FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The first indication that Deion Branch could have a role with the New England Patriots this year was the locker.

Located right next to good friend Tom Brady, Branch’s locker was never cleaned out after he was released by the Patriots on Aug. 31, one of the final cuts in training camp.

Photos. Personal items. Stereo. Cleats. Pads.

Everything was left in place.

So it shouldn’t have come as a suprise that Branch was back Wednesday morning, re-signed by a Patriots team looking to find some consistency in a potentially-potent offense that has yet to click.

“Deion’s been a great player here for a long time,” said Brady in his weekly press conference. “I was hoping it would happen.”

So was Branch. He wasn’t ready to stop playing, but at 33 years old, in his 11th NFL season, nothing was guaranteed.

He knew that when he was cut.

“If you play this game long enough, I’m pretty sure every guy in this building will go through it,” he said. “And I mean every player.”

For three weeks, Branch was a football player without a football team. Nothing he did in the past — including his Super Bowl XXXIX MVP performance when he caught 11 passes for 133 yards in New England’s 24-21 win over Philadelphia — mattered any more.

NFL teams were only concerned with whether he could help them.

Branch was only concerned with what was best for his family.

You see, as much as he wanted to return, he needed to make sure it was the best situation for his family.

His children are in school. He didn’t want to uproot them again.

“It’s hard to move your kids when they’re growing,” he said. “We (as adults) can adapt to a new environment but when your kids move to a new school they’ve got to make new friends. That takes a while. I took that into consideration, knowing my kids’ feelings.

“The last thing I wanted to do was put them in an environment they didn’t want to be in.”

Asked if he was down at all after the Patriots released him, Branch said his family didn’t let him get down. They were there for him and he was going to be there for them as well.

“Football, this game, this sport, is going to last for so long,” he said. “My family is always going to be there. I’ve very blessed to have my priorities in life. And that might be the thing that separates me from some of the younger guys.”

Younger players might have jumped at the first call they received from another team. They might have had their agent putting feelers out to every other team.

Not Branch.

“Family,” he said. “Family was always first.”

Now he has to shake off some rust. Yeah, he was only out for three weeks. And he worked out daily. But working out on your own is completely different than getting ready to play the Baltimore Ravens, the Patriots opponent in Sunday night’s game.

“I’m in shape, I’m in shape,” he said. “But it’s all about being in football condition. It’s about going out and running 10-15 plays with a 25-second break. Those are things you have to prepare for going against elite level competition.

“I think when you’re training on your own it’s more of a controlled environment. I can take a break for 45 seconds and go out and run a route, as opposed to running against Devin (McCourty) and Kyle Arrington, things of that nature.”

He smiled and he winked. He’s obviously happy to be back. He missed being in the locker room. He missed the camaraderie.

Most of all, he said, he missed being here.

“I love it here,” he said. “This is where I want to be.”

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