Making the Right Calls

February 14, 2005

In the final hours before the Super Bowl, NFL players have been known to go and get, say, a $40 hooker. Or go to Tijuana and get muy smashed. Or try to set the coke-snorting world record.

But before this Super Bowl, wide receiver Deion Branch of the Patriots did something even stranger.

He picked up his cellphone and called every coach in his life who meant something to him. He called Pee Wee coaches. He called his high school receivers coach. He called his junior college offensive coordinator. He called his college head coach. He called 13 coaches in all.

And do you know what he told them? Thank you.

Thank you for caring about me when I could've gone south. Thank you for making me run stairs. Thank you for believing I could do this.

He thanked his coach at Louisville for not giving up on him when his grades were lousy. He thanked his high school coach for believing he wasn't too puny. He thanked one coach for being there for him when his infant son was near death.

He got so emotional while thanking them that "I was crying half the time," says Branch, 25. "It's hard, but I don't want them to think I've left them behind. I want them to know I'm thinking about them all the time."

And when he was done calling--about two hours later--he got on the team bus, put on his number 83 and made the Patriots thank God they had drafted him.

Branch caught 11 passes--tying the Super Bowl record co-owned by his hero, Jerry Rice--for 133 yards. He was named the MVP of New England's 24-21 win over the Eagles.

If you're counting, that's two Super Bowls, 21 catches, 276 yards, one MVP, two rings and maybe the one example of a pro who understands that being a great athlete is the work of dozens of people, not one.

"He called this afternoon [Super Bowl Sunday] about three and said, 'Coach, I'm calling to say thank you for the many ways you helped me,'" says Vernorris Bradley, who was Branch's receivers coach at Monroe High in Albany, Ga. "He said, 'Thanks for all the ways you influenced me. I just want you to know how much I appreciate all you did.'"

Usually, the response to these calls is something like, "Am I being Punk'd?"

"I mean, I was just floored," says Bradley, who retired after the 2003 season. "A guy that famous and successful can think about a guy who coached him so long ago? On the day of the Super Bowl? Man, that's somebody who hasn't forgotten where he came from."

Branch even called the coach who cut him from the middle school team. "He kicked me off the bus," remembers Branch, who at 5'9" is hardly bigger than the MVP trophy he was lugging around Jacksonville late Sunday night. "He said I was too small and I'd get hurt. I was so mad."

Of course, Branch has heard that Short People song his whole life. "The 49ers said that, too. [Before the draft] they said I was a good player but too small for this league."

Wonder if they still think that after watching Branch tear through the Eagles' secondary--the one with (cough, cough) three Pro Bowl players--like a minibike through a herd of drugged elephants. It was as if they didn't even see him. And he broke them for good in the fourth quarter when he just flat picked the pocket of cornerback Sheldon Brown, turning a sure interception into a 19-yard gain that set up the field goal that gave the Pats a 10-point lead.

Oh, and don't forget, it was Branch who double-handedly killed the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game. I mean, Tom Brady is good, but he isn't throwing them to himself.

Of course, after Branch won the MVP, he thanked God, his blockers, his coaches--everyone but his dental hygienist and his own marvelous Velcro hands.

O.K., so Branch is a gratitude freak. So sue. Four years ago he nearly lost one of his newborn twin sons, Deiondre, to spinal meningitis. The baby was in a hospital being kept alive by machines. "I think [Deion] was having to decide whether it was time to unplug," says Bradley, when a "miracle" occurred. The infant suddenly responded to treatment.

On Sunday, Deiondre was chasing his brother, Deiontey, around a Super Bowl field of confetti. Now his father holds on tightly to anything that comes his way--spirals and sons.

After the game some corporate suit told Branch that as the MVP he could pick any Cadillac he wanted, not just the red coupe that had been rolled to the 50-yard line after the game to show it off.

"Well," Branch grinned, "that little one on the field looked pretty sweet."

He sure did. ■

• If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to reilly@siletters.com

Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch understands that being a great athlete is the work of dozens of people, not one.

COLOR PHOTOPETER READ

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