Branch would take a round about route to East
Carolina, but it was that hard path that helped formulate the man and
player he would become. Not only would he turn out to be a key player on
the famed Pirates team of 1983, but he would go on to Super Bowl glory with
the Washington Redskins. He was the consummate role player, so much so
that he carved out a lengthy NFL career based on it.
His family tree brought him to ECU, but
through his play and his heart, he etched his own name into Pirate lore.
“My senior year, my family was always talking about
Tony Collins this and Tony Collins that,” Branch said of his uncle, a
former Pirate great and star NFL running back. “They would say, ‘Look at
Tony, he is in college on a scholarship at East Carolina.’ So, I started
thinking, you know, if he can go to college, I can go to college too.
"But, at the time, I wasn’t getting big offers. I got a couple of offers
from little schools like Tennessee-Chattanooga, Central Florida,
Bethune-Cookman, schools like that, but no real big-name schools were
Following in the footsteps of Collins at Seminole high would be task enough for the talented prep tailback, let
alone making it big in the college ranks. Though Branch always
looked in front of himself to see better athletes, it was what he found
inside that paved the way from backyard baller to NFL standout.
“Back in the days, at Seminole, when my brother
(Herbert) and Tim Raines – Jeff’s Godfather – were in the
backfield… there were some (talented) guys before me. We had guys coming
to Seminole from all over. We always had a good team and we were used to
going to the playoffs.”
(Photo courtesy of the Washington Redskins)
His brother Herbert was a star for Seminole and a
bigger star in the eyes of his kid brother, Reggie, who looked to him
for adult male guidance. Branch’s father was never really part of his
family and died before Branch was old enough to bond with the man the way he
would have liked to.
“You know, I never really knew my dad,” Branch
said. “But, what is was like was people would point him out and say,
‘That’s your daddy.’ So, I kind of knew him, but didn’t really know
him. I was always kind of scared to go up and talk to him.
remember that I was about eight years old and I heard that my dad had
died of asthma. And, even though I didn’t really know him, I cried and
cried and cried… it really hurt. Honestly, that is why I always tell
people to appreciate what you have, especially a person like your
father, because all of the sudden, he could be gone.
“I really wish I had my dad around to talk to me
back then. He could have told me a lot of things and I could have asked
him really important questions. So, my mom was kind of dad and mom for
Branch looked to Herbert to be his surrogate father
in the world of sports. In his own way, his older brother prodded the
younger brother to the football field.
“My brother and Tim Raines were the starting backs
for Seminole and that was a big deal back in the day,” Branch said. “I
didn’t start playing sports until I was in 9th grade. My mom
wouldn’t let me play Pop Warner back then. For one thing, she didn’t
want me to get hurt… you know how moms are. You know, that kind of thing.
The only reason I played football was because my brother kept bugging me
about it. I had two older brothers and the one in the middle (Herbert)
just kept bugging me, so I decided to go for it in 9th
Branch went out and made the team, though he
chuckles when he admits that the coach wasn’t cutting anyone on that
squad. Of course, though he had the desire, he was a little lost on that
“I went out for guard because I didn’t know any
better,” Branch laughed. “So, I went home and told my brother, ‘You know
what position I’m playing?’ And he said, “What position?’ And I was
excited and I said, ‘Guard!’ Herbert was like, ‘You go back there and
tell the coach you don’t want to play guard. You tell them you want to
play running back or defensive back.’
“So, I went back and told the coach I didn’t want
to play guard. I was only like 130 pounds in the 9th
grade… probably less than that. Of course, it wasn’t just because my
brother told me, I also changed my position because I ran into one of
those big guys once – even remember his name, Ben Green – and I mean, he
was like 6-3 and had to weigh about 220 pounds in the 9th
grade. And I hit Ben and I saw stars man. I thought, I gotta change
positions. So, what I did was start playing defensive back.”
Where his brother was his football inspiration,
Branch turned to his mom, Annie Mae, for guidance, and there were some
others that were key in his development as a youth.
“I had Godparents, too,” he said. “Dale and Gene
Hunter. They had always helped my mom out a whole lot and they took care
of me, too. My mom worked so much. The Hunters couldn’t have kids of
their own, so they brought me in as their kid, kind of. They taught me
And while Branch spent his freshman season at
Seminole figuring himself out, Blake was already aware of the younger
Branch boy. And Blake was present at important times for the Branch boys.
