Albany’s Deion Branch, left, conducts drills during Saturday’s 8th annual Skills and Drills camp at Albany State. Branch, Albany’s local NFL hero and former Super Bowl MVP with the New England Patriots, holds the camp as a way to give back to the community he credits for shaping him into the man he is today. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
ALBANY — Deion Branch made one thing clear Saturday at his 8th annual Skills and Drills camp at Albany State University.
He’s not done yet.
A day when he was helping develop the future football stars of Southwest Georgia, Branch, an Albany native and former Monroe star, talked about his own future in the NFL and said that he’s not even thinking about retirement.
Branch is a free agent after not being re-signed by the New England Patriots following last season but believes he will be picked up by another team at any moment.
“Trust me, the amount of work I have put into this game and the passion and love I have for this sport, I know there are teams out there who know about me and know what I bring to the game,” Branch said. “I will be on somebody’s team. I am not worried about that. Am I going to play this year? Yes, sir.”
Branch, who has been in the league for 11 seasons and has played the last 2½ years in New England, said he has been talking to “a couple of teams” but wouldn’t mention any possible destinations.
“I will be working this year,” he said. “Where? You will have to wait a couple more weeks to find out. It may happen tomorrow, who knows?
Branch then added: “You can’t put a time table on it. I have spoken to a couple of teams, but right now it’s just regular conversation. There is nothing stitched in stone until you have a contract.”
Branch wouldn’t confirm rumors that the Patriots, who he won two Super Bowls with and was named the Super Bowl MVP with in 2005, were one of those teams interested in signing him. But he also didn’t deny it.
“It may be the Patriots,” Branch said. “For me, that is home. Everybody puts my face with the Patriots. When you hear my name, you associate me with the Patriots. If it’s that, it would be great. If I go elsewhere, that would be great, too. I am going to play.”
Branch is coming off a rocky year with the Patriots during which he caught a career-low 16 passes for 145 yards and was held out of the end zone in the regular season for the first time in his career.
He was released by the Patriots on Aug. 31 during the team’s final preseason cuts but was re-signed Sept. 18. He was waived again by New England on Nov. 17 but returned to the team on Dec. 11 due to several injuries to Patriots receivers and tight ends, including a low ankle sprain to tight end Aaron Hernandez.
Hernandez was released by the Patriots earlier this week after being charged with first-degree murder, but Branch said the recent development doesn’t necessarily mean New England would offer him a roster spot.
“It probably looked like his injury last year (led to them signing me), but there are so many moving parts when it comes to signing a guy and bringing a guy in,” Branch said. “So I wouldn’t pin-point (Hernandez getting released opening a door for me in New England).”
It’s the first time Branch, who was drafted by New England out of Louisville in 2002 and has 6,644 yards and 39 touchdowns in his NFL career, has been a free agent this far into the offseason.
He isn’t planning on retiring this season, but Branch, 33, is aware that he doesn’t have too many years left on the gridiron.
“I am enjoying my free time with my family,” Branch said. “You have to understand that there is birth and there is death, and it’s the same way with football. There is going to be a time when you start playing, and there is going to be retirement. I’m not saying I’m going to retire, but at the same time you have to understand the transition. That’s where I am now. I’m not a rookie any more.”
While Branch’s glory days might be behind him, Ricardo Lockette, also a Monroe grad, is a rising star in the NFL and helped out with Branch’s camp Saturday for the second year in a row.
Lockette, who is looking to start his own youth camp in Albany next summer, is competing for a starting receiver job with the San Francisco 49ers and has stayed in contact with Branch throughout his career.
“We text, call each other. It’s like we are family. He will say, ‘I saw you on TV today and you should have caught that,’ ” Lockette said with a laugh. “The first year he asked me to come help with the camp, and from here on out I will be here every year he has it. I flew down just for this.”
The three-hour camp was attended by 60 kids — a lower number than in previous years — but it didn’t take away from Branch’s passion for giving back to his hometown.
“It’s an honor to come back here to do this, but this is me repaying back the city for what they did for me,” he said. “When I go around, everybody tells me how much they love me and how much they care about me because I am one of their kids. I was raised by this entire city, and I truly mean it.”
Kids separated into age groups and then went from station to station around the ASU football field, learning the fundamentals of each position. Branch, like he does every year, goes to each station and works individually with the campers before closing the camp with a speech and giving each kid a trophy, an autographed picture, a T-shirt, an athletic bag and lunch.
It’s a camp that 14-year-old Akileis Leroy looks forward to every summer.
“I like everything about this camp,” said Leroy, a rising freshman at Monroe who has attended the camp for six straight years. “It’s about hard work and passion, and when I get out here with everybody it’s a culmination of all that and is very exciting to me. Deion and Ricardo doing this means a lot to me. It means that they care about their community.”
Proceeds from the camp benefit the Deion Branch Foundation, which was founded by Branch and helps children struggling with health-related issues, including viral meningitis — an illness that hits home for Branch because his son, Deiondre, was diagnosed with it at an early age.
Because of his free -gency status, Branch has gotten to spend more time with his children and his wife Shola this summer — one of the things he is looking forward to when he finally does hang up his cleats.
“I have mainly been doing a lot of training and spending time with my wife and kids,” he said about how he is using his free time. “My wife is starting to get a smidgen of how things are going to be when I’m done (playing), but I told her I’m not going to be sitting down yet. I’m going to work.”
He’s not done yet.