Deion Branch was told he wasn't big enough to play middle school football, but the Albany native has proved every wrong over and over again and he will suit up for another Super Bowl today in Indianapolis.
It’s everybody’s favorite story about Deion Branch — you know, the one about when Branch was in middle school — the one they’ve told again and again around Albany over the years.
“Deion’s told that story many times,’’ said Westover football coach Octavia Jones, who played on the same Monroe High team with Branch.
“When Deion was in middle school at Southside, the football team was getting on the bus to go to the game, and the coach stopped Deion as he was about to get on the bus, and turned him around. He turned him around, and told Deion, ‘You’re too small.’ ”
Turns out Branch, who was the Super Bowl XXXIX MVP in 2005, is bigger than any of them, big enough to be going to his third Super Bowl this evening with the New England Patriots, who will be facing the Giants.
Branch has been facing giant odds all his life.
“Deion is what you would call the ultimate example of hard work paying off,” said Westover principal William Chunn, who was Branch’s high school football coach at Monroe. “He wasn’t the fastest. He wasn’t the strongest. And he wasn’t the biggest. He just outworked everybody.’’
And as Branch soared to greatness in the NFL, he took Albany with him, tucked right there in his heart, never forgetting where he came from. And every time he comes back home, he brings that same message with him — about the kid who wouldn’t let his dream die.
“That’s the message he delivers to the kids,’’ said Jones, who helps out every summer when Branch returns to Albany to hold a free football clinic for youngsters. “He’s awesome with the kids. He has kids of his own, and he knows how to break it down to their level. He really cares. He does a great job relating to them because he is from this community. They can relate to him. He has been the same places they have been to.’’
Branch’s football clinic is the anchor of his visit home every year, but he spends time bouncing around town, talking to kids at different venues. And the message is the same.
“He was undersized, and cut from his middle school team, but he became the MVP of the Super Bowl,’’ Jones said. “And that’s his message, to never give up on your dream.’’
Branch never gave up on his dream, and now Branch will once again make this Albany’s Super Bowl.
“I’m sure the majority of Albany will be rooting for the Patriots to win because of Deion,’’ Jones said. “I’m sure there are people in Albany who don’t even follow football who will be rooting for the Patriots because of Deion. There are probably going to be some Giants fans who won’t be that upset if the Giants were beaten because Deion Branch would be getting another Super Bowl ring.’’
He’s earned it — even going back to his days on Monroe’s team.
“He was small,’’ Chunn said. “But he just worked at it. He was the first one at practice every day and the last one to leave. He would be with the quarterback catching passes way before practice started, and then you would see him stay after practice.’’
Chunn thought Branch would be a success in college, but not as a receiver.
“He played both ways for us and he was an all-region receiver and an all-region defensive back,’’ Chunn said. “We were a run-happy team and ran the ball four out of five times. I saw him going to the next level as a defensive back and thought he would excel in college on defense. Then he went to Jones Junior College in Mississippi, and they threw the ball all the time, and he exploded over there to become an All-American. Then he went to Louisville, another pass-happy team, and he was great there. He had it in him all along. They just had to bring it out of him.’’
To this day, Branch gives Chunn and Monroe credit for his success.
“I talk to him often on the phone, and every time I talk to him, he makes me feel like a Super Bowl coach,’’ Chunn said.
Chunn knows he will talk to Branch today. He knows a phone call is coming his way.
“Before every Super Bowl that he has played in, he has called me the day of the game to say thank you. How many guys in the NFL would do that?” Chunn asked. “Calling their high school coach to say thank you. I’m just waiting for the call. I know he will do it again this week. He doesn’t have to do it, and I am very appreciative that he does it.’’
But that’s Branch, who goes out of his way to tell people he’s from Albany and has always given back to his hometown.
“When he was inducted into the Albany Sports Hall of Fame a few years ago, he came home for the induction,’’ Chunn said. “But he came in four days early, and he went around and spoke to 15 different schools that week.’’
No one knows just how much Branch has given back.
Three years ago when Jones was in his final season as the track & field coach at Monroe, his girls won their second state title in a row. Jones called Branch to see if he could help with the cost of the state championship rings.
“He never talked about it, but I’m going to put that out there,’’ Jones said. “He was always doing things for people without talking about it. He made a nice contribution so we could get the rings. He didn’t want any credit, but that’s Deion. He’s done a lot of things people don’t know about.’’
Monroe’s receivers know.
Derrick Greene, who was the quarterback for two years at Monroe when Branch was there, spent 10 years as an assistant football coach Monroe before coming to Westover, where he is now the offensive coordinator for the Patriots.
“When I was at Monroe, Deion would send me cleats and gloves every year for our receivers,’’ Greene said. “He still loves Monroe, and he loves Albany. When I left Monroe to come to Westover two years ago, Deion sent me 50 pairs of cleats for me to give my players. I gave Monroe 25 pairs and gave Westover 25. I always told the players, ‘the cleats you are wearing came from Deion Branch.’ It made the cleats a lot more special, knowing they were from him.’’
Greene said Branch was always special. After all, they’ve know each other all their lives.