“Coach Blake was there and when I came through, he
would always talk to me about my brothers. He taught me a lot… period.
Coach Blake taught me about life, about the opportunity to go to
college, about believing in yourself. He taught me to believe in myself
and I can go a long way.”
When Branch moved up to the 10th grade,
Blake saw his potential and skipped him up to the varsity.
“I had decided I was going to be a running back,”
Branch said. “We had a lot of running backs from all over these small
towns like Georgetown and Lincoln Heights. I mostly blocked for these
talented guys who were running the ball a lot. And, I made a name for
myself doing that.”
Though his team was successful and he was a
successful part of his team, the offers didn’t role in for Branch… not
the big schools. And Branch, who knew his home situation wouldn’t
afford him the luxury to go on a partial or to walk on, looked for a future on his own.
“I looked at (the lack of offers) and said, ‘You
know what? I didn’t get a scholarship,’” he said. “My mom couldn’t
afford it and my dad died when I was 8 years old. I decided I needed to
go to the Marines. I thought, ‘There is nothing back at home for me to
do,’ so I decided that I needed to get on with doing something with my
Before Branch could make his way to the enlistment
center, fate intervened, albeit in a round about way.
“At the last minute, a coach from West Virginia
State called me and he said was looking at me and another guy, Reggie
Campbell, and he said, ‘We’ll give you guys scholarships if you come up.
Campbell and I looked at each other and said, ‘Sure!’ That was what I
was looking for… a scholarship.”
But, as Branch would learn, things are not always
as they appear. He packed his bags for West Virginia.
“ But, once I got up there, I was like, ‘I don’t
know if it was really a scholarship or what’ because there I was going
through financial aid. And that is what happened there.”
And it was not just the fact that the school’s coaches
misled him, it was also just not the right fit for a player of his
“I didn’t like the atmosphere there,” he said. “It
was a real small school. I loved some of the people I met and there were
some great guys up there from Florida, but I just didn’t feel
comfortable where I was. But I felt like maybe once football started,
it would work out.”
His career at West Virginia State was short-lived.
“The next thing you know, we were in practice and I
was running the ball and a guy had my leg and another guy came and hit
me on the blindside and I broke my ankle. So, I guess that it was the
Lord saying, ‘You gonna be sitting up in the hospital for a while so you
need to think about what you’re going to do.’
“As I contemplated about staying or leaving, it
just came to me that I was going to get up out of here. Once I got out,
I really wanted to start clean so I wrote to like five schools. Every
school I wrote to – the University of New Mexico, Texas-El Paso, East
Carolina, and I think Florida State and Tennessee-Chattanooga. I wrote
to those schools and I got accepted to each of those schools. But the
thing about it was, I said, you know what, I am going to go to
University of New Mexico. I thought, ‘I ain’t never been there before.’
And one of the players I met at West Virginia State was from there and
he was going to do the same thing.”
Branch left the hospital with a clear decision. He
finished his first year at West Virginia State. All the while, he was
corresponding with the coaching staff at New Mexico and mentally
preparing to head west. But sometimes, fate intervenes and people are swept
to where they should be. A summer trip home turned out to be Branch’s
East Carolina calling.
“I wanted to go back home and get my mother’s
opinion about what I should do,” Branch said. “The thing about it was
that when I was on my way home, I stopped in Greenville at East Carolina
to hang out with Tony (Collins), you know, because he was there and it was his
last year with East Carolina. He had been a senior that year. Tony was
getting ready to go to the NFL and he said, ‘Let’s go down to the weight
Collins, who went on to star with the New England
Patriots, and his nephew hit the weight room.
“We were working out and this guy comes over and is
like, ‘Hi Tony, how’s it going?’ Branch said. “He was like, ‘Good to see
you Tony,’ and this and that, and then he said, ‘Who is this with you and
Tony said, ‘This is my nephew.’ And the guy said, ‘Does he play
football?’ And Tony was like, ‘Yeah, he is thinking about transferring’
and all that.'
“The guy said, ‘You look in good shape. If you’d
like to come here, give Tony your information or come down and see me
tomorrow.’ So when we was leaving, Tony says, ‘You know who that was you
were talking to?’ And I said, ‘No, who?’”
It was head coach Ed Emory, Collins told Branch.
“I said, ‘No kidding? When I sent my film, I guess
they threw it away!’”
