0

Passing it forward ... at home

Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

ALBANY -- Somewhere in that Georgia morning heat, tucked away amid all those drills, the fun ones and the tough ones, mingling with the laughs and the learning, there was a message.

That's what Deion Branch brings home to Albany every year. Branch doesn't need a pulpit and a choir and he doesn't need to raise his voice, but he does some preaching every summer.

Well, you wouldn't call it preaching, not the way Branch does it. But if you're looking for a man who can touch hearts and lift spirits, that kid from Monroe High who grew up to be the MVP of the Super Bowl is your guy.

This is a lot more than getting kids together and telling them you can make it if you work hard. This is Branch landing in the middle of a pile of kids, making a splash like few ever do.

And Branch does it every year.

That's why he was on the field at Hugh Mills Stadium on Saturday morning, holding the fifth annual Deion Branch Skills and Drills Football Camp.

There were about 100 kids there, running around in those camp T-shirts -- the ones they will cherish -- learning about football.

And life, too.

"It's good that he comes back down here and helps us stay focused,'' said 11-year-old Brandon Thomas, whose dreams not only got a little bigger after Saturday, but seem so much clearer now.

"He keeps us focused on doing the right things and not doing the bad things,'' Brandon said. "He helps our confidence, and he motivates you to want to be somebody.''

Got it? That's the completion Branch is really looking for in Albany. It's a bit ironic that a man who has had such a storied career in the NFL, a guy who makes his living catching passes, comes home every summer to pass it on.

Branch knows better than anyone that it's not just about delivering the message, but it's being here -- both feet firmly planted on the ground in the town where he grew up -- as a walking, talking example to kids who need every example they can find. They won't find a better one than Branch, who started the camp five years ago with Monroe teammate Anthony Maddox, who also rose to the NFL.

"The idea of the camp is to teach the kids the basics of football, and make sure when they start playing they know what they're doing,'' Branch said. "We have them as young as 6 come out. We've had some parents call and ask us about bringing 4-year-olds, but we have to tell them that's a little too young.''

But the camp is only the gateway to the road, the one Branch has dedicated himself to putting these kids on, and even pushing them along the way.

"My thing is I love coming home and giving back to these kids,'' Branch said. "I want to show them that I came from the same city you came from, and if I can make it, then you can make it. I tell them: 'Don't let anyone tell you that you can't make it.' That's why I'm here.''

It works.

Those young eyes light up around Branch. And those young ears? They become sponges.

"It was exciting to meet Deion Branch,'' said K.J. Jones, who just turned 11. "It helps me to accomplish my goal to be an NFL player some day. It's great that he is here having this camp, to come here and do this for us.''

Eldric Coleman is only 7, but he gets it.

"It's exciting because he is Deion Branch,'' Eldric said. "Its good because he's helping us, helping us to get better and be better.''

Being better isn't always easy, but Branch carries a lot of clout.

"I think it's great,'' said Westover football coach Octavia Jones, one of several coaches who volunteered their time to help run the camp. Jones was Branch's teammate at Monroe.

"It's great for the kids to come to something like this and learn football, and to have someone of Deion Branch's stature to learn from really means something to them. He lets them know that with hard work they too can accomplish their goals.''

Branch is still working hard. He'll be 31 next week, and he's looking forward to his 10th season in the NFL. Well, not just another season, but a big season.

Branch is coming off his third knee surgery. He had the same arthroscopic surgery in April on the same left knee that was ripped apart in a playoff game against Green Bay in 2008. This was the second off season in a row Branch has had arthroscopic surgery on the knee.

"It's just going in and cleaning it up,'' Branch said. "This was a little cleanup, not as much as they did last year. It was a little less.''

Still, he's coming back again.

"The more you work on (the knee) the more you take away from it,'' Branch said. "But it's all mental. I'm not going to let the surgery affect my performance for the season. I'm looking for a big year.''

It shows. Last month in Seattle's mini-camp the Seahawks' new coach Pete Carroll raved about Branch and how good he looked. "Deion had a really good camp,'' Carroll told reporters at the time.

The hope in Seattle is that Carroll can bring an exciting offense, one that will produce points and playoffs and turn around a team that finished 5-11. Branch plans on being a big part of that turnaround.

He has been on both ends of the NFL, including his MVP performance for New England in the 2005 Super Bowl, and the last four seasons in Seattle, where he has been slowed by injury.

But then again, Branch is always looking ahead, always looking downfield.

"I think everyone is excited about Pete Carroll,'' Branch said. "I know I'm excited about a big year from my team and from myself.''

What else would you expect from Branch?