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Branch on ‘friend’ Hernandez: ‘It was shocking’

Albany native Deion Branch, left, wasn’t just teammates the past two seasons with Aaron Hernandez — they were also neighbors in the North Attleborough, Mass., neighborhood where Hernandez was arrested and charged with murder this week by police. Branch told The Herald on Saturday he was shocked by the news of a player he called his "great friend."

Albany native Deion Branch, left, wasn’t just teammates the past two seasons with Aaron Hernandez — they were also neighbors in the North Attleborough, Mass., neighborhood where Hernandez was arrested and charged with murder this week by police. Branch told The Herald on Saturday he was shocked by the news of a player he called his "great friend."

ALBANY — While the New England Patriots organization is distancing itself from embattled former tight end Aaron Hernandez, former Patriots receiver and Albany native Deion Branch isn’t bailing on his ex-teammate just yet.

Hernandez is charged with the first-degree murder of 27-year-old Odin Lloyd, a semi-pro football player whose body was found about a mile from Hernandez’s North Attleborough, Mass., home.

Branch is currently a free agent, but has spent most of his 11 years in the NFL — including the last three — with the Patriots and was Hernandez’s teammate for two seasons. Branch even lives across the street from Hernandez in North Attleborough and came to the defense of the tight end Saturday during his 8th annual Skills and Drills camp at Albany State University, saying he frequently visited his house and was “shocked” to hear that he was accused of murder.

“Aaron is a great guy and a great friend of mine and a great teammate,” Branch told The Herald “I love him to death, and it was shocking to hear his name involved in this situation. I truly hope and pray he doesn’t have any dealings with it.”

Hernandez has entered a plea of not guilty but was denied bail earlier this week after Superior Court Judge Renee Dupuis said the state had a “very, very strong circumstantial case” against Hernandez. Hernandez is charged with one count of first-degree murder and five other gun-related charges and was released from the Patriots 90 minutes after being arrested Wednesday morning.

In the days since his arrest, current Patriot players have remained silent about their former tight end at the request of the front office, but the organization announced Friday that it would offer anybody with a Hernandez jersey a free exchange for another Patriots jersey.

So far, Branch’s kind words for Hernandez puts him in the minority.

One former teammate, offensive lineman Matt Light, has joined with others around the league in reprimanding Hernandez.

“I never talk about other guys, but I will say I have never embraced — never believed in — anything Aaron Hernandez stood for,” Light told the Dayton Daily News.

On Saturday, Branch didn’t have anything negative to say about Hernandez.

“That’s my guy, man,” Branch said of Hernandez. “That’s my guy. It really shocked me. He was a great kid. Overall, I hope the best that he isn’t involved with it and I hope he gets his name cleared, but most importantly I send my prayers and condolences out to the Lloyd family.”

Branch said there was nothing in his association with Hernandez on or off the field that led him to believe he was capable of murder, but details recently emerging from Hernandez’s past seem to suggest otherwise.

A Connecticut man is suing Hernandez for allegedly shooting him in the face in February, and police in Boston are now investigating whether Hernandez was involved in a double-homicide in July 2012 — a case that investigators believe could be a possible motive for Lloyd’s killing after it’s been reported that Lloyd may have known details about Hernandez’s involvement.

The funeral for Lloyd was held Saturday at nearly the exact time Branch addressed the Hernandez situation, and he said that finding justice for Lloyd’s killer — whether it was Hernandez or not — was his greatest concern.

“Nobody deserves to walk, whoever the person is that did it,” Branch said. “Most of all what we as Americans need to understand is that is somebody’s child that was a victim. That’s somebody’s dad, and my prayers and thoughts go out to his family and hope that they bring whoever did this to their child to justice, regardless of who it is.”