Deiondre Branch can't talk. He lives under 24-hour supervised care in Louisville, Ky., at a home for children in crisis. Born premature, he contracted...
Deiondre Branch can’t talk.
He lives under 24-hour supervised care in Louisville, Ky., at a home for children in crisis. Born premature, he contracted viral meningitis as an infant. Doctors feared he wouldn’t live longer than six months. He’s 6 years old now.
Deion Branch can’t stop talking — about his son Deiondre.
The Super Bowl MVP, a receiver who played his best game on the biggest stage in sports, draws his motivation from a child who weighed 4 pounds, 11 ounces at birth. Branch cups his hands together to show the size.
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“That’s where I get my strength from,” Branch says. “My little man.”
Athletes draw motivation from different sources when starting their own charities. The altruistic: desire to give back. The egotistic: desire to look good. The economic: tax breaks.
The Seahawks receiver has his little man, the reason for the Deion Branch Charitable Foundation. It focuses on the Meningitis Foundation of America, and Branch has filmed a public-service announcement for the March of Dimes.
“I’m doing this for my son,” he says, “and other kids affected by this stuff.”
Little man, lot of fight
Deiondre and Deiontey were premature twins, each weighing less than 5 pounds. They spent the first month of their lives in a neonatal intensive-care unit in Louisville.
Branch says every person should walk through one. He saw babies small enough to hold in the palm of his hand, tubes snaking out of noses, little lungs struggling to breathe. Branch cried every time he stepped inside.
“I just wished,” Branch says, “I would have been in that position instead of him.”
The boys had been home six days when Deiondre stopped eating. He cried when his parents cradled him. He stopped when they set him down. Dad figured his son was tired. A mother’s intuition told Danyle Lynch something wasn’t right.
Lynch and Branch rushed their son to the hospital for blood tests. He had contracted viral meningitis and suffered brain damage. If they had waited until morning, doctors said, Deiondre would have died.
Next came the grim prognosis: Many children in that state don’t live to their first birthday.
Deiondre moved into a care facility, the Home of the Innocents in Louisville. He couldn’t hold his head up, couldn’t grasp anything with his hands. He had little control over his movements. But he turned 1, then 2, now 6.
Turns out the little man had a lot of fight.
The same doctor who delivered the initial diagnosis examined Deiondre after his second birthday. She started crying.
“This is amazing,” the doctor kept repeating.
“She’s not saying he should be dead, but … ,” Branch says. “I felt so good, and I know he [Deiondre] felt good. You could see him smiling.”
Now Deiondre can sit up for two minutes by himself, choose between two toys and push a button to send the R2D2 toy he loves whizzing around the room. His eyes used to roll back in his head. Now they focus — on Mom, Dad, his brother, anyone familiar.
“He’s built just like his daddy,” says Tammy Fletcher, his lead physical therapist. “Just a little wad of muscles with a big smile to go with it. He has the perfect grin, a very cute belly laugh.”
Deiondre’s motor skills have developed to where he can get around using a special walker that helps prevent osteoporosis. He loves walking but will likely always need assistance.
He also responds to instructions. A therapist tells Deiondre to tap a pad twice. Thwap. Thwap. And there comes that big smile.
“He’s a little star around here,” says Gordon Brown, president of the home. “In the past, people would relegate a child like Deiondre to a permanent vegetative state. We assume every child has capacity. We move toward unlocking gifts.”
Deiondre still can’t talk, but he communicates with body language, which is more than anyone thought possible. By June, one of his teachers told Brown that Deiondre had met his goals for the year. Therapists plan to teach him to use a computer program and make decisions using yes and no.
Deion Branch’s eyes dance — part excitement, part pride, all twinkle — as he talks about his son. Branch no longer lives in Louisville, staying in Seattle during the season, but he sees the twins each offseason.
He married this summer but still talks to Danyle Lynch and calls her “a great mom.” Branch visited Louisville before the Seahawks’ first minicamp in May. He spent time with Deiondre, cradling him and rocking him and closing the door to the room so they could spend time alone together.
Branch noticed Deiondre and Deiontey are developing different personalities. That the twins share a bond.
“Deiondre is just not able to do the things that ‘Tey can do now,” Branch says. “But he loves him. He loves him, man.”
A way to tell Deiondre’s story
Branch doesn’t scrawl “Deiondre” on his cleats. He doesn’t perform a special touchdown celebration.
Back when Branch entered the NFL, back when the twins were infants, Lynch made a request.
“Deion, I know that you’re in a different world than I am,” Branch says she told him. “I would like you not to bring ‘Dre into that world right now.”
Branch only recently decided to open his private world to the public in the name of charity, a strategy Lynch supports. To maximize his impact, to make a difference, to raise awareness, he needed the Deion Branch Charitable Foundation. He needed to tell Deiondre’s story.
The process took longer than expected. Branch started his charity in 2004. It has never filed a tax return, meaning revenue in one year never exceeded $25,000. Inactivity marked the charity’s first two years, complicated further when the New England Patriots traded Branch to the Seahawks. The receiver got a new team and a new contract. His foundation needed a new start.
Soon after arriving in Seattle, Branch had dinner with Matt Wade, former director of community relations for the Seattle Sonics who now helps athletes run their charities. Branch knew he’d found the quarterback for his foundation.
They started small, a Thanksgiving feast for 100 families at Zion Prep Academy in Seattle, along with a holiday event for about 30 kids at Treehouse, an organization for foster-care children.
Branch says this feels like a new beginning. His charity benefited from an event in Louisville the week of the Kentucky Derby in May. Plans include another event in his home state of Georgia every July and at least one more a month during the NFL season. The start of something big growing from something small.
“Are you going to have a foundation just to have a foundation?” Branch asks. “Or do you want to be active?”
Fame affords Branch a platform. It also provides connections. When Branch returns to the Super Bowl each season as a former Most Valuable Player, he meets with CEOs of major companies — this year, it’s Frito-Lay — laying groundwork for future partnerships with his charity.
“He’s the perfect person to bring focus to that issue,” says Brown, from the Home of the Innocents. “He’s taken it on as a passion.”
Learning the language of a disease
Deion Branch can’t stop talking — about his son Deiondre. He’s 2,400 miles away from Louisville, in his second year with a new team and a new contract and new start for the charity his son inspired.
Before Deiondre’s illness, Branch hadn’t even heard of meningitis. Now he sounds like a specialist.
“Adults get afflicted by meningitis,” Dr. Branch says, rolling now, “only the difference is, adults can say, ‘Man, I’m sick. I’m feeling bad.’ Babies have to give you the signs, and you have to pick up on them as soon as possible.”
While Branch was visiting his sons in Louisville in May, a 5-year-old girl died from bacterial meningitis. Branch watched the story on the local news. He wondered if the child had had a stomachache, perhaps a fever. And he flashed back to the night when he thought his son was simply tired, instead of deathly sick.
The disease is alive, Branch says. It’s why he feels a sense of urgency to will his foundation beyond past efforts, to raise money and awareness so another child can turn 1, then 2, now 6.
Just like Deiondre.
“The more I push, the more exposure I get,” Deion Branch says, “the more the foundation benefits.”
Big plans inspired by his little man.
Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Danny O’Neil: 206-464-2364 or email@example.com