Former Monroe football stars Deion Branch, left, and Ricardo Lockette — both of whom are in different stages of their NFL careers — smile while being interviewed Saturday at ASU during Branch’s 7th annual Skills and Drills Football Camp. Branch, who is with the New England Patriots, is on the verge of his 11th season, while Lockette is about to enter his second year with the Seattle Seahawks. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
ALBANY — Deion Branch stood near midfield of the Albany State University Coliseum on Saturday and talked about hard work and determination.
Around 40 campers attending his 7th annual Skills and Drills Football Camp soaked it in, listening intently to the Monroe grad who has turned into a hero in their eyes. Branch, the star receiver for New England and Super Bowl XXXIX MVP who will be entering his 11th year in the NFL when the 2012 season kicks off in September, spoke about the kind of dedication it took to find success on the football field.
And not far away was fellow Monroe grad and Seahawks receiver Ricardo Lockette, believing every word Branch was saying.
“It’s amazing that you can grow up watching someone and end up doing a camp with them,” said Lockette, who helped Branch for the second year in a row. “The message (of hard work) is so much stronger, because I was here before I was in the NFL, and now I am back after being in the NFL. The kids can see that I didn’t change and can say, ‘I knew him before. He was that guy, but he grew into this guy.’ I think it’s great they got to see the transformation and see me take that big step.”
Branch and Lockette spent three hours running drills and giving kids hands-on instruction, and then the duo broke away from the camp to talk with The Herald about their relationship with each other.
While the Albany natives might be in different stages of their careers, Branch believes they have plenty in common.
“Hard work and dedication,” Branch said. “Early on I didn’t have the opportunity to (learn from) anybody playing my position. Growing up, (ASU’s all-time leading rusher) Antonio Leroy was our mentor.
“The Leroy brothers were our mentors, but these guys we looked up to all played different positions. You had a running back, a defensive back and a defensive lineman. I never had the opportunity to (learn about being a receiver), but I saw their work. That’s what I took from those guys — the hard work you have to put into the game of football. And that’s what Lockette has.”
Lockette, who was signed by the Seahawks as an undrafted free agent after the NFL lockout ended last season, is entering his second year in Seattle after emerging as the team’s deep threat late last season due to several injuries to Seahawks receivers that opened up a roster spot for him.
With two games left last year, he was promoted from the practice squad to the 53-man roster and immediately made an impact, catching an acrobatic 44-yard catch against the 49ers in his NFL debut and then hauling in a 61-yard TD the following week against the Cardinals.
And when he was finally assigned a permanent place in the Seahawks’ locker room, he brought a little piece of home with him.
“I’ve got a picture of Deion’s (Seahawks) jersey in my locker,” said Lockette, who is in the second year of a three-year, $1.4 million rookie contract. “Once I got a chance to go to Seattle and he was gone, they asked me what number I wanted. That was a no-brainer. He is from the same high school, the same hometown. I said, ‘Give me 83.’ ”
Branch’s time with the Patriots was interrupted in 2006 when he was traded to Seattle, where he played for a little more than four seasons before being traded back to the Patriots in 2010. After catching 51 passes for 702 yards and five touchdowns last season and helping New England reach Super Bowl XLVI, Branch re-signed with the team three months ago.
Branch and Lockette are both fighting for starting spots on a pair of receiver-heavy rosters and still have more than two months before the regular-season opener to secure a position.
But there’s a Week 6 game in Seattle they both have their eyes on.
“It’s going to be crazy,” Branch said about the Oct. 14 game between Seattle and New England. “There is going to be a lot of media hype around it with myself going back to Seattle and having the opportunity to play against (Lockette). It’s going to be great. It’s a team thing. It’s not just me vs. Lock; it’s Seattle vs. the Patriots. But at the same time, we know everything that (it’s going to mean to us).”
Lockette said he can’t wait for the game.
“I am excited,” he said Saturday. “I want to make (Seattle) proud, but I also want to make Deion proud.”
Branch said his friend shouldn’t worry about that — he already couldn’t be prouder.
“That’s my guy,” said Branch, 32, pointing over to Lockette, who just turned 26 and went through high school and college admiring Branch. “You meet guys that say you are their role model, and it’s a blessing and honor for me to be an example for him. He was a guy that didn’t get the opportunity to go through the camps that I have done here, but he was here helping me, and he was a sponge. He would sit there and try to soak up everything.
“Any opportunity I get to share that with the kids and younger guys, I will do it. It’s especially great to see a guy from your hometown who has made it. I’m very proud.”
While Branch recalled mentoring a younger Lockette, he was also taken back to his own younger days when he learned from Leroy, who is now the director of The Center for the African-American Male at ASU. He was on hand Saturday, helping Branch at his camp for the second year in a row.
“We grew up right around the corner from (the Leroys),” Branch said. “He was two houses from me, and he was a guy I looked up to.”
Leroy, who is the fourth all-time leading rusher in the history of Division II football and spent a summer in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ camp in 1996, is happy to pass the mentoring torch onto Branch.
“I was Deion’s role model, but now I look at Deion and I am passing the torch to him,” Leroy said. “(Now) Deion has positioned himself to pass the torch to Lockette. You have three eras of Monroe men … and what has been imparted into us we are trying to impart into these kids. That’s what it’s all about.”
It’s the youth that bring Branch back to Albany every summer for his camp, which benefits the Deion Branch Foundation, a program founded by Branch to help children struggling with health-related issues. It’s a cause that hits close to home for Branch, whose son Deiondre was diagnosed with viral meningitis at an early age.
“As long as I am moving around, I will be here doing this,” Branch said. “I feel like it’s my job to put a stamp on these kids and get out here and do these things for the kids. That’s what it’s all about. Hopefully, one day, these kids will be here in my shoes doing this for other kids.”