Insulted? Maybe a little, but excitement was the
emotion that ruled the moment and the next day, Branch went down to
“I gave him my information and they knew I did good
in school and that I was good to go academically,” Branch said. “And
then, I was like, ‘Coach Emory, I really appreciate it.’ He told me that
if I came there and did good in the spring, then I could earn a
scholarship. So, I decided that I was going to go to East Carolina and
earn that scholarship. That’s how it happened.”
Branch explains some of the motivating factors:
“To be honest, I was like if Tony (Collins) went
there, East Carolina had to be a great college,” Branch said. “In West
Virginia, they didn’t even have a weight room. At ECU, I am looking at
everything, the practice field, the weight room, a nice stadium and
everyone was competitive. So, I said to myself, ‘I gotta come here.’ I
knew I was going to love East Carolina and then driving through North
Carolina, people were waving at you and I just figured it was the
hospitality around here.
"Plus, to be really honest, you got to eat all
you could eat and I couldn’t do that at home. The only time we got that
at home was sometimes on the weekends and then we might just get an
extra soda pop or something.”
A NEW PIRATE ARRIVES
Branch arrived at ECU in 1981 to a redshirt
and a position on the scout team. And he made the most of that chance.
“I went to ECU ready to do whatever I
needed to earn me a scholarship,” he said. “I was on the scout team and
every week I was getting the scout player of the week honors for such a
good job. So at the end of that season or the next spring, I earned me a
scholarship. I was like, ‘Thank you Jesus.’”
On the scout team, Branch got a chance to
learn just about every position as well as gain the confidence needed to
excel in the lineup.
“I remember, for the first game in my
career, I had to be Kelvin Bryant,” Branch recalled. “All I knew is that
it was my job to be the best Kelvin Bryant I could be to help the team.
Well, I was the scout team player of the week and then the next thing I
knew, I was the top scout player four weeks straight. They basically
stopped giving me the ball because the guys were like, ‘What’s he doing
on the scout team?’”
But that is where Branch stayed until his
redshirt sophomore season. It was then that Branch found that a position
change was in the making.
“The next year, Ernest didn’t have a backup
at fullback and Coach Emory said, ‘Reggie, we have enough tailbacks and
I want you to back Byner up at fullback. So, I was like, ‘Anything for
the team, Coach,’ and Emory was like, ‘I appreciate it.’
“We had great tailbacks in Tony Baker and
Jimmy Walden,” Branch said. “So, it was me and Ernest and Tony and
Jimmy… we really had great backs in the backfield.”
And, it showed. Emory was afforded the
luxury of going with a speed backfield, or a hands backfield, or a power
backfield… the combinations were there to make adjustments that most
teams could not do.
“That year, since EB was the starting
fullback, I played a few downs and was on the special teams,” Branch
said. “When Ernest needed a break, I would go in and do my duty. If it
had been anything, my first play from scrimmage was blocking, since that
is generally what I did all season.”
For Branch, that season, 1982, was a strong
sign of things to come and he was not totally caught off guard by the
success that came his junior season.
“I looked at it like we had an all-around
solid team,” he said. “We had Henry Williams, who could break one at any
time. Over on the defense we had guys like Steve Hamilton, Jeff Pegues,
Clint Harris, Kenny Phillips, Mike Grant… all those guys were great and
then guys like Calvin and Stefon Adams and the guys behind those guys
were great. These guys all could have played at any Division I school,
that is the kind of talent we had on that team.
“And guys like Kevin Ingram, Damon Pope,
Norwood Vann, I was thinking, ‘We can be very good this year.’ We were
stacked all around and if anyone got hurt we had someone to step in who
was just as good or even better. We looked at it like this, the year
before that we were 7-4. Of course, we had some guys like Jody Schulz
the year before, but we knew we had all juniors and seniors and that we
could be awesome if we took it to the next level. We knew we had an
opportunity for a bowl game. We really didn’t care at all about no
Miami, Florida State or Florida. Like Coach Emory said, ‘They put their
pants on one leg at a time, just like you.’ I knew that for sure.
Everybody was competing through off-season, the spring, everyone wanted
to be part of that year coming. We had guys that didn’t make the travel
team that were great.”
The ’82 team forged a 7-4 record, but more
than that, the team was taking account of the reputation that ECU had around the
nation. Disrespect would be a mild term.
“When we went to play these Florida teams,
they were like we were a Homecoming game,” Branch said of the notion
that teams slate weak teams for homecoming. “And that Florida State
game, I am going to be honest with you, the refs just called it wrong.
