From reporters to teammates and even the opposition, not many will argue that Albany’s Deion Branch is one of the NFL’s nice guys both on and off the field. Branch, seen joking with sportswriters earlier this week during the Patriots’ Media Day, especially has the respect of his New England teammates, many of whom have soaked up his Big Game experience this week in preparation for the Super Bowl on Sunday against the Giants. After all, the last time Branch played in the Super Bowl in 2005, he won the MVP.
BY JOSH WEINFUSS
ALBANY HERALD CORRESPONDENT
INDIANAPOLIS — Deion Branch insists he’s not getting old.
It’s happening to him anyway, as it does to most people when they hit a certain age: They calm down, enjoy life as it comes and don’t let unnecessary worries drag them down.
Branch is only 32 but is one of eight New England Patriots who have played in the NFL for at least 10 years.
In football years, however, there’s no denying it: He’s gettin’ up there.
But the Patriots are glad to have someone as seasoned as Branch heading into Super Bowl XLVI against the New York Giants on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
And they love everything the Albany native and former Monroe star brings to the table.
“He has the experience in the big games,” said fellow Patriots receiver Matthew Slater, who’s in his fourth season. “He brings a calming effect to the group. The situation, no matter what it is, it never gets too big for him. He’s very calming. He gets everybody calm.”
During the last two weeks, Branch has had to work overtime to calm the nerves of the Patriots’ young receiver corps, which — with the exception of Chad Ochocinco — has played an average of five years in the NFL. Ochocinco and Branch have been good friends off the field for years, Branch said this week, dating back to Ochocinco’s time with the Bengals — when he was known as Chad Johnson.
Ochocinco hasn’t talked to Branch, the only Patriots receiver besides Wes Welker to have played in a Super Bowl, about preparing for the game. He said he doesn’t have to — Branch is doing just fine leading by example.
“There’s no need to talk bout it,” Ochocinco said. “It’s just a game of extreme magnitude. I’m not asking, just watching how everyone operates. Just mimicking their movements.”
While the veteran isn’t looking for advice, the younger Patriots are soaking it in, especially from Branch — the Patriots’ 2005 Super Bowl MVP.
“It’s crazy I’m one of the older guys,” said Branch, who tied an NFL record with 11 catches in the 2005 Super Bowl. “I was just talking to DP (former Patriots WR David Patten) about two or three days ago. He was one of the guys I looked up to and he and (former Patriots receiver) Troy (Brown) showed so much love to me when I was a young guy, and now I have the same opportunity to do the same thing for those young guys.”
Branch has been preaching to his understudies that Sunday, in all reality, is nothing more than just a game. The cameras, the media, the pomp and circumstance, it’s all a smoke-screen. It boils down to football, Branch has told his teammates.
But, Branch has also preached another message: Be sure to soak it in.
“He just said, ‘Enjoy the experience because you don’t know when you’ll be back,’ ” Slater said. “There’s no guarantees you’ll get back here, so you have to enjoy the experience, but at the same time realize you’re only here for one reason. If we don’t take care of business like we’re supposed to, it’s not going to be fun for us.
“The experience won’t be as memorable. He just told us to enjoy it but don’t lose the ultimate focus.”
Branch’s experience was welcomed back in 2010 when the Albany native returned to Foxborough after a four-season hiatus. His departure in 2006 from the team that drafted him in 2002 was ugly when Branch held out for a better contract, missing summer minicamps, training camp and the preseason. He was eventually traded to Seattle a few weeks into the season.
But, as Branch pointed out Thursday, the Patriots wouldn’t have traded back for him if he’d left on irreparable terms.
When he returned to New England through a trade four games into the 2010 season, he was welcomed back with open arms.
Branch said when he walked into the Patriots’ locker room for the first time, teammates were waiting with hugs. Looking at him in the locker room that day were eyes of a totally renovated roster that had only known Branch as the player they watched on TV.
Kevin Faulk was one of the few Patriots left from the 2005 team when Branch returned, and the running back saw a more mature football player and person.
“You got a guy that understood what the organization wanted, the philosophy of the team,” Faulk said.
It didn’t take long for those Patriots who never played with Branch before to see why New England brought him back.
“Everybody loved him,” Slater said. “All the guys who were here with him before loved him, the coaches loved having him back. It was easy to see after a day or two why everyone loved having him here because, A) what he does on the football field, and B) because the type of guy he is in the locker room.”
When he’s not honing his skills, Branch likes to keep things light.
He’s one of the funniest in the locker room, his teammates all agreed this weel, and third-year receiver Tiquan Underwood said he rarely sees Branch not smiling.
As quickly as he can joke, Branch can get serious — both sides of which you saw Thursday when Branch was asked about Giants DL Chris Canty’s comments that New York was already planning its victory parade next week.
“They’ve got a parade?” Branch said. “I don’t know, man. Anybody can throw a parade. I can throw a parade if I want to. I think anybody can throw a parade. (But you say) it’s on Tuesday?
“(Well) I’m going to be busy (with our own parade) on our Tuesday.”
It took Patriots coach Belichick less than a day to give Branch the game plan when he returned to New England, and the coach immediately told him to go learn it.
Throughout the last week, Belichick stressed Branch’s importance to the Patriots, at one point saying that he couldn’t imagine anybody — offense or defense — thinking Branch didn’t play a crucial role to this year’s success. Part of Branch’s ability to contribute significantly, of course, is his relationship with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
The two kept in touch often while Branch was in Seattle, and it didn’t take long for them to rekindle the magic of their first run together.
“I’ve always enjoyed working with him,” Brady said. “For him to come back last season — he told me last week, on the bye week, how excited he was to be back in this game and how grateful he was, and that he went away from our team and didn’t really experience what he wanted to experience at the other place.
“Now he’s back and we have this opportunity again. He just kept telling me, ‘Tom, you don’t know how happy I am to be back playing for this team and in this game. It’s great for all of us.’”