December 14, 2012

NFL: Branch's loyalty remains with Patriots

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) -- One week into his second round of unemployment this season, Deion Branch had just picked his daughter up at school when she wondered why he had so much free time.

click image to enlarge

BACK IN THE LINEUP: New England Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch responds to a reporter’s question in front of his locker Thursday in Foxborough, Mass. The Patriots host the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.

AP photo

He broke the news to 7-year-old D'Ahni.

"She said, 'Dad, what happened? Why aren't you playing?"' the New England Patriots wide receiver said Thursday. "I said, 'Baby, daddy can't play right now. I don't have a job.' And she said, 'aw, you'll get one.' And I said, 'I know, baby."'

It's almost as if she had sat in during her father's conversation with coach Bill Belichick.

Perhaps Belichick told him he'd return at some point?

"I'll keep that between us," Branch said with a smile and a laugh, one day after re-signing.

Branch was released on Nov. 17 and missed the past four games. But the nameplate at his locker, "Deion Branch 84," remained -- just as it did for the first two games of the season after he was cut shortly before it began. He was back for Game 3.

Standing before the locker where a family photo was displayed on the top shelf and football gloves hung from a bar, the 11-year veteran said he wants to retire as a Patriot. He said he'll do whatever the team needs from him, starting Sunday night when the Patriots (10-3), winners of seven straight, host the San Francisco 49ers (9-3-1) in a meeting of Super Bowl contenders.

It's been nearly seven years since Branch was named MVP of the Super Bowl after catching 11 passes in a 24-21 win over the Philadelphia Eagles.

"It was a long time ago," he said, "but that stuff is in the past. It's behind us. I think we all need to be grateful, be thankful just to play the game that we play. I'm thankful. I seize every moment that I get. I'm just glad to be back."

The Patriots drafted him in 2002 and he led them with 78 catches, 998 yards receiving and five touchdown catches in 2005. But he was involved in a contract dispute and traded to the Seattle Seahawks after the first game in 2006. He remained there until being traded back to New England after the fourth game in 2010. He had 35 catches for the Patriots that year and 51 last year.

The Patriots let him go again, this time as a free agent on March 13. But 17 days later he was back, signing a one-year contract. Before his latest release, Branch was bothered by a hamstring injury. He did rehabilitation and said he feels OK now. But would he have been re-signed if wide receiver Donte' Stallworth hadn't gone on injured reserve this week?

"I don't know," he said. "Everything happens for a reason and with guys that are patient, stuff happens for them. I'm a patient guy."

The Patriots signed Stallworth after wide receiver Julian Edelman went on injured reserve Dec. 4. Belichick might have brought Branch back even if Stallworth were healthy. But he was hurt on a 63-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady, his only catch in his only game of the season.

Now he's the one rehabbing.

"There's no rush, so I want to make sure that I get it back right," Stallworth said, standing near a removable boot on the floor of his locker stall.

Stallworth knows the drill, of course. He also has been back and forth with the Patriots several times. He caught 46 passes for the 2007 team that was 18-0 before losing the Super Bowl to the New York Giants. Then he signed as a free agent with the Cleveland Browns for 2008 and was suspended for the 2009 season after a car he was driving struck and killed a pedestrian in South Florida that March. Stallworth spent 24 days in jail for a DUI manslaughter conviction.

He played for Baltimore in 2010 and Washington in 2011 and signed with the Patriots last March. But they released him on Aug. 27, just four days before Branch was cut.

"He's one of my guys," Branch said. "We came in the draft class together."

On Thursday, Branch returned to work as if, it almost seemed, he had never left.

"Nothing's changed," he said. "All the guys just walked past my locker like nothing ever happened, so I didn't get any hugs, just 'Hey, how you doing? What's up?"'

With or without Branch, the Patriots have kept winning throughout the past decade.

"This is where I want to be. This is where I want to retire," he said. "So that kind of makes everything a lot easier."

Especially now that he has a shot at another championship, as long as the Patriots keep him.

"That's what I hope," he said.

Surely, D'Ahni hopes the same thing.

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