We didn’t make mistakes in that game, they just called something that
plain didn’t happen. They came up with something like pass interference.
All three of the games (against Florida teams) they put me and Ernest in
the backfield for the big backfield and then Coach would slip Tony and
Jimmy in and then next time it was another combination. We showed those
teams we have four great backs and we can mix it up any way we wanted
whenever we wanted.”
Though he played plenty during the Florida
games, it was Byner’s year to shine and Branch respected that.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be playing as
much, I knew it was going to be Ernest. He was going in as if it was his
senior year,” Branch said. “I was the back up. That was my role. My role
was also on special teams and when Ernest got tired I’d go in for a play
or two. But Ernest never wanted to come out. There was one time when
Coach Emory sent me in because he thought Ernest was hurt and then EB
was like, ‘Get the hell out of this huddle.’ And I was like, ‘I didn’t
ask to come in. Coach Emory sent me in.’ Everything Ernest did, I tried
to do just like him. You can’t be the same as Ernest, but I tried to
take advantage of playing behind him.”
But, like in the FSU game, he had his
moments at fullback.
“When we played against Florida State, I
remember our running backs coach, Coach Bell, came up and told me that
me and EB were going to be in the backfield,” he said. “I knew that
there was potential there. And it really stood out in the Florida game.
I remember Wilbur Marshall was there and he was an All-America. I
remember they gave me the ball on my first carry and I went for 10 yards
before Wilbur finally dragged me down. And he was like, ‘We’re gonna do
this to you all night.’ And I was like, ‘Man, I just got 10 yards on
And though the Pirates lost the game 24-17,
it was not for lack of offense.
“Ernest broke a few big ones,” Branch said.
“We were all like, ‘These guys can’t handle us.’ Tony would come in and
Jimmy came in and scored a touchdown. I really don’t know if we were
really their homecoming, but they really thought they were going to whip
us. That whole season was amazing and any time I got the ball that year,
I was hyped up!”
Branch, like he had been since he was in
high school, was the true soldier… taking on his role as if he was the
star of the team. He made special teams and backup fullback a position
of high regard on Emory’s legendary ’83 squad. And what he witnessed
after that season gave him all the impetus he needed to ratchet up his
own football expectations.
“I tell you this much… that year, when it
ended, all of these guys were going pro and I was like, ‘You have to be
kidding me,’” he said. “That meant a lot to see those guys go pro and
then when they got in the league, most of them stuck. That was
impressive. I figured if they could go to the League, then I could.”
And, there was that long-time motivator in
the Branch family.
“Of course my family all the time talked
about Tony (Collins) going pro to the New England Patriots in the 2nd
round,” he laughed. “I felt like if he could go pro, then I could go
pro. Getting from there to the pros were all the guys I played with… from EB to Terry Long to Jody Schulz and some of these guys also went to the
USFL and the Canadian Football League and I wouldn’t have minded going
“A lot of these guys got opportunities and
all these scouts were coming through. I am saying to myself, ‘We had a
great team this year and it isn’t the kind of thing that is going to
happen again.’ If I wanted to remake that team again, I couldn’t do it.
We had so many blue-collar workers and we just didn’t stop and nobody
messed with us. I love all of these guys and I thought I would always
stay in touch with them. To be part of that team, that organization and
watching them go on and be successful is something I (cherish). And a
lot of guys who didn’t go pro are doing great things with their lives.
Makes me proud to be part of that 1983 team.”
Though he returned for the 1984 season
knowing that the team was going to be considerably less experienced,
Branch had a renewed feeling that he could make his way to the NFL. He
had seen many teammates excelling on the next level and he was inspired,
“The ’84 season… it was tough because we had
a lot guys leave and a lot of new guys stepping in who were not ready,”
Branch recalled. “We didn’t have a lot of experience and I knew it was
going to be hard to do what we did in 1983. I tried to be a leader and
teach them the way we had been taught before. I could have played
another year and I played to the best of my ability, but we didn’t have
a defense. We lost a lot of guys the year before and we all knew it was
going to be a tougher year.
“But we still went out there and played our
hearts out and that was a fact. We came in early, left late, and worked
hard, but we didn’t have a lot of experience back on the team. And we
went out and played like we did before. There were no quitters out
there, even the younger guys. We played to the end, like always.”
