Deion Branch is famous for catching Tom Brady's touchdown passes, a role that earned him Super Bowl MVP in 2005. But off the football field, Branch is raising awareness and funds to tackle meningitis in honor of his son.
Branch was 21 years old when his twin boys, Deiondre and Deiontey, were born in Louisville, Ky. Small but strong, the twins toughed out two weeks in intensive care before coming home from the hospital. But six days later, Deiondre would be back.
"He wasn't eating. And he'd cry when you picked him up," said Branch, recalling the new-parent panic that prompted a late-night trip to the emergency room.
A series of tests revealed Deiondre had meningitis, inflammation in the lining of his nervous system triggered by a viral infection.
"The disease was already taking over his body," said Branch. "The doctors gave him six months to live."
But Deiondre fought hard and lived despite irreversible brain damage. He is now 11. And although he can't walk or talk, he lights up when he sees his dad.
"He always smiles and he's always going to make me smile," said Branch. "It's an honor to have him for a son."
Branch, who also has two younger daughters with his wife Shola, said he looks forward to the day Deiondre can play with his siblings.
"I know deep down inside he will," he said.
Because he needs constant care, Deiondre lives at Home of the Innocents, a Louisville non-profit that cares for medically fragile children.
"He is beloved by his family and the staff here," said Gordon Brown, president and CEO off Home of the Innocents. "He's one of those kids that always has a smile on his face."
Brown said kids like Deiondre who beat the odds make his job worthwhile.
"We see this kind of hopeful stuff happen all the time, and you never get callous to it," he said. "You always get that emotional charge every time you start to see progress; every time something works out better than predicted. It's wonderful to be part of that."
Deiondre gets regular visits from his mom and brother, Deiontey, who live in Louisville. And Branch makes the trip down from Foxborough every chance he gets.
"The love of family is one of the best medicines there is, so I'm very much in admiration of Deiondre's family because they are so committed to their son," said Brown. "They love him and he's a very important part of their lives. And that's something we should all celebrate."
Branch also started a charity called the Deion Branch Foundation to raise awareness about meningitis in children and funds for medical care and research. On Saturday, he and Deiontey pushed Deiondre in his wheelchair for the Kentucky Derby Festival mini-marathon. They raised $27,000.
"It was great. I'm looking forward to doing it every year," said Branch.
Juggling a hectic training and travel schedule on top of family life and philanthropy and is no easy feat. But Branch said he knows it's what he has to do.
"I think God puts certain things on your plate, and he's not going to give you more than you can handle," he said. "At first I thought, 'This is hard.' But then I think [Deiondre's] fighting a daily battle. I'm playing a game I love."
Branch said he hates being away from his family during football season. But for now, he has to be a provider.
"I love this game, but I'm only going to play football for so long," he said. "I'm going to have my son forever."