Deion Branch hosts football clinic for local autism charity
On a sunny afternoon in June, Patriots receiver Deion Branch found himself in a gym at Boston University teaching a clinic on throwing a football.
“I’m going to teach you the [Tom] Brady spiral, not the Branch spiral,” Branch promised the group of children surrounding him.
The gathered children did not seem to care what spiral they learned. Instead, they were eager to simply hang out with Branch, who took the role of an involved tutor as he made his way up and down the line of children to teach them how to hold and throw a football correctly.
The clinic was no ordinary clinic. Branch’s students, while all eager football fans, were a mixed group of children with and without autism. The event, sponsored by PopChips, was the grand prize of a contest won by Athletes 4 Autism, a charity started by former BU hockey player Kevin Gilroy. Branch picked Athletes 4 Autism from a group of five charities in the area as the lucky recipient of a one-day clinic.
Athletes 4 Autism, a charity focusing on treating special needs and non-special needs children as equals, hit close to home for Branch, who is the father of a special needs son.
“Early on, they presented it to me about two months ago and I jumped to it,” Branch said. “I have a special needs son myself, so I’m always involved with the things with him, and I try my best to do it all as well.”
Branch’s son, Deiondre, contracted viral meningitis as an infant and has special needs as a result of the illness. Perhaps because of his experience with his son, Branch was completely at ease with all children at the football clinic at BU. When the children participated in a football toss target practice, Branch knelt down to eye level with the children and positioned them just so, eliciting giggles and a few hit targets from the children. He took a special interest in young Max Feder, the smallest boy in the group, and moved Max past the throwing line and just inches away from the targets in the hopes of helping Max nail a bulls-eye. Although Max did not hit the target, he was rewarded with a high-five and a hair tousle anyway.
“It’s pretty amazing to see,” said Wayne Feder, Max’s father, who watched as the pro football player played with his young son. “It’s these moments in life that you have to grab and take a couple hours a day away from work. These are the once in a lifetime experiences that you try to give your kids.”
Feder brought his two sons, Max and older brother Sol, although neither has autism. They were present at the event as invited guests of Gilroy. Others at the event, however, were there in search of different experiences that would benefit a child with special needs.
Terri Farrell of Plymouth brought her two sons, 13-year-old Connor and 10-year-old Liam to expose Connor, who is on the autism spectrum, to interactions with typical children. The event especially made sense for Farrell since Connor’s has a special affinity for Deion Branch.
“My son loves Deion Branch,” Farrell said. “That was part of it. He learned about football through the Super Bowl DVDs because team sports can be difficult to really follow, so with the DVD, he can stop, start, stop and start, ask questions and Branch was the Super Bowl MVP one year. So Deion Branch, because of that, it all made sense.”
The event was Farrell’s first exposure to Athletes 4 Autism, and she said she will continue to support the charity since she believes strongly in the charity’s mission to have kids with and without special needs playing together.
“The more Connor can interact with typical people as well and not just from the spectrum, that role modeling, even if he just picks up a couple of cues here and there is all good,” Farrell said.
Both Farrell and Feder acknowledged that the time Branch spent with their children at the clinic will change the way they view Branch in the future. Farrell said she sees Branch more as a person now rather than just an athlete because of their shared experience of a parent of a child with special needs.
“When you have a child that is not typical of what your dream is, for someone to be able to understand that, he knows,” Farrell said. “He’s had that very different path that you have to navigate, and so again, it all kind of fit to have somebody that’s not just here for community service hours but that, he lives it.”
Branch said the event was a good distraction from the stress of a busy offseason in which Branch has to work extra hard to get in shape considering the amount of receivers he will be competing with in order to make the New England roster. However, Branch did note that he may have found some more competition for another teammate at the event.
“The [kids] are really good, especially some of the older kids,” Branch said. “We may have a young Tom Brady here.”