Branch saw a marked increase in his
touches, but also was the significant blocking back in the backfield,
leading the way for Baker. During the season, as the team found winning
difficult, Branch stopped thinking about the NFL, but never relented in
his on-field work ethic.
While his thoughts of the next level ebbed,
folks in the NFL hadn’t forgotten about him.
“That year, I started getting letters from
a lot of teams,” he recalled. “I was getting letters from New England,
Pittsburgh, the Jets, the Giants, Tampa Bay and Dallas. You know, I
don’t think I got anything from the Redskins. These letters… man they
sounded so good, they said stuff like, we’re checking you out. You know,
I didn’t get many letters in high school, but I was getting them
consistently from the NFL and man, I saved all those letters, just in
case people inquire and they do.
“It came to a point, I said, ‘Whatever
Though he was getting letters, he felt his
dream may have ended when with two games remaining in the season, he
injured his ankle.
“I was like, ‘I gotta suck it up,’” Branch
recalled. “The situation was like, Dallas coming in tomorrow to test me.
The Dallas scout told me I did very well, but I was looking around and
thinking that Dallas was the only team to actually come and test me. I’m
looking at Stefon (Adams) and Damon (Pope)… man, every day teams were in
testing them… plus, they went to the combine and I wasn’t getting that
kind of attention.”
Though he didn’t get the level of personal
attention, he did start to get pestered by an agent, who he admits he
should never have signed up with.
“This guy started sending me messages
asking to be my agent and I was like, ‘Maybe I need an agent,’” he said.
“The guy came in and we signed a little contract and then he tells me
he wanted me to go to the CFL and I was like, ‘What about the NFL? You
haven’t even tried that.’
“So I quickly came to a point and said, ‘I
gotta get rid of this guy.’ So, I called up Steve Hamilton and Jeff
Pegues, who were drafted the year before by the Redskins to ask their
advice. So I got Alan Hermann (Hamilton’s agent) to be my agent. He told
me he would check into it and squash that contract. He got me out of
that, though when I got my signing bonus I had to pay that guy out. But,
I got him out of my system.”
As was the case many times, teams were
telling Branch that they liked him and that they might pick him, but the
call would never come.
“I had teams calling before the draft and
Dallas even sent a guy to Greenville to hang out with me, Damon and
Jimmy Walden,” Branch said. “They ended up going to Dallas, but I knew
Dallas was trying hard and they were bringing in so many guys that they
weren’t even getting a chance to practice. So, I was like, ‘I’m waiting
for something else.’ The truth is that I did stay by the phone, but the
only call I got was from Washington, who said they wanted me to come to
their camp. Alan had advised me to go there anyway because Steve and
Jeff were there and that the team put a special emphasis on special
“So, the draft was going on and I am
thinking more and more, ‘You know, Steve and Jeff are there’ and it
started sounding good to me. So I told the guy from Dallas that I wasn’t
going there. He said, I’ll drive you to the airport. He was driving so
slow and the Redskins had everything booked for me. I was saying, ‘Man,
you ain’t driving very fast, my flight leaves soon.’ So when we finally
get there and I go to the desk, tell them who I am and that the Redskins
arranged my flight and they tell me that my flight just left. And then
this Dallas guy actually said, ‘You ready to sign now?’ I was like I
know what you did, no way was I going to Dallas.”
OFF TO THE NFL
Branch decided that if he
were to make an NFL team, Washington was the most likely place to do it. He had a comfort zone with Steve Hamilton and Jeff Pegues already
there for a year and he felt that his lifelong dedication to doing
whatever the team needs would serve him well.
“So, I went to the Redskins,” he said. “I
wanted Steve and Jeff to tell me what the Redskins want, need in a
player. I remember Steve was like, ‘These guys are so fast and big that
they make college look like a joke!’ They told me the ins and outs of
the team and the League. I even stayed with Steve when I got there.”
Branch headed to his first professional
team meeting on a mission.
“I remember the first meeting I went to,”
Branch said. “Coach (Joe) Gibbs said, ‘I want guys who work hard, want
to be part of the team, and are productive on every Sunday.’ That’s what
it came down to, production. I was like, ‘If that is what Coach Gibbs is
looking for, that’s what I am all about. The guy I had to beat out was
Otis Wonsley and he was one of the best special teams guy in the league.
