"You can't go back home … to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame … back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting.” — Thomas Wolfe
Let me start by saying I love Deion Branch, and I’m glad he’s coming back to the Patriots. Any former Boston athlete who’s returning to play here and has championship rings to place in the little plastic bucket at the airport? Well, he can drink from my canteen any time.
And Branch in particular because he is the classic Patriots success story. He's 5-foot-9 and 195 pounds. A guy most people considered to be a reach when the Pats took him with the 65th overall pick in 2002. He nevertheless worked his arse off until he made himself worthy of a first-round pick and top-tier receiver money from the Seahawks. Branch is smart, hard-working, cerebral and a guy who’s wrung every drop of natural ability out of himself. If a man named Troy Brown hadn’t been born in a manger under a shining star many years ago, then Deion Branch would be the quintessential Patriots receiver.
And I think he’s capable of helping the Pats now, at the dawn of the post-Randy Moss Era. The Pats play a complex, read-based system predicated on the receivers reading the coverage, adjusting accordingly and being where Tom Brady expects them to be when he expects them to be there. Several guys far more physically gifted than Branch have been complete busts here in the last few years (shoots an angry glare in the direction of Joey Galloway and Donald Hayes and shakes his head slowly). But Branch thrived under a system that Bill Belichick summed up for ESPN The Magazine last year in seven words: “The main thing is to get open.” Those 21 catches he made in two Super Bowls weren’t freak occurrences; they’re a testament to Deion Branch’s smarts and dedication.
And now comes the part where I say “But …”
But … for some reason I’m not optimistic about Branch’s return. It’s been bothering me since the trade rumors started in August. How somehow I just don’t see it working out the way I hope. And I’ve finally figured out why I feel this way. It has nothing to do with Branch or his ability or even the fact that he’s 31 years old. But it has everything to do with past experience.
I call it “The Pete Townshend Belly Factor.”
You watched the Super Bowl last year. You saw The Who’s performance. In between trips out into my buddy Mark’s back yard to shoot a potato cannon at a cardboard cutout of Peyton Manning (true story), I saw it, too. What had the potential to be a reasonably cool reunion of a Baby Boomer band instead turned into a grotesque, macabre spectacle. The Who (or what’s left of it), 30 years removed from its “farewell” concert tour (the first of dozens), was half-heartedly slogging its way through “Baba O’Reilly.” Pete Townshend was going through the motions, pandering to the crowd. And as raised his arm to windmill, his button-down shirt came up, exposing his pasty, bloated, hideous belly.
Then he did it again. And again, and again. While a nation recoiled in horror, fought to hold down its Buffalo wings and counted the minutes until the Betty White ad would come back and end the suffering. The man who wrote “I hope I die before I get old,” was reduced to grossing out a nation with his veiny, hairy midsection.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression here. My beef with the whole vile scene isn’t about age. If you can still play, by all means, knock yourself out. B.B. King is 85 years old, and no one’s going to tell him to stop. My gripe is for the way the members of The Who were trying to pretend they were still in their prime. That this is still 1970 and they’re all still 30 years old recording “Live at Leeds.” Instead, they came off as an embarrassing, septuagenarian Who cover band. And also in Thomas Wolfe’s words, "singing just for singing's sake, back home to aestheticism, to one's youthful idea of 'the artist.' "
And that’s why I’m somewhere between worried and dreading Deion Branch’s (hopefully) triumphant return to New England. Because while he might turn out to be pretty good, the chances of him being 2003-04 good are unlikely. And I hate the thought of Branch falling short of that. Returning to Foxboro, reuniting with Brady, but just a shadow of his former self. Like the shadow cast by Pete Townshend’s disgusting belly.
