- Jackie MacMullan, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Nobody touched him.
Deion Branch dropped onto snowy Lambeau Field clutching his knee, choking to catch some air, after doing nothing but cutting in the sharp, precise manner that endeared him to every quarterback he's ever played with.
As he lay on his back on that bitterly cold Sunday in January 2008 with his stunned Seattle Seahawks teammates gathering around him, Branch surmised something was terribly amiss.
"I couldn't figure out why I couldn't breathe,'' he said.
Seahawks receiver Nate Burleson knew a torn ACL when he saw one and wondered how Branch, his closest friend on the team, would react to another injury, another setback, a pattern that had plagued him since he'd left New England at the height of his career two seasons before.
As Burleson leaned down to comfort him, Branch looked up at his teammate and said, "Thank you, Jesus.''
"No one ever thanks God when things go badly -- only when they're going good,'' Branch recounted recently. "I knew I was blessed to play this game. I had gone my entire life up until that point, since I was 7 years old, without a major injury. I had nothing to complain about.''
"Only Deion,'' said Burleson, "could put a positive spin on blowing out his knee."
And you wonder why Bill Belichick is so glad to have Branch back in his locker room.
The Patriots' Prodigal Son, the Moss antidote, the diminutive receiver whose uncanny chemistry with quarterback Tom Brady was displayed again Thanksgiving Day, when he juked the Detroit Lions for a 79-yard catch-and-run touchdown, has helped revive an offense that will need to be as crisp as Branch's passing routes Monday night when the Patriots take on the New York Jets in the biggest game of the season.
Opponents and teammates marvel at Branch's symmetry with Brady, as though it is the result of divine intervention or a secret football code. Yet the source of their compatibility is rooted in something far more mundane: years of preparation and repetition.
Their most fruitful work was accomplished during the offseasons, on days no one was populating the stands at Gillette. The quarterback and the receiver would report to work early on those summer mornings. One week, they would perfect the slant, running it over and over, with Brady barking, "Let's run it against this coverage'' and the receiver instructing him, "Throw it a little sooner this time.'' The next week they'd fine tune the post route, imploring their defensive teammates to stick around for one more hour, so they could try it two or three or 20 more times, until it was second nature.
"That's where the trust comes in,'' Branch said. "Where Tom could say, 'I know this guy is going to be there on the curl route against man coverage' and throw the ball with confidence.
"I tell these young [Patriots] receivers all the time: All those summer days at Gillette, that's where we won games.''
Branch never wanted to leave New England or Tom Brady. Together, they were unbeatable. In 2004, Branch caught 10 passes for 143 yards and a touchdown against Carolina in the Super Bowl, with his 17-yard grab on the final drive setting up the game-winning field goal by Adam Vinatieri. One year later, he hauled in 11 receptions for 133 yards to lead the Patriots past Philadelphia in Super Bowl XXXIX, and was named Most Valuable Player of the game.
And then he was gone.
Time has minimized the rancor that preceded Branch's departure following a contract dispute. There was a holdout, a spot on the Did Not Report list, a $600,000 fine, a grievance filed by Branch when the two parties agreed a trade would be best and New England initially balked on offers from New York and Seattle. Even the sunniest NFL player could not cast a positive light on how Branch's tenure in New England was terminated.
"It was bad,'' Branch confirmed. "It was sour how it ended, but I was never involved in any of it. My agent handled the negotiations. I prayed every night it would get done.
"But the business side of it kept getting in the way. There was no hatred. The conversations I had with Bill [Belichick] and Mr. [Robert] Kraft were decent, respectful. Coach Belichick told me, 'I wish we could get it done, but I understand your side.'
"That's why it was so easy for me to return. It never got personal.''
Bitterness, Branch reasoned, was pointless. He was traded to Seattle and would make it work there. He was young, healthy, wealthy beyond his dreams. Adversity made you stronger, a lesson he'd already learned in a most horrible fashion.
He was only 21 years old when his sons were born prematurely. One, Deiontey, was small but healthy, squirming and squealing his way into the world. The other, Deiondre, was silent, listless. He contracted viral meningitis and the prognosis was poor.
"It was difficult,'' Branch said. "We were so young ...''
His son had suffered massive brain damage and if he survived, it would be without cognitive functions.
Football disappointments suddenly shrank in comparison. Deion's son gave him perspective. Life was a precious, fragile gift.
So he moved on to the Seahawks, his smile and his abilities intact. He loved his new coach, Mike Holmgren. He dutifully studied the West Coast offense, and the tendencies of his new quarterback, Matt Hasselback. He threw himself into his new environment, and in spite of his acrimonious exit from Foxborough, continued to speak of his former team in glowing terms.