I knew I wasn’t going to run the ball for the Redskins. Otis would block
on short yardage and goal line in the jumbo set. So when I got there,
Coach Gibbs said, ‘You may never get the opportunity to play your
position, but special teams is what I am looking for.’
“I was determined to go out there to be the
best special teams player I can be. Every time we go into meetings they
were always talk about Otis Wonsley, Pete Cronin, and Greg Williams. I
was like, ‘Man you know what, I got to be a part of that… Coach Gibbs is
talking about me.”
By the time the first preseason game rolled
around in 1985, Branch was hyped. But, in that first game, Branch
admitted, “I went out to do what I have to do, but I didn’t really get
my name mentioned in that first game.”
Knowing that he was up against a legendary
special teams player and a couple of other proven guys he knew he had to do
something to stand out.
“So, next game,” he explained, “I’m
thinking, ‘I gotta do, what I gotta do ’cause I’m not about getting cut,
here.’ So, I went out and did well and sure enough, Coach Gibbs mentioned
me and the special teams coach mentioned my name and all of that. It
felt good and it motivated me. The next week, we played Atlanta, and it
came down to a big opportunity for me. I don’t know what it was but we
were in the huddle and something told me to look into Atlanta’s huddle.
Maybe it was ESP or something, but I just knew they were going to do a
fake kick. I said to myself, ‘I’m not going to let anyone touch me. I’m
going straight to the kicker on this one.’
“So, I went straight at the kicker and
tackled him and that was the biggest part of my game right there. After
that play, (the Redskins) turned me into the ‘wedge buster’ on kickoff
team. So, I was like whatever it takes to be part of the team. Next
thing you know, Jeff Bostic starts calling me Stone Head. It was like
everyone started calling me that. I didn’t care about my body, I just
wanted to do what it took for me to be on the team.”
Branch had done what it took to get noticed
and felt good when the Turk starting making his rounds.
“You know, when they got somebody who has
been there awhile, like Otis Wonsley, they really wanted to keep him
around and they couldn’t keep both of us, so they let me go.”
For most guys, to be cut would probably end
the dream and for a while, Branch thought that he was done. But the
instincts that brought him to Washington in the first place served him
well. He went to the Redskins, in part, because he had a pair of his
Pirate teammates on his side.
“I just kind of hung around Steve’s house
and it got to the fourth or fifth game and the Redskins weren’t calling
me to come back, so I said, ‘I don’t think they are going to call me
back.’ And, so, I was like ‘Ham – that is what I called Steve, since he
was like my brother away from home for me – I think I’m just going home,
man.’ He said, “Reg, naw man, do this: Call over to the park. The
special teams are having a lot of problems like getting kicks ran back
on them. And they aren’t making the tackles. Call and tell them that you
are still around town if someone gets hurt or something.’
“So, that’s what I did. I called over to
the park and said, ‘This is Reggie Branch, can I talk to Coach Gibbs.’
And they put me through and I was like, ‘Coach, I’m still in town and
I’m going to be here around if you need me for anything.”
The fact that Gibbs took his call should
have signaled Branch to something, but if it didn’t, the Redskins' game
the following week at Chicago definitely did.
“You know what? The next week in Chicago,
Willie Gault ran one back on them,” Branch said. “When Steve came home,
he said, ‘Reg, you know what? I think they’re going to call you on
And the phone did ring on Monday.
“Ham was like, ‘Reg, phone for you,’”
Branch explained. “It was Barbara, Coach Gibbs secretary, and she said,
‘Coach Gibbs wants you to come over to the park.’ You know, the thing
about it, though, from then on, I was there ever since. But, you know, it
really comes down to believing in yourself – believing in the Lord helps
too. Anything is possible if you work hard. People will see what you
have done and then you have to stick with it and take the opportunity.”
Retrospective might have diminished his own
appreciation of what he did… really. He willed his way into the NFL. But,
he recalls that when prodded.
“I’ll tell you it wasn’t easy,” he said. “I
did everything this coach asked me to do, but there are other coaches
involved and they get attached to players like Wonsley. I understood
getting cut, but it comes to a point where they had to bring me back in.
That is the business. I was making plays.
“You know, back at ECU, Coach Emory asked
me to back up Ernest. Going into the NFL, I had to be humble again. I did
what I was asked to do… play short yardage, block, special teams. Nothing
had changed for me. At all levels, I did what it took to make the team.
I was a realist when I played. I thought to myself, ‘These guys make
millions of dollars to run the football; you think they are going to
give me the ball?’