“We played little league football when we were 8, 9 years old,’’ Greene said. “He was so small back then, but he could play even back then. He was so small, we called him, ‘Pin,’ and, ‘Little Pin.’ He was always tough and loved to play football. And he always had those hands, great hands. You know, those soft hands. He could catch a bee-bee in the dark.’’
Even in little league football, the kids called him “Magic Hands.’’
Seeing things clearly
Greene has countless memories of Branch but the one he loves to talk about is a game Monroe played on Halloween.
“Coach Chunn told us we could paint our faces for the game, because it was Halloween, so we all got face paint and painted our faces for the game,’’ Greene said. “But we got the wrong kind of paint, and during the game it started running and got in our eyes. Everybody had the wrong kind of paint — except for Deion.
“It was late in the game, and Deion was playing cornerback, and there was a pass over the middle. Deion jumped up and made the interception, and when he landed, he landed on top of the receiver from the other team. Deion rolled across the guy’s back and never hit the ground. He rolled over his back and hit the ground running. He ran it back for a 70-something-yard touchdown. We were all running toward the end zone and sidelines and everybody thought we were celebrating. But we were just trying to get that paint out of our eyes.’’
Branch has always seen things clearly.
“He was so smart when he came out of high school he took his time and did his research and went to a junior college where they threw the ball, and he went to Louisville, where they really threw the ball,’’ Greene said. “He always knew what he was doing and never gave up on his dream to play in the NFL, and that’s why he is so great when he comes back to Albany and talks to the kids here.
“Let me tell you something (else): Deion came from the hard side of town, but he had good parents and he always did what was right, and when he comes back and talks to kids here, that’s what he tells them. He tells them, ‘I’m just like you, and you can make it. And it’s a message the kids can believe in.’’
Deion’s name is actually Anthony Deion Branch Jr., and the man he’s named for appreciates everything his son has done on and off the field.
“The road to the NFL is a long and winding road,’ Branch’s father, Anthony Sr., told The Herald this week during an interview at his home in Doublegate as he looked at old photos of his first son. “I’m so proud of him. There are times I look at him, and I just want to thank him for becoming the young man he has become. I could be going to a prison to see him, or I could be going to a graveyard.’’
Instead, the whole family left Albany early Saturday to go to the Super Bowl.
“He has had great accomplishments on the football field, but what I am most proud of is the kind of man he has become, a man of character,” Anthony Sr. said. “I’m proud of his achievements as an athlete, but even more proud of him because of his character. My job was to raise him as a man. God put him in the NFL.’’
But his family prepared him, instilling a sense of what’s right and what’s just.
“I remember before the draft I met a guy from the company that wanted to become Deion’s agent and represent him. He said to me, ‘Mr. Branch, let me show you something,’ and pulled out the copies of the files on Deion from every NFL team. He said, ‘Look what is written at the bottom of every one of the reports.’ It said, ‘very coachable, good character.’ “
Anthony Branch then paused before adding: “That’s what NFL teams want now. They have so many problems with players getting arrested and getting into trouble, they want men of character.’’
Character and integrity have always been at the very core of who and what Deion Branch is.
“He is a great ambassador for Albany,’’ Chunn said. “He comes back and gives so much to the community, and he is such a great role model and man of a character. He has never stepped outside any NFL rules or regulations, and he has never broken the law. He has always been that way. I had Deion for four years, and I never had to discipline him — not once. He always did things the right way, and he is still doing things the right way. He is proud to be from Albany, and we are proud of him. He is a hometown hero.’’
Nobody knows the secret to reaching the NFL, but for Branch it was always there — a dream to run down a pass in the end zone. His stepmother, Linda, told the story this week about when Deion was a little kid, and he was watching an NFL game.
“He was about 6 and he said, ‘That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to play football on TV,’ ’’ she said.
By the way, today’s Super Bowl will be televised, and Branch will be there. The game kicks off at 6:30 p.m.
Branch’s journey actually started long before he was 6 years old.
“I was at a Monroe game and Deion was two months old,’’ said Deion’s mother, Mary Branch. “I had him in a blanket and he wouldn’t stay still, and then he turned his head and started watching the game, and he just sat there watching the game. All the guys at the game were saying, ‘Mary, look at your baby, sitting so still and watching the game.’ And I told them: ‘That’s right. He’s watching the game. He’s going to grow up and play football. My baby is going to grow up and do something.’’
She was a prophet.
“After that when he was growing up whenever there was a game on TV, he would pull up a chair and just sit there and watch the game, even as a little boy,’’ Mary said. “And when he was 3,4 years old he would carry a football with him everywhere. He would have his football in the front yard and kids would walk by, and even though he didn’t know them, he would shout to them, ‘Hey, you want to play football? Do you want to throw me the ball?’ ’’
He ate, drank and literally slept football.
“He loved football so much that before he started playing little league football when he was small, I would say, 6 or 7, he would take his football with him to bed at night and sleep with the football,’’ Mary said. “Nobody was going to take his football.’’
And nobody stole his dream.
