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Big-time receiver

Patriots' Super Bowl MVP branches out

FOXBOROUGH -- So, Deion Branch, you just won Super Bowl XXXIX . . . what's next?

Well, it wasn't a trip to Disney World.

For the first time since the Giants' Phil Simms launched the advertising campaign in 1987, a Super Bowl victor wasn't asked to participate in the instant postgame commercial for the Magic Kingdom.

Typically (13 of 18 years) that honor went to the game's Most Valuable Player.

Branch may have missed the opportunity to star in his first national commercial spot that day, but in the nearly six months since starring in the win over the Eagles, the Patriots wide receiver's dance card has been rather full.

The unassuming Branch, once barely recognizable to any other than hard-core Patriots fans, now finds himself featured in several national ads -- with more likely to come -- and for the first time he is the center of attention for autograph seekers at airports and the like.

''Hey, will you sign Super Bowl MVP on this?"

And major corporations have taken notice.

''Once you attach that Super Bowl MVP to your name -- Deion Branch, MVP -- you're in a whole new category, an elite category, that not a lot of guys are in," said Peter Raskin, a partner of The Agency Sports Management, the marketing firm that represents Branch. ''There are only so many Super Bowl MVPs.

''It automatically makes him a national name and gives him a platform so that people outside of New England know who he is and what he's done on the field, which has been incredible the last two Super Bowls."

But no matter how big his name may get, how well known he may become, Branch says he won't forget where he came from.

He remembers the people who stood by him when he made mistakes.

He remembers the elders who scolded him when he made those mistakes.

And, of course, he remembers the mistakes. Not just the acts or the consequences, but the punch-in-the-gut feeling he got when word reached his family that he had messed up.

He'll never forget the day his father called and asked, ''You got arrested?"

Several months before Florida State receivers Peter Warrick and Laveranues Coles, now with the Cincinnati Bengals and New York Jets, respectively, made national news when they were arrested after being undercharged for clothing items at a Dillard's, Branch and a Louisville teammate were arrested and charged for the same act at the same department store chain.

Hardly anyone noticed, because unlike Warrick, a lead Heisman Trophy candidate in 1999, Branch was a junior college transfer yet to play a down for the Cardinals. Hardly anyone noticed, except, that is, for the people who counted most -- his family. It didn't matter that Branch was just along for the ride with a guy whose girlfriend was the clerk. Wrong is wrong.

''I can talk about it now because I learned from it," said Branch during a break in the shooting of a national Pepsi commercial earlier this week. ''That's one of those times that God puts something in your way to show you you're not going to get away with everything.

''You probably got lucky the times you didn't get caught [doing wrong] with your friends a long time ago. I made a lot of mistakes growing up that I've learned from and now, I don't want to go down that road again. It embarrassed me. People think especially now [it would be embarrassing], but back then I was embarrassed. Parents don't want their kids to be in the newspaper every week doing something crazy."

Six years later, a proud father can go on for hours about how special his son has turned out.

''I am very, very proud of him, I tell him that all the time," Anthony Deion Branch Sr. said. ''I'm proud of the person he has become, not as an athlete, but as a man.

''Everyone can see what he's done as an athlete; talk to him and you see what type of man he is. Pretty special."

Proper appreciation
One of his former coaches said special may not be a good enough word to describe Branch's thankful nature.

Branch still gets emotional when he talks about calling his former coaches before the Super Bowl to thank them for helping him achieve. It was a set of tearful phone calls, just before the greatest accomplishment of his life, to those who helped him become him.

Coaches at Louisville. Coaches at Jones Junior College in Mississippi. Coaches at Monroe High School in Albany, Ga. Even the coaches who tutored him when he played Little League.

All, he says, had a hand in his record-tying 11-catch day against the Eagles.

''He's just as humble as he could be," said Steve Boyd, a member of the staff at Jones. ''They had a Deion Branch Day at his high school this spring, and [the staff at Jones] made the trip to be there for him. He told us then how very appreciative he was that we came to be a part of his day. He seems to have his head straight and he'll stay that way.

''He may be a millionaire, a Super Bowl MVP, and a star to everybody else, but he's just Anthony Branch to us."

And laughing, Boyd added, ''He didn't become Deion Branch until he went big-time."

Those who know him say the use of his middle name, which he began to favor after going to Louisville, is about the only ''big-time" difference in the Branch they've known for years and the budding NFL star. Well, that and driving around in the new Cadillac he picked up for being named Super Bowl MVP.

''He's not going to change his humble nature," Raskin said. ''He is just enjoying the ride. It's special when you work with a player who doesn't expect these things to come to him, but is enjoying it and is thankful."

And Branch, who has been inducted into the state Halls of Fame in Kentucky and Georgia, vows that his increased celebrity won't change him. Even if his MVP award is the most notable individual athletic accomplishment for an Albany native since Ray Knight was named MVP of the 1986 World Series.

''That will never happen," said Branch, who turned 26 July 18. ''You think about changing and people say that it'll happen, but most of the time it's not you that changes, it's the people around you. People look at you different because of what you've done.

''I was taught you have to appreciate everything you get. Everything is a blessing."

Even in accepting the accolades, Branch sees a greater blessing than individual recognition.

Two weeks ago he made an appearance in Indianapolis with Colts receiver Brandon Stokley for the Meningitis Foundation of America. Branch's son, Deiondre, and Stokley's son, Cameron, were each hospitalized with the disease as infants.

Deiondre, 4, is doing well now, though he suffered permanent developmental issues as a result. His twin brother, Deiontey, did not suffer from the disease. Branch has encouraged his corporate sponsors to join in his fight against the disease.

All in perspective
Though he will make just $455,000 this year and $545,000 next year on a contract he signed as a rookie, Branch hasn't made any noise about renegotiating.

Despite a desire to be an actor, he even turned down endorsement offers -- significant ones, according to Raskin -- that would have raised his profile even more to spend time with his family and ensure he could properly prepare for the season.

The leading receiver in last year's playoffs, Branch was third in receptions (35 for 454 yards) for the Patriots in the 2004 season, though he missed seven games with a knee injury. He looks to return to his 2003 form, when he led the team with 57 receptions and 803 receiving yards.

With the national commercials -- not to mention visits to ''The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and ''Regis and Kelly" -- and ''MVP" on his resume, there could be added pressure to perform.

''I put pressure on myself to go out and help my team," Branch said. ''As far as people holding me to a standard of living up to the MVP, I don't worry about that. I have a personal drive that already puts the pressure on myself."

The day he selected Branch in the 2002 draft, Patriots coach Bill Belichick cited the receiver's upbeat personality and his great attitude toward the game. And he has seen Branch improve each year.

''I think Deion has always had a good confidence level, even his rookie year," Belichick said. ''He had a good background and he is a smart guy. He understands coverages and he kind of knows how to get open.

''As the years have gone by now, and they have gone by pretty quickly with him, I think that his game has continued to develop. He works hard. He is mature.

''I think he is better this year than he was last year. He was better last year than he was the year before and so forth. Incrementally, guys can't make the same kind of jumps every year, but you can see growth in a player and I've seen that with Deion."

And this football season many will see Deion grow from an unknown to posing in a Reebok ad, or high-fiving a Pepsi machine or reminding youth to get three servings of dairy products a day.

''He's got the personality and the million-dollar smile going for him," Raskin said. ''But the MVP clearly sets guys above the rest.

''It could not happen to a nicer, more genuine person. He's a great guy and you want to do good things for good people."

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