"Look, John Riggins was there…I’m like, ‘Shoot, I’m
not touching the ball up in here.’ Then there was George Rodgers from
New Orleans who was next in line. Those types of players. If you go in
thinking you are going to be the running back on that team, you aren’t
going to be on the team. It was special teams… that was my piece of the
When he thinks back, Branch is almost
amazed at how it went down.
“The thing about it, I molded myself to the
player Coach Gibbs wanted,” he said. “I thought he wanted that. You know
what, when Coach cuts you after you have done everything he asked, all
you can do is walk away. Coach Gibbs was impressed when I called… he was
like ‘Who would make that call?’ That was a gift of God that came
through Ham to get me to do that. I was ready to go home and then I’m a
“I had to keep the belief. Back in the day,
Coach Emory used to always say, ‘Life ain’t fair.’ I always tried to
figure that out… what did he mean by that? But, it’s true. It’s about the
opportunity. You keep working for that opportunity because when you get
yours there is another guy, just like you, who won’t get that
opportunity because you done got it. I wanted to make sure it was me
with the opportunity, so I picked up the phone.”
After all of that, Branch had to think that
the 1986 season would be his to enjoy. He had proven himself to be not
only a good football player, but also, a guy with enough self-confidence
to approach a coaching legend to demand a second look. But sometimes, as
his former coach would say, “Life ain’t fair.”
“Now… I have to tell you that the next year
in camp, I knew it was going to come down to me and Otis and Pete again,
but this time, I was like, ‘Their chances are like my chances and I came
to take this position,’” he said. “We came out after Christmas and
worked out at Redskin Park. Everyone else went on vacation, but I stayed
and concentrated on what I had to do to be on this team. Next thing you
know, season starts, and I had done what I had to do. It comes down to
last cut time and you know what? I can’t lie… they let me go again.
“I was like, you gotta be kidding me! Coach
Gibbs was like, ‘Stay around, you never know what might happen.’ I knew
that I deserved that position. I was getting it from everyone, Steve,
Jeff Bostic, Dexter Manly, Daryl Grant, they are all like, ‘What the
heck is going on? I can’t believe this!’ I was getting it from everyone.
And, I don’t know how it happened, but sure enough, they weren’t doing
well and they called me back.”
To his credit, Branch didn’t let pride keep
him from going through the routine again, but this time, he couldn’t
have been more surprised when he showed up at Redskins Park.
“Check this out,” he retells the story.
“Coach Gibbs brought everybody into a (meeting) room – everybody
including the secretaries, administrative folks, everybody – and you can
ask Ham about this, ask anyone that played that year. Coach Gibbs came
in and told everyone, ‘I made a mistake… and I will never make that
mistake again. Reggie should have never been cut. I don’t know why I did
it, but I won’t do it again.’”
Branch couldn’t believe his ears. After
all, he was really only a second year player and hadn’t even spent his
first season on the roster for its entirety.
“And when I think about that… you know, I
missed the money (I lost), but money can’t bring a man back to say what
he said and I appreciated that,” Branch said. “Any money I lost and I
knew I shouldn’t have missed any games. But for Coach Gibbs to come
there and say that in front of everyone… to apologize… that’s a man, a
real honest to God man. Any man who could admit a mistake, that’s a
hall of fame coach and he even called my name during the Hall of Fame
ceremony. That’s what I’m talking about. That is why I tell young people
not to talk about yourself… let others do that. When you start talking
about yourself, you get the wrong perspective about yourself.”
And, he learned even more from some of his
teammates who didn’t quite get it.
“My good friend Timmy Smith, when we were
in the Super Bowl, he did very well,” Branch said. “I really don’t think
anybody is going to break that record (204 yards rushing in a Super
Bowl). When Timmy started bragging about himself, I was like, ‘Tim, you
are going the wrong way here, man. You done got the big head.’ And next
thing you know, he’s not with the Redskins no more. Then he goes to San
Diego and did some crazy stuff there and he ends up blackballed in the
Branch turned his two partial seasons into
a career that spanned seven years, brought him a Super Bowl ring, and
saw his name made synonymous with outstanding special teams play. And
when asked, Branch’s best memories are those playoff games.
