Life After Football: The Story of Deion Branch
Photo Credit: 2005 Getty Images
From an early age, 2004 Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch was fast on his feet, but it was not always on the gridiron.
“Soccer was my deal, that was my sport,” Branch said. “I probably would’ve been a really good soccer player if I had stuck with it but soccer wasn’t a thing. I really enjoyed running around, playing with all my peers and just competing.”
Branch excelled in multiple sports, earning varsity letters in soccer, as well as track and field at Monroe Comprehensive High School. But football always took center stage for anyone in the Peach State.
“That was the thing to do down south, every kid plays football,” Branch said. “That was one sport in particular that every kid, it was a fad, everybody did it, I was just lucky enough to have good football players around me to help propel my game.”
Originally, Branch committed to Florida, but an academics issue would force him to attend Jones County Junior College where under head coach Parker Dykes. He was an NJCAA second-team All-American.
“My year-and-a-half at Jones Junior College taught me so much,” Branch said. “About not taking things for granted and being very appreciative for the things that you have and being accountable to yourself and to your teammates.”
Branch moved on to the University of Louisville, where he had to adjust to the new atmosphere that came with being a Cardinal.
He took off in the program, catching 143 passes for 2,204 yards and 18 touchdowns, earning first-team All-Conference USA Awards. He was a hot commodity in the upcoming NFL draft.
With pick No. 65 in the second round, the Patriots took Branch and while it was thrilling to be drafted into the league, it wasn’t the end. The kid who thought he had it all before, was not going to take it for granted this time.
Branch recalled that first chat he had with head coach Bill Belichick over the phone.
“I learned so much from all my high school coaches, my family, my parents, my uncles, the support system that I had was so strong and it helped prepare me for that moment,” Branch said. “To have that conversation with coach (Bill) Belichick and he said ‘Hey are you ready to be a Patriot?’”
Branch replied to his new coach with a question for him.
“‘No are you ready for me?’” Branch asked Belichick. “I feel like I was born for this, whatever you want to throw at me coach, I’m ready to receive it and take it in with a grain of salt and I’m going to be a sponge the minute I step into that building and step on that football field.”
The door to his collegiate career had officially closed. It was time for Branch to attack the NFL with the same ferocity that had driven him his whole journey up to that point.
“Now that I was drafted the journey was starting to begin now,” Branch said. “Some guys get drafted and think that it’s over, not it’s just the beginning, the day your name is called and the commissioner calls your name on the stage the journey begins now.”
Branch began strong, starting 19 games in his first two seasons. He scored a touchdown in the 2003 Super Bowl and caught the final 17-yard pass from quarterback Tom Brady to put kicker Adam Vinatieri in position to beat the Carolina Panthers.
In 2004, it appeared that Branch would have a key role in the offense after he scored a touchdown in the season opener. However, in Week 2, Branch suffered a Grade 3 torn MCL. Hindering his and the team’s vision.
“It was a freakish accident,” Branch said. “I got caught by friendly fire, I think it probably hurt him more than it hurt me as far as him feeling it was his fault and knowing that how involved I was in the offense, but that’s just part of the game.”
Branch returned in Week 11, just in time to help the Patriots defeat the Chiefs at Kansas City for the first time since 1964.
Belichick would not take any chances as he forced Branch to wear a big brace on the knee much to the wide receiver’s dismay.
“The only thing that was killing me was coach Belichick told me ‘you gotta wear the brace at least one game’ and that brace was killing me the entire game,” Branch said. “After the game, I asked him ‘was that enough’ and he said, ‘Yeah you can take it off,’ so that was big and I was happy to be able to take that mess off.”
In their return to Pittsburgh in the 2004 AFC Championship, the Brady and Branch connection was on full display.
Branch caught a 60-yard touchdown pass to open the floodgates in one of the most notable postseason plays in the Brady/Belichick era.
Branch ended the game with an end around, infamously waving at Steelers defenders before embracing the despondent Heinz Field crowd. He totaled 153 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns in an AFC Championship performance for the ages.
“We were just having fun, there was a lot of trash being talked and being said to us on the sideline,” said Branch about the gesture. “As far as when the defense was on the field and the fans were right behind us on the bench, just havin’ fun didn’t mean any disrespect by it, it was just a very fun game to go into Pittsburgh in a very hostile environment and to come out with the victory.”
The next game, the Patriots went to Jacksonville to take on the high-flying Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl.
Seconds were ticking away in the game as the Patriots were waiting to be crowned champions. Branch was about to be crowned Super Bowl MVP.
“Not once was I thinking was I going to win this award,” Branch said. “There was about a 1:30 left and there was a group of guys standing behind us with the suits on and stuff and they told Troy [Brown] to tap me on the shoulder and I turn around and they was like ‘look if you all win the game you’re the MVP’ and I’m sitting there like ‘What?’”
Branch finished the game with 11 catches for 133 yards. He was the first receiver to win Super Bowl MVP since Jerry Rice in 1989.
“I’m very thankful just to be named amongst those other MVP’s,” Branch said. “Just to even share that platform with those guys, it’s a blessing.“
After contract negotiations stalled in 2006, Branch was traded to the Seattle Seahawks.
Branch spent four seasons in Seattle. Although never playing a full year, he scored two or more touchdowns in three of those campaigns.
Branch said he still regrets not agreeing to an extension with the Patriots.
“The only thing I always say to myself was that ‘I wish we got things right the first time,’” Branch said. “Because there’s no telling how many rings, we could’ve easily had four or five rings for sure.”
In 2010, the Patriots traded a fourth-round pick to bring back the wily veteran who had no doubt in his mind that he would be ready.
“To get the phone call and hear (Belichick) say ‘You ready to come home?’ and I was like ‘Yes sir,”’ Branch said. “When I walked back into the building, it was as if I never left, the reception, it started with Tom (Brady), it was back to business.”
Before trading for Branch, the Patriots shipped off future Hall of Famer Randy Moss and the now former Seahawk knew that while fans looked at him as a Moss replacement, he was going to bring his own style to the table.
“I wasn’t going to try and come in here and be Randy Moss,” Branch said. “I played my game, Randy’s game is his game, we figured things just like we’ve always done.”
Branch landed in New England two days later and was thrown the playbook. Just days later, he caught a team-high nine catches for 108 yards along with a touchdown taking bows, raising his arms and looking at the crowd. He was home.
“The reception from the fans, it was just all love,” Branch said. “Just so much love in the air and it’s always been that way.”
In 2013, Branch retired and settled down in his home state of Georgia. He runs the Deion Branch Foundation which he founded in 2004 when one of his twin sons was diagnosed with viral meningitis.
“A lot of guys start their own foundations for whatever their reasons are,” Branch said. “Mine is very near and dear to me, my kid was born with viral meningitis and he was given six months to live and this April he’ll be 18. I never question God and I think he would never put something on me that I can’t handle, my son wakes up every day with a smile on his face and there are so many people, so many nurses, so many doctors that I have to give all the credit to because they did a great job with my kid.”
Branch also runs his “skills and drills” camps. to help teach the up-and-coming players the right ways to play the game in a symbolic passing of the torch that is very important for him to do in his life after football.
“That’s my job,” Branch said. “My parents always taught me to give back and I’m trying to pass the baton to these younger guys and try to show them the way so they can kind of pick up where I left off.”