In my defense, I have every reason to worry. There have been plenty of instances in which a beloved Boston athlete left town only to come back years later. And in almost none of those cases did it go well. A successful career by a great ballplayer is a rare and fleeting thing. Championships just don’t happen. There’s a lot of luck and circumstances involved. A lot of serendipity and favorable bounces. And sometimes when you try to recapture the magic and fail, in a strange way, it sort of diminishes what you did before. Like the time Jerry and Elaine were debating climbing back into bed with each other for the first time in years. They were single. They were available. And they knew the sex would be great. But they didn’t want “the that” (sex) to mess up “the this” (their friendship). And in matters of importance like this, I think it’s always wise to follow the guidance of “Seinfeld” characters.
But also, I’ve seen it with my own eyes. One of the great formative moments of my early childhood was watching the Big, Bad Bruins get dismantled by the WHA. And my first, and therefore all-time most beloved, sports hero Gerry Cheevers left to go play for the Cleveland Somethingorothers. Looking back as an adult, I don’t blame Cheevers one damn bit for grabbing the cash. And he came back four years later and played some decent hockey. But it was never the same. He had the ultra cool mask and the boss sideburns, but he wasn’t Cheesie. The next time the Bruins really contended for a Stanley Cup, Don Cherry had to bench him behind a white-hot Gilles Gilbert. Cheevers couldn’t go home again.
It happened to another boyhood hero of mine only under much different circumstances and with a lot more years in between: Dennis Eckersley. When he came back to the Sox in 1998, he was already a first-ballot lock for the Hall of Fame, but I was convinced he had more prime innings in his arm to go along with his vintage mullet and porn 'stache. But it was one year too many in his career. The only remaining mental picture I have from his final season was Eck throwing a pitch to Manny Ramirez and before the ball was halfway to the Mass. Pike, him mouthing the words “What the #^&% was THAT???”
Sometimes guys have been brought back for us more than for them or for the sake of the ballclub. Sometimes I feel one of maybe three guys in the world who remember this, but Bill Buckner came back to the Sox in 1990. I’m convinced it was because we were all looking for some kind of karmic retribution for the guy, but it wouldn’t happen for another 14 years. The only memory I have of that final year for Buck was he hit the most improbable inside-the-park home run in baseball history. Couples met, fell in love, courted, married and raised families in the time it took him to circle the bases, and it was a great moment. But in the end I’m afraid his return to Boston didn’t do anyone a damn bit of good.
Antoine Walker was hardly a universally beloved figure around here. But after a year in Dallas and a half-season in Atlanta, he was brought back in hopes he’d undergone some sort of Shakespearean sea change and would help get a struggling Paul Pierce straightened out. And it almost worked. The Celtics won the division but didn’t make it out of the first round of the playoffs. Toine did eventually mature, though, winning a title with the Heat. And his ring is currently enshrined in the safe at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe.
I suppose Glen Murray is the gold standard of returning athletes. Incredibly, Murray played the best hockey of his life in his second tour of duty in Boston. In fact, as returns go, he’s Douglas MacArthur kicking Imperial Naval butt all the way back up Bataan.
Sometimes you get the return to Boston that’s strictly ceremonial, like the Sox bringing Nomar back for a day so he could retire a Red Sox. Those kinds, I’m all for. First, because I’m a card-carrying Nomar devotee. But second, because there’s no risk involved. It’s all sentiment, no downside. Even if the reunion between Nomie and Lucchino was as warm as the time Sinatra brought Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis back together on live TV.
I like to think Danny Ainge brought Delonte West back for sentimental reasons, too. Because no matter how you say it, “LeBron, one of our guards slept with your mother” IS a sentiment.
One thing we can definitely rule out is that Belichick is bringing Branch back for any sort of sentimental reasons. Not that he’s above doing a solid for a local hero, as he showed with the Doug Flutie dropkick. But Flutie had enough football left in him to warrant the roster spot. If Branch doesn’t, he’s not sticking around just to narrate the home movies of Super Bowl XXXVIII.
And that’s what I’m nervous about. Even while he was a Seahawk, Branch was still one of ours. And I’d hate to find out he’s all finished and kill that buzz. Because sometimes an athlete comes back home to a hero’s welcome like a Chilean miner and all is right with the world. But way more often, they come back like an aging rock star’s flabby belly. Something best left where it was; to memories. You can’t always go home again.