Reggie Branch (Photo: Choo Justice)
“I tell you what, it is hard to remember
what games stand out,” he said. “What I do remember is playing in the
playoffs. We had to play against the Giants, with the wind blowing, and
it came down to the 4th quarter. We were sure we would win,
but they came out and beat us. That was my second year and we had the
opportunity to beat the Giants and we would be in the Super Bowl.
“We had to beat the Bears at Soldier Field
and to get to see Walter Payton… that was special. Our defense was
awesome to shut down Walter. We beat them and I thought for sure we
would beat the Giants and go to the Super Bowl. Of course we lost and
the Giants won the Super Bowl.”
Branch and his comrades got it right the
next time around.
“After that second year, I felt like I was
on the team, really,” he said. “I became the special teams captain and I
remember walking out there with Doug Williams for the coin toss at the
Super Bowl and thinking, ‘My God… I’m in the Super Bowl.’ It was my third
year and I was a Super Bowl champion and the special teams MVP.
“And, man, Ham was there, too. I just wish
Jeff had still been on the team. This NFL thing is so crazy. It was also
great to have my family there… I flew them all out to San Diego for the
game. It is real fun in the League. Coach Emory had us going through
four-a-days, he kicked Paris Island’s ass. You don’t do that in the
NFL… no way man. The stuff we went through at ECU disciplined me and
taught me a whole lot during that period in my life and it is that ‘Want
power’ that Coach Emory instilled in me. That is what 1983 was all about
and that is what got me over the hump. I have been through the trials
and tribulations with Coach Emory and he, for sure, wore off on me. I
learned a lot from Coach Emory.”
He often reflects on the parallels between
his collegiate and professional careers… noting that he was part of two
very special eras in football.
“People always ask, what do you think of
that time?” he said. “Now people know that East Carolina is that purple
team. If I could do it again, it would be East Carolina over and over.
People ask, and I say… I love it. 1983 and 1987 were the two best teams I
ever played with. Got with a bunch of guys with no real egos. No one was
overly popular. We all played like superstars but were blue-collar
workers. No more attention than anyone else and that is what I love
about those guys.”
Branch feels that he was part of the East
Carolina team that bridged the gap between East Carolina’s dominance of
lower echelon football to the biggest of big-time Division I football.
“Hey, like 1983, we put East Carolina on
the map,” he said. “We got the program from point A to point B.”
And of his Redskins career?
“Seven years, man, a Super Bowl ring,
special teams player of the year,” he said. “I couldn’t ask for more.
Sometimes I think about if I was playing now, where guys who are special
teams stars are making millions… man. But really, everyone played because
they love the game, just like in college. That was what it was and that
is what I tell everyone today. Sure, I wish I had a signing bonus like
the players are getting today, but I can’t complain. Shoot, just getting
John Madden to say your name during a broadcast, that’s something. And
Coach Gibbs valued the special teams player and valued my contributions.
“I went for seven years and retired because
I broke my ankles twice and the doctor said, ‘You could be crippled.’ So
that was it and, yes, it does hurt when you can’t play anymore. I
remember (former Redskins owner) Jack Kent-Cooke said to me, ‘Reggie,
stay here in the area. More people know you here. If you go somewhere
else, you’ll get forgotten.’ He was right. I guarantee more people know
me from playing for the Redskins now than when I played. More know East
Carolina now than from when I played. I am glad I was part of East
Carolina and the Redskins. The type of guys I played with and the
coaches I played for. I cannot have come back and done as much in
LIFE AFTER THE LEAGUE
“After I retired, I didn’t know what I
wanted to do,” Branch said. “It was tough to hang out with the guys I
played with because they were still playing and they were all saying I
should still be playing. It was very hard to watch them play every
Sunday. I didn’t even tell my agent I was going to retire because I
wanted to do it myself. I came up to Dewey Beach (Delaware).
with a Skins fan at Reggie's
restaurant in Rehoboth (Submitted)
There, Branch began managing a popular
restaurant called the Starboard, where his football fame has served him
well with the staff and customers.
“I love what I am doing,” he said. “I
believe as long as you are happy doing what you are doing, you are going
to do well. I enjoy doing what I am doing. Eventually I want to go home
(to Florida) and coach. I’d like to share with kids what I have learned.
I am proof you can do it yourself. As for me, I did it myself.”
At the restaurant, Branch keeps everything
in order, but he admits a lot of his role is simply being Reggie Branch
and showing folks a good time. “What I care about are the people,” he
“They know what I have done in my career
and people seem to like that… it makes people happy and that makes me