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Socci's Notebook: Alan Branch Settles In Without Fitting In To Typical Patriots Mold

By Bob Socci, 98.5 The Sports Hub

HOUSTON (CBS) -- Looking through the windows on the left side of the cabin late Monday afternoon, passengers got a good look at the various parties greeting their chartered plane that had just touched down at George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

Media were cordoned off in front of a hangar by a long row of barriers draped in a red banner welcoming the "AFC CHAMPIONS." Some narrated into microphones, while others pointed cameras at the aircraft to capture the Patriots' arrival for Super Bowl LI.

As members of the ground crew wheeled stairs to both the head and tail, league officials hustled in their wake carrying boxes of ball caps and readying to hand out the first of a week's supply of swag.

Owner Robert Kraft and son Jonathan, the Pats' president, were the first to descend the steps. Idling to their right were the six buses and convoy of police motor cycles prepared to escort them to the team's hotel.

Coaches were the first to follow up front. Then came the players from the back. They walked left to right into view hauling backpacks, carrying duffels and pulling luggage.

With one very large exception.

At 6-foot-6 and upwards of 350 pounds, Alan Branch is conspicuous in any setting. Treating offensive linemen like blocking sleds, as he plows them into their own backfields. Swaying to music, turning in-game stadium breaks into his own private dance parties for 68,000-plus. And as it were Monday, riding atop a long board and rolling past teammates hoofing it on the tarmac.

"I wouldn't say it goes everywhere I go, but I love longboarding and skateboarding," Branch said of his distinct mode of transportation. "My wife gave me that board for Christmas. I do it when I can, and it's actually warm here so it's good skating weather. I definitely want to take advantage of the flat streets and the nice weather. It's all good with me."

And all good, one wonders, with his coaches too?

"I wasn't looking when I went past them," Branch laughed when asked about the reaction of Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia beholding their big defensive tackle on wheels. "Ever since I got here I've been skateboarding outside their windows at the {Gillette Stadium] facility, so it's not anything too new. I don't know, I like pressing people's buttons sometimes, I guess."

His words fade under a chuckle. Branch is standing on the floor of Minute Maid Park during Monday's Media Night. In six days he will appear in his second Super Bowl.

Three Octobers ago, with the 2014 season well underway, Branch came to New England as a big guy largely unknown after stints with three other teams. He did well enough to earn a two-year contract extension following the Super Bowl XLIX win over Seattle, one of his former teams.

In two seasons (and offseasons) since, Branch has belied the outside world's idea of the archetypical Patriot. Besides being seen cruising around Gillette Stadium parking lots and grooving in-game, he's trained apart from teammates who report to Foxborou for offseason conditioning. Instead Branch has remained at home in Arizona.

He also speaks bluntly at times, eschewing commonly heard cliches in favor of common sense. Only Branch does it softly, in a tone one imagines to be that of a teddy bear.

For instance, the team's radio announcer (yes, me) once wondered aloud (in typical long-winded fashion) about the keys to stopping an upcoming opponent's running game. To which Branch offered a quizzical shrug of his shoulders.

"Defending the run isn't that difficult," he advised, adding a head bob and raised eyebrows. "You just have to keep your gap integrity."

Easier said than done for most. Yet, despite frequently being told to maintain integrity over two gaps in an offensive line, Branch has put those words into action.

Ultimately, it's why he can keep pushing buttons, so to speak. When his are pressed by Patricia and Belichick, Branch responds by doing his job well. And nothing is more quintessentially Patriot than that.

"You can't [come] here and just do your own thing, that's for sure," Branch says of the balance between conformance and being his own man. "You've got to play within the system, and you can't make distractions for your team. I feel like I might be one that pushes that envelope a little bit more than others.

"But at the same time, this is my 10th year. I'm not going to be playing forever. I'm just having fun. I feel like the coaches see when I'm having fun, that's also when I'm playing my best ball. I feel like when it comes to that, they don't try to suppress [my personality] or anything."

"Alan's one of the most unique people I've ever played football with," says fellow defensive lineman Chris Long, a first-year Patriot in his ninth NFL season. "He's got a longboard, he can dance like a little guy and anybody who watches him pregame can see that he's like a dancing bear.

"But the one thing about Alan is, I knew he was a good football player [but] I had no idea about how good until I came here. He has got to be one of the most underrated guys in the league. I respect the hell out of him. He's had a really great career and a lot of people haven't realized it."

At least until this year. In late December of the regular season in which Branch started all 16 games and played 60 percent of the defensive snaps, Belichick called him, by far, New England's most consistent defensive tackle.

"He's just dominant in the run game," Long said on Tuesday. "Not too many guys can just sit over the center and just dominate like him and wreak havoc. He plays hard, he's tough and he's a good teammate."

Long, who lockers across the room from Branch at Gillette, admits that he too is a needler. Though he notes that each met his match in the other.

"That's usually my thing," Long joked upon hearing Branch's self description as a button-pusher. "I think we identified that pretty quick and we had a ceasefire."

Such understanding, along with recognizing when it's time to "be a pro," gained Branch acceptance with the Patriots. So has a level of play that he attributes to opportunity.

"This is the most I've ever played since I've been in the NFL," Branch said. "I feel like it goes hand in hand with being my most productive year, being on the field and having opportunities to cause some chaos and make some plays.

"I will (also) say that Matt Patricia does a great job of knowing my strengths and knowing to put me where I might flourish more than another spot on the field. The system definitely works in my favor."

Because, of course, Branch fits it as well as he fits into the Pats' locker room.

"He's awesome," said safety Patrick Chung. "I love Alan Branch. "He just makes the locker room a lot better, just more chill. Everybody's smiling. He's a clown, and he can go out there and perform on the football field."

Bob Socci is the radio play-by-play voice of the New England Patriots. You can follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.

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