“Every kid says they want to play in the NFL,’’ Anthony Branch said. “I’m not saying I thought he would play in the NFL when he was small, but they did call him ‘Magic Hands’. And I would never tell my children they couldn’t do something. He worked hard and made it. I always knew he would do something special.’’
Dad used to help along the way with a little money from home.
“When he was in high school, I told him I would give him $20 for every touchdown he scored,’’ Anthony said. ‘When he got to college, I upped it to $50 for every touchdown and told him I would give him $100 if he ran a punt or kickoff back for a touchdown.
“He was at Louisville and they weren’t having a good game and it was close, and you could see everyone was getting a little down. I was in the stands and I yelled at him, ‘Deion, run this punt back and I’ll give you the $100.’ He broke a tackle and ran the punt back and the crowd is cheering, and the girl sitting next to me looked up with big eyes and said, ‘Are you really going to give him $100?’ I smiled and said, ‘Yes I am.’ ’’
Then there was the phone call from Louisville in the middle of the night.
“He called me one night at 1 in the morning,’’ Anthony said. “I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ and he said he needed $150. He said, ‘I scored three touchdowns and I need the money.’ I’ll never forget that. Makes me laugh even now.”
Anthony had more confidence in Deion than anyone.
“When we met with the company that wanted to represent Deion just before the draft, they kept telling us they couldn’t guarantee when Deion would be drafted, and said a lot of people get upset when they are told that, because everyone wants to be a first-round pick,’’ Anthony said. “I told them, ‘This is what I believe in my son. I don’t care if he is drafted in the seventh round. I know he is going to make it.’ ’’
He was drafted in the second round, 65th overall, and has become a legend in New England and a force in the NFL for a decade.
“They love him in New England,’’ Anthony said. “I was with him in Rhode Island and couldn’t believe the line that was there to get his autograph. That line just kept filling up all day, and those kids idolized him. You could see the look in their eyes. They love him. And he’s a like a god in Louisville. His friends tell me, ‘Deion could (urinate) on the sidewalk and he would never get arrested.’ I don’t believe that, but that’s how they feel about him in Louisville.’’
He’s loved in Albany, but oddly enough there isn’t a sign that says “Welcome to Albany, Home of Deion Branch,’’ anywhere in the Good Life City. How many towns in America are home to a Super Bowl MVP, much less the only Albany native to play in — and win — a ring ... twice?
“I know how special Deion is,’’ Chunn said. “And he has made me a part of a very elite group of people in America. I’m one of very few high school coaches who can say they coached a player who went on to become a Super Bowl MVP. Deion’s special for a lot of reasons. And I know he is going to have a big game today. I know it.’’
At the end of every season, Branch calls home, and he’s been making calls all week to the men who helped him along the way.
“I started (calling) 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 told The Boston Globe with a laugh this week. “All of those guys are very important.
“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 said.
And all week in Indy, amid the media crush that comes with the Super Bowl, Branch has gone out of his way to tell people he is from Albany. He always tells the story of how when he tells people he is from Georgia, “They always ask if I’m from Atlanta, and I always tell them, ‘No, I’m from Albany.’ “
Branch now makes his offseason home in a suburb of Indianapolis, where the entire family flew up from Albany and gathered this weekend. It’s a compromise from a man who knows all about doing the right thing. Branch’s wife, Shola, is from Chicago and his twins live in Louisville. Indy is about halfway between the two.
One of his twins has Meningitis, and that’s the one reason Branch created the Deion Branch Foundation, which raises money to fight disease. He is so much more than a Super Bowl MVP.
This will be Anthony Branch’s fourth Super Bowl. He was there for Deion’s first two with the Patriots, and he went with Deion in 2006, because his son was being honored at the Super Bowl.
“People treat me like I’m a celebrity because he’s my son,’’ said Anthony, who is a long-distance truck driver. He used to work for truck companies, but Deion bought his dad his own truck and now Anthony is an independent driver.
“He just surprised me with the truck one day,’’ he said.
Anthony’s son and Deion’s brother, Antonio, a junior at Westover, said the same thing about the frenzy and celebrity status Deion brings to the whole family.
“It’s crazy,’’ he said. “You do feel like a celebrity the way people act. Everyone is always asking about Deion. They have a lot of questions, and the first one is always, ‘How much money does he make?’ It is a crazy time because he’s in the Super Bowl, and everyone wants to know about Deion.’’
Anthony knows how special this particular Super Bowl is for his son.
“It’s special for all of us, because you never know — this could be his last,’’ Anthony said. “But whenever he does leave the game, he will be a Super Bowl MVP. That’s something he will have for the rest of his life.
“And he uses it to deliver the message to kids, but it’s not just a message about making it to the NFL. It’s a message where he tells them they can be successful. That’s what his message is. Those kids idolize him. It’s amazing. They idolize him, because he is someone they know. Their eyes light up. When you can have that kind of impression on kids they listen. It’s amazing that that’s my son. When he walks in a room, it lights up.’’
That’s Deion Branch, a light that has showered on Albany and more, a kid who never stopped dreaming.
And today, every kid who was on that middle school bus years ago that watched as it left Deion Branch behind in tears will now be at home watching the Super Bowl.
And the kid who had to turn around and walk away will be playing in it.