"When he talked about New England, you could see the passion in his eyes,'' Burleson said. "The way he built it up, sometimes it felt like the Patriots were the huge college program and the rest of us [in the NFL] were a community college.''
That did not prevent Branch from wanting to build the same memories in Seattle. He supplanted Burleson in the starting lineup but proved to be so helpful to the young receiver that Burleson couldn't stay mad.
"No matter how hard they worked us, how tired we were, Deion was the first one up in the morning, doing leg swings, brushing his teeth and singing,'' Burleson said. "His energy was contagious.''
Branch caught 53 balls for 725 yards and four touchdowns in 14 games of the 2006 season, yet he couldn't replicate the chemistry he had with Brady with Hasselback.
"We were never quite on the same page,'' Branch conceded. "We had a lot of ups and downs. There were times when I thought the game plan was great. And then there were other times, not so much.''
During the next three seasons, he fought through a foot injury, then a calf strain, then the torn ACL. He wasn't the only one hobbling. One season, Branch said, the team had at least a half-dozen offensive linemen on injured reserve. He played for three coaches in his final three seasons -- Holmgren, Jim Mora and, for a brief time, Pete Carroll.
"It just seemed like they couldn't agree on how to use me,'' Branch said.
"They wanted to change the routes he ran,'' Burleson said. "They tried to put him in a box. Deion is such a hard worker. He'll try anything you ask. But by the end [in Seattle], what they wanted changed every day.''
Branch's preseason meetings last summer with Carroll were upbeat. The new coach seemed enthusiastic and told Branch he was part of the Seahawks' future.
"I don't know what happened,'' Branch said. "I had big goals for this season in Seattle. I thought we were on the same page until I started watching the transactions. Guys were let go. They didn't re-sign Nate. I started thinking, OK, what direction are we headed in here? It was a little surprising. A little disappointing.''
The trade to New England was bittersweet. Branch was thrilled to return to the place where he was most successful, but he departed Seattle feeling as though he'd left a job undone.
His first game with Brady in more than four years yielded nine catches for 98 yards and a touchdown in an overtime win over Baltimore. The quarterback was giddy. The receiver was grateful. The rest of the football world was astonished at how seamlessly the two players reconnected.
"The trust Tom Brady has in him is remarkable,'' observed Patriots tight end Alge Crumpler.
Branch had been in town a only couple of weeks when he pulled young Brandon Tate aside in practice and told him, "When you see Tom scrambling, you've got to go deep. Don't mess around. Just take off. He'll find you.''
Six days later, when the Minnesota Vikings flushed Brady out of the pocket, Tate heeded Branch's advice and sprinted down the field -- and hauled in a 65-yard touchdown pass.
"Sometimes the young guys are a little bit in awe of Tom,'' Branch said. "Tom imposes himself on them. He's tough -- a perfectionist. You have to expect that.
"I tell the guys, 'Just do what he asks. Run the route you are supposed to run. No mistakes, no shortcuts. Tom won't stand for that.'''
Burleson landed with the Detroit Lions. He wondered about his friend back in New England, where time has passed and things have changed.
"I thought there might be a bit of a letdown,'' Burleson said. "I mean, Deion had built up New England so much. But when I talked to him to see how it was going, he was so happy. He told me, 'Feels like I'm home.'''
His sons live in Louisville; Deiontey is with his mother, while Deiondre lives nearby in a 24-hour specialized facility. Branch was told his son would never walk, talk or utter a sound, yet Deiondre has learned to take small steps with a walker, and hums contentedly when his father comes to visit.
"My son is improving,'' Branch said, "but it's slow. Really slow.''
The twins are 9 years old. Deiontey is playing sports, racing through the house, asking questions about his brother.
"He's old enough to understand now,'' Branch said. "Last summer, he told me, 'Daddy, I hope Deiondre can get out of his bed and walk someday.' I told him I hoped that too.''
Foxborough is closer to Louisville than Seattle, another reason Branch is pleased to be back in New England. Having Brady throw footballs to him again has also been a welcome development.
Last week, Belichick was uncommonly effusive in his praise when asked about Branch's influence on his team.
"He's the best,'' Belichick declared. "You can't get better than that. He's totally about the team.''
While the Seahawks re-tool under a new regime, the Patriots keep on winning with the same coach, same owner, same quarterback, and now, after all these years, the same receiver.
"I'm lucky,'' said Branch. "Truly blessed.''
So are the Patriots.
Jackie MacMullan, who has spent nearly 20 years as a beat writer and columnist in Boston, is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.
2hOhm Youngmisuk and Rich Cimini