Albany native and former Monroe High School and Louisville star Deion Branch was swarmed by reporters this week to talk about his latest return to the New England Patriots, who have cut and re-signed him twice this season.
Want To Watch?
WHO: 49ers (9-3-1) at Patriots (10-3).
WHAT: SNF showdown of Super Bowl contenders, return of Albany native Deion Branch, who was re-signed this week by the New England Patriots.
WHERE: Foxborough, Mass
WHEN: 8:20 p.m. today.
LINE: Patriots by 4 1/2.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — One week into his second round of unemployment this season, Deion Branch had just picked his daughter up at school when she wondered why he suddenly had so much free time.
He broke the news to 7-year-old D’Ahni.
“She said, ‘Dad, what happened? Why aren’t you playing?’ ” the New England Patriots receiver and Albany native said Thursday. “I said, ‘Baby, daddy can’t play right now. I don’t have a job.’ And she said, ‘Aw, you’ll get one.’ And I said, ‘I know, baby.’ ”
It’s almost as if she had sat in during her father’s conversation with coach Bill Belichick.
Perhaps Belichick told him he’d return at some point?
“I’ll keep that between us,” Branch said with a smile and a laugh, one day after re-signing with the team he has been to three Super Bowls with, won one ring and an MVP honor in 2005.
The former Monroe and Louisville football star was released Nov. 17 and missed the past four games. But the nameplate at his locker, “Deion Branch 84,” remained — just as it did for the first two games of the season after he was cut shortly before it began. He was back for Game 3.
Standing before the locker where a family photo was displayed on the top shelf and football gloves hung from a bar, the 11-year veteran said Thursday he wants to retire as a Patriot. He said he’ll do whatever the team needs from him, starting tonight when the Patriots (10-3), winners of seven straight, host the San Francisco 49ers (9-3-1) in a meeting of Super Bowl contenders.
It’s been nearly seven years since Branch was named MVP of the Super Bowl after catching a record-tying 11 passes in a 24-21 win against the Philadelphia Eagles.
“It was a long time ago,” he began, “but that stuff is in the past. It’s behind us. I think we all need to be grateful, be thankful just to play the game that we play. I’m thankful. I seize every moment that I get. I’m just glad to be back.”
The Patriots drafted him in 2002 and he led them with 78 catches, 998 yards receiving and five touchdown catches in 2005. But he was involved in a contract dispute and traded to the Seattle Seahawks after the first game in 2006. He remained there until being traded back to New England after the fourth game in 2010. He had 35 catches for the Patriots that year and 51 last year.
The Patriots then let him go again, this time as a free agent on March 13. But 17 days later he was back, signing a one-year contract. Before his latest release — which New England did to make room for star safety Aqib Talib, who was been dynamite since joining New England — Branch was bothered by a hamstring injury. He did rehabilitation and said he feels OK now. But would he have been re-signed if receiver Donte’ Stallworth hadn’t gone on injured reserve this week?
“I don’t know,” he said. “Everything happens for a reason and with guys that are patient, stuff happens for them. I’m a patient guy.”
Injuries to several players, really, paved the way back for Branch.
The Patriots, who lost star tight end Rob Gronkowski to a broken foreman weeks ago, signed Stallworth after fellow receiver Julian Edelman went on injured reserve Dec. 4. Belichick might have brought Branch back even if Stallworth were healthy. But then Stallworth was hurt on a 63-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady, his only catch in his only game of the season.
Now he’s the one rehabbing.
“There’s no rush, so I want to make sure that I get it back right,” Stallworth said, standing near a removable boot on the floor of his locker stall.
Stallworth, like Branch, knows the drill in the NFL. He also has been back and forth with the Patriots several times. He caught 46 passes for the 2007 team that was 18-0 before losing the Super Bowl to the New York Giants. Then he signed as a free agent with the Cleveland Browns for 2008 and was suspended for the 2009 season after a car he was driving struck and killed a pedestrian in South Florida that March. Stallworth spent 24 days in jail for a DUI manslaughter conviction.
He played for Baltimore in 2010 and Washington in 2011 and signed with the Patriots last March. But they released him on Aug. 27, just four days before Branch was cut.
“He’s one of my guys,” Branch said. “We came in the draft class together.”
On Thursday, Branch returned to work as if, it almost seemed, he had never left.
“Nothing’s changed,” he said. “All the guys just walked past my locker like nothing ever happened, so I didn’t get any hugs, just ‘Hey, how you doing? What’s up?’ ”
With or without Branch, the Patriots have kept winning throughout the past decade.
But it goes without saying, they’re glad he’s back. And so is Branch.
“This is where I want to be. This is where I want to retire,” said Branch, who wouldn’t say if this would be his final season or whether he would return next year. “So that kind of makes everything a lot easier.”
Especially now that he has a shot at another championship, as long as the Patriots keep him.
“That’s what I hope,” he said.
Surely, D’Ahni hopes the same thing.