- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 8, 2005

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Seven years ago, just getting a scholarship to the University of Florida made Deion Branch so cocky he stopped going to class. He soon found himself academically ineligible to play for Gators coach Steve Spurrier and relegated to a two-year stint at Jones County (Miss.) Junior College.

Now the New England Patriots wide receiver has plenty of reason to linger like Narcissus in front of the mirror. In Sunday’s Super Bowl XXXIX win over the Philadelphia Eagles, Branch made a record-tying 11 catches and helped set up all four Patriots scores.

The performance keyed New England’s third championship in four years and extended Branch’s growing track record of big plays in big games. But his head is a lot less likely to swell this week than his right hip, which was struck hard by Eagles safety Brian Dawkins on Sunday’s first play.

“Don’t worry about the big head,” Branch said yesterday with a broad grin, after he limped groggy-eyed into a morning news conference. “My momma already got on me about that.”

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue officially awarded Branch, who grew up not far from Jacksonville in Albany, Ga., the Most Valuable Player trophy at the conference. Along with the accolade came Branch’s choice of Cadillac. He chose the XLR Roadster and looked forward to a moonlit drive with, er, coach Bill Belichick.

“Just enough room for me and … one more person,” Branch said to a chorus of laughter. “Maybe I’ll take Coach Belichick.”

Branch surely will find a better road buddy by the time his new car arrives. But the comical mental picture of he and his all-business coach tooling around might not be a bad metaphor: New England’s understated offense succeeds precisely because Branch and his teammates aren’t more concerned with individual trappings.

Once convinced to stop working simply because he landed a spot in Spurrier’s program, Branch now maximizes an unheralded role, toiling in relative anonymity until the middle of January arrives and the Tom Brady-led offense rises to the occasion.

“What he epitomizes,” Tagliabue said, “is the way the Patriots win: great individual talent, big performances in the big games, but all within the context of the team.”

Branch’s visibility was particularly low in the just-completed season, when he missed seven games in October and early November with a knee injury. A hero of Super Bowl XXXVIII with 10 catches for 143 yards, he finished the 2004 season with just 35 catches for 454 yards. Branch, a 2002 second-round draft pick, still hasn’t come close to a 1,000-yard year.

But as if on cue, he exploded in the AFC Championship game at Pittsburgh, catching 60- and 45-yard passes from Brady to lead a 41-27 rout. The Steelers defense, ranked No. 1 in the regular season, was shredded.

Then came an effort Sunday that should ensure his mention among the game’s top wideouts. Branch’s 11 catches tied a Super Bowl record, and his 133 yards represented more than 40 percent of New England’s total output. Eight of his receptions came on Patriots scoring drives and went for 106 yards.

“He’s just a playmaker,” fellow wide receiver David Givens said. “He’s got great quickness, great speed, good hands, and he knows how to get open. He’s one of the best receivers out there.”

The road from academic casualty to postseason hero was an unlikely one. Smallish (5-foot-9, 193 pounds) but speedy, Branch played football, ran track and, well, goofed off in high school before spending two years at Jones County. By the time he exited junior college, Florida no longer had a scholarship waiting for him.

Branch instead went to Louisville, where he caught enough passes (143 in just two seasons) and attention to be drafted by New England. As Belichick recalled yesterday, Branch’s four years of working himself up from the bottom apparently removed all traces of his former cockiness.

“I don’t think we ever saw that,” Belichick said. “Deion has been a tremendous receiver and really one of our best team players since he’s been up here from Day 1. … I can’t imagine him ever having a chip on his shoulder.”

Then again, few would have figured Branch would be putting his autograph on the Cadillac placard that gave him his choice of luxury vehicles. All grown up but still just three years into his NFL career, Branch continues to speed away from his “big head” days.

“That had to happen to me for me to learn some of the things that you can’t [overlook],” Branch said. “If not there something would have happened later on. I’m glad I got that out of the way.”

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