no value, dumped in a Bay Area ravine.

Fred and wife Angela were startled by a 2 a.m. knock on their door. It was the police.

“I just knew she was gone, that awful feeling,” Biletnikoff said this week in a quiet moment, Angela by his side. “It’s been a long time, but it’s always there and in me, what happened to Tracey, and when people say that time heals, I don’t believe that. My belief is that whoever you lose, it’s always going to be there.

“You begin in a black hole, trying to understand, and you try to deal with it, and anything can set you off, and it really doesn’t stop. You’re always thinking about it, thinking of her, wondering what could have been, what might have been. For people who have lost someone to, they don’t realize how much hurt is there. It takes everything out of you.”

Said Angela, “sometimes at first, it’s hard just to get out of bed.”

After learning of her step-daughter’s death, Angela spoke in spirit to Tracey, saying, “we will continue your life’s dream.”

Twenty years doesn’t dim the hurt, but Biletnikoff and Angela cope by immersing themselves in their life’s work: helping young women in need through the Biletnikoff Foundation they founded to honor Tracey and to continue her vision of the good life of sobriety, of making a difference.

Tracey shared her feelings with her father. The two were especially close. She told him about the need for residential therapeutic programs for adolescents. She so impressed her counselors in rehab that she became one. Tracey believed people deserved a second chance, especially young people. Tracey bottomed out at 18 in a haze of drug abuse in Southern California while living away from her father.

He convinced her to enter a treatment center.

Tall, blonde and gregarious like her famous father, Tracey never got to thrive in her second chance. Her killer, Mohammed Haroon Ali, was sentenced to 55 years in prison.

In 2000, the Biletnikoff’s were moved by how beloved their name and cause was. Raiders fans at a home game donated $91,000 in one-dollar bills to jumpstart the fundraising effort to open the first Tracey Place of Hope in San Mateo, a 12-to-15 month rehabilitation center for girls who have endured substance, alcohol and domestic abuse.

Partnering with Koinonia Home for Teens, the Tracey Place of Hope relocated to Loomis within Placer County in 2016. That 50-year old house went from something of a fixer-upper to a palace through fundraising, volunteer work, and vision.

For some of the girls, this is the first time a home felt like a home – safe and secure.

Shattered lives continue to heal here. The girls attend alternative high schools during the day, attend Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings and go to church.

And the momentum continues. On Thursday, a groundbreaking was celebrated for the next phase of Tracey’s Place of Hope, including a counseling center. No amount of sideways wind and rain dampened the mood. Members of the Biletnikoff Foundation, local dignitaries, volunteers, friends and family packed under a tent that shielded them of the elements.

Loomis Mayor Tim Onderko praised the Biletnikoff’s, saying their warmth fits with the warmth of Loomis. The Biletnikoffs have called Placer County home for 16 years.

The tears here were of achievement, and the expressions of achievement and pride resonated through the house and property. A dozen teenage girls, graduates of the program and soon to graduate. They were the highlight of the festivities. All were in replica Raiders No. 25 jerseys bearing Biletnikoff’s name.

Each girl looked at Biletnikoff with admiration, a hero in their lives, one saying, “That Fred, he’s just so cool!” The old receiver with the ageless spirit laughed.

He looked at each of the girls as real heroes. His claim to fame was catching footballs. Theirs is overcoming hell, chaos and worse.

“It takes a lot of guts, courage a lot of sacrifice and commitment to get into a program like this, to want to change your life, especially at such a young age,” Biletnikoff said.

Said wife Angela, “When we started this in 2000, it was taboo to even talk about this sort of thing. We have to talk about this to raise awareness, to do something about it.”

One of the Tracey Place of Hope graduates was Krystal Dennis. Now 34, she is a board member on the Biletnikoff Foundation. She has peace in her life. She radiates when she used to flinch, cry or scream.

“My life changed for the better because of the Tracey Place of Hope,” Dennis said. “I was a victim of sexual abuse, from my family, and coped with bad choices and hanging out with the wrong people. I had behavior issues, drama. I lived in 40 places by the time I was 27 but have been in one house in Auburn for the last six years. I made it!”

Harold Pressley is also a believer. A Kings first-round pick in 1986, Pressley has been a staple in the region for years as a coach and a champion of helping kids. He attended the event Thursday. He has had a number of Tracey Place of Hope patients attend his basketball camps and events.

“It’s just so beautiful how so many of these girls overcame,” Pressley said. “The tragedies they went through would change anyone, and you want to help. Fred and Angela have done that.

“When girls first come here, they’re guarded. Their hearts are closed. They wait to see if you are going to take advantage of them like so many others have. And then they believe.”

Biletnikoff may have sore hips and knees, but he gets around fine. A comedian in a different life, Biletnikoff is the life of every party. He gladly took second stage in Loomis.

“Look at these girls,” Biletnikoff said with a laugh. “Seeing them smile today and every day just makes Angela and me so happy. This is why we do this. This is why it’s so important. This is why we can’t stop.”

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