Back within his grasp
Branch appreciative of another shot at title
FOXBOROUGH - It has become a tradition for Deion Branch, whether his team is in the Super Bowl or fails to make the playoffs: He calls every football coach he’s had, and thanks them.
When he says every coach, he means it. When Branch is challenged on his claim, he says he even calls Coach Price, the man who led his Bruins team when he was just 6 years old in Albany, Ga., and spent an hour on the telephone Thursday night with Jim McElwain, his receivers coach at Louisville who recently became the head coach at Colorado State after a successful stint as Alabama’s offensive coordinator.
“I started the other day because now I have so many coaches. I’m trying right now to start calling them, my little league coaches, the ones that haven’t called me already asking for tickets [to Super Bowl XLVI],’’ Branch said with a laugh yesterday. “All of those guys are very important.’’
When Branch calls his coaches, he tells them “the same thing that I tell them each and every year. Every year I always talk to them, just to let them know I appreciate them, and everything I’m doing they have a big part in.’’
Branch’s gesture is touching, one that shows he not only hasn’t forgotten what it took to get to the NFL and enjoy a 10-year pro career, but that he also remembers everyone who played a role in getting him here.
This week and next, Branch is in a place he hasn’t been in quite some time: preparing for the Super Bowl. When last he made it to the NFL’s championship game with the Patriots in February 2005, he was the biggest player on the biggest stage, tying a Super Bowl record with 11 receptions for 133 yards and earning the most valuable player award.
But a contract dispute led to Branch being traded to Seattle in September 2006, and in his four-plus seasons with the Seahawks, he didn’t get past the divisional round of the playoffs.
So just as Branch has been appreciative of the opportunity to return to New England, which happened in October 2010, he is perhaps more appreciative to be in this position, with the season extending yet again to the Super Bowl.
“It’s been a long time, man. I’m very excited for the opportunity,’’ Branch said, his voice back to its normal rasp after he lost it from celebrating the AFC Championship win over the Ravens. “Very thankful. It’s an honor just to be part of this team and have the opportunity to play in the game once again. I think we’re all excited.’’
Branch has appeared in 17 of the Patriots’ 18 games this season. His numbers were inconsistent - an eight-catch performance against San Diego was followed by two games in which he totaled one catch, and he had three receptions in his final three regular-season games - but Branch still has some tricks up his sleeve, as evidence by his 61-yard touchdown against Denver two weeks ago.
When he had the one reception in two games, Branch was asked if he felt his role was dwindling. He answered that as long as Tom Brady was cool, he was cool. And Brady still never passes on a chance to talk up the receiver.
Branch is a far different player than he was on the night he was named Super Bowl MVP, not just older (32) but wiser.
“I think overall now, the knowledge of the game is there. [Before] I was just running around playing off raw ability,’’ Branch said. “I’ve always prided myself on knowing my opponents, being a smart player, knowing what I’m doing, that part was there. But now it’s just, I see the game a lot different, everything moves slower as far as me recognizing things. That stuff is there. Back then it took a while to process.’’
A couple of weeks ago, Wes Welker told the story of how Branch made a reception in Pittsburgh this season after reacting to the cheers from the defense chasing Brady. Branch broke off his route, and a scrambling Brady found him.
The last time New England was in the Super Bowl, at the end of the 2007 season, Branch was in a different place - watching the game in the basement of his house. It wasn’t a great postseason for Branch, who had torn his anterior cruciate ligament in a playoff loss to the Packers.
Branch’s wife, Shola, had a glass case made for his Super Bowl MVP award, but Branch said he doesn’t think back to that game against the Eagles.
At least, not yet.
“The thing is, I’m still playing, and the reason I’m playing is for this moment right here,’’ he said. “To have the opportunity to be in these type games. To be around these type guys in the locker room. To be around and share this moment with them. I think when I’m done playing I can sit back and reminisce on that stuff.
“And brag to my kids.’’