HOUSTON - Like many of the first- and second-year Patriots, Deion Branch was in awe of Super Bowl week.
He did the video camera thing. As the Patriots’ leading receiver, he was usually a featured player in the daily interview sessions. He answered all the dumb questions. He dreamed of scoring the winning touchdown.
“I think a lot of people dream it, but you have to do it to make it a memory,” Branch said. “I think you make memories as a team anyway, but everyone wants to make the big play, catch the big catch. I don’t think you’d be normal if you didn’t feel that way.”
A second-round pick out of Louisville in 2002, Branch spent much of the second half of his rookie season out with injuries. This season, the Patriots wanted Branch to step up his game.
They wanted him to challenge for the No. 1 receiver spot. Whether it was because of Troy Brown’s injuries or just Branch’s emergence, he became the Patriots’ leading receiver.
Last night, he was looking for a memory. Something he could share with his twin sons someday. And it didn’t take him long to start on that memory as he had four first-quarter catches and scored the Patriots’ first touchdown on a 5-yard pass from Tom Brady in the second quarter. He finished with 10 catches for 143 yards.
“All the guys stepped up tonight,” he said. “Troy [Brown] made a bunch of big catches. David Givens made a bunch of catches, and they were big. Everyone stepped up. When their number was called, they cashed in.”
Branch’s number was called for the final time on the drive to Adam Vinatieri’s winning field goal, and as he had all night, Branch responded. On third and 3 from the Carolina 40-yard line with 14 seconds remaining, Branch hauled in a 17-yard pass from Brady, setting up Vinatieri for the winner.
“I just tried to run a good route off the safety once we got that certain coverage,” said Branch. “The line did a great job blocking. Tom did a great job putting the ball where it is supposed to be, and I just caught it.”
A happy ending for a player who has been through a lot.
About three years ago, he almost lost one of his sons when Deiondre, only 6 days old, came down with a form of meningitis. His son was placed on life-support systems but he was losing his battle when Branch and the child’s mother had to make the painful decision to take Deiondre off life support. By some miracle, the child pulled through.
“It actually hit him when he was six days out of the hospital,” Branch told the Springfield Republican last week. “He may be slow to do a lot of things here and there, but most of all he’s going to be OK. He’s doing really well.”
It was the mental toughness Branch showed during that ordeal that impressed the Patriots.
“It is pretty amazing,” Branch said of Super Bowl week. “Media Day is to ask questions of all of the players, but we worked a lot this week, too. It was normal that way in that you go to practice and meetings and the only difference is you go back to the hotel.”
Branch is one of the quietest Patriots. He usually doesn’t say much to the media during the week or after games, but he has heard all of the chatter about the Patriots’ no-name receiving corps.
“We really don’t care what they say about us, as far as scoring or not scoring,” he said. “We think of it as a team. The defense goes out and does a great job, and we just do what we do.”
Last night’s matchup was going to be interesting in another way for Branch because he likely was going to meet up with Panthers free safety Deon Grant, who was a high school opponent in Georgia. “He is a pretty good player. He has developed to be a good safety,” said Branch.
Branch believed the tough times in his life made him appreciate the Super Bowl experience even more.
“You look back on those days and you are thankful because it was rough,” said Branch. “You don’t have everything that you want. A lot of guys are spoon-fed coming out of high school.”