Where's That Tiger? Matt Branch
A near-death experience has given ex-LSU offensive lineman a new perspective on life
The first time Matt Branch died, the first time his heart stopped beating on December 28, 2018, he was thinking about his wife and his son.
He doesn’t remember the second death. That’s all lost, as are the 12 days that followed, days when his spirit walked the tightrope between this world and the next, when his body lay comatose at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, and when doctors performed nine surgeries, infused him with 300 units of blood, and, ultimately, amputated his leg.
Branch only remembers the day of the accident, the hour after – the 12-gauge shot in his leg, the vacuum on his head, the elephant on his chest, the fear that everything was over – and the odd dreams that haunted him as he desperately and unknowingly clung to life for almost two weeks.
That he remembers at all, that he has the life to do so, is part of his story. He may have lost his leg, but he did not lose his life.
The other part of his story is what he’s gained from a tragedy – one that that no one should suffer, and one that could have been much worse.
Branch, a former LSU offensive lineman from 2008 to 2011, has a story to tell and, thank God, plenty of time to tell it.
BRANCH AND HIS FATHER couldn’t believe their ears.
A scholarship offer? To play football? At LSU?
It wasn’t that long ago, before Branch’s athleticism caught up with his size around his sophomore year at Sterlington High School, that he was a tall, gawky middle schooler more comfortable on the baseball diamond than the football field.
“I was pretty goofy,” Branch says. “I probably wasn’t the most athletic guy from seventh to ninth grade. I was as tall as I am now, but I wasn’t real big, didn’t have great feet. Kind of a slow developer, I guess you’d say.”
Eventually, though, Branch filled out his 6-foot-6 frame. As college scouts flocked to Sterlington to recruit wide receiver Ahmad Paige, they quickly noticed a tall tight end with surprisingly good feet, a low-key demeanor, and a love of contact.
An Alabama coach pulled him and his father aside one day. Then, Ole Miss offered him a scholarship. Eventually, LSU invited him to junior day, and tight ends coach/recruiting coordinator Josh Henson told Branch and his father the Tigers wanted to offer him a scholarship, too.
“We were just blown away,” Branch says. “I never saw that coming.”
Branch looks back on his career with that familiar, unusual mixture of pride and regret that follows most athletes when their playing days are done. He could’ve worked harder in the weight room, known his playbook better. He moved from tight end to offensive line and earned two letters, playing in 28 games before injuries cut his career short after 2011. He learned about pain and perseverance, about failure and friendship. Eventually, he earned a degree in interdisciplinary studies, and after he graduated in December of 2012, he started a job two weeks later in the agriculture industry.
Going into the ag business was a no-brainer for Branch. It was the family business, for one, but after four years of working through the winter in pads and a helmet, it was an industry with enough off time in the fall and winter to allow Branch to pursue a lifelong passion: hunting.
“We were busy all fall and winter,” Branch says. “I couldn’t really get away to sit in a tree stand. When I got out of college, that’s like the first thing I wanted to do. I just wanted to start hunting a lot.”
EAGLE LAKE, MISSISSIPPI is about 66 miles, as the gadwall flies, east of Monroe, but it takes 104 miles of driving – across I-20, through Rayville and Delhi and Tallulah and Vicksburg, up Highway 61, then back west on 465 – to reach one of the hundreds of oxbow lakes along the Mississippi River.
There, Branch’s family has owned and farmed land for years. There are stands for deer hunting and holes for duck hunting and more memories than he can count.
“We’ve been going over there for over 20 years,” Branch says, “since I was a kid. That was kind of an annual trip we always took.”
It was with that sort of familiarity and routine that Branch was wrapping up a morning hunt on December 28, 2018. It was a little before 10, and Branch and his hunting partners were picking up decoys while waiting on the Polaris Ranger to pick them up. As they stood by the hole they’d hunted that morning and waited for their ride, a group of ducks flew by and started circling. Branch stuffed a single shell into his shotgun, thinking, We might get a shot at ’em.
They didn’t. The ducks eventually flew off, never coming within shooting distance. Meanwhile, Tito, the group’s hunting dog, retrieved two ducks in the field, and Branch placed his shotgun in the bed of the Ranger as the group continued packing.
“As he got back to the Ranger, he jumped up in it,” Branch recalls. “Maybe a second, two seconds after he jumped up in it, the gun went off. I was standing literally, maybe five, six inches from where the barrel was. I had the plastic bed of the Ranger in between my leg and the gun barrel. So I had a little bit of a block there.
“Obviously, that wasn’t enough.”
Branch went down. His friends knew he’d been shot, but they had no idea how bad the damage was. His chest waders were rapidly filling up with blood, but they couldn’t see. Still, they acted fast, calling 911 and loading him up in the Ranger. They decided to drive to the highway – the closest access point for an ambulance or helicopter – rather than back to the camp.
“That one decision right there probably saved my life,” Branch says.
His friends didn’t realize the severity until much later, when paramedics removed Branch’s waders and they saw how much blood he’d lost. But he knew instantly – he was fighting for his life.
“Immediately I knew it was bad just because of how my body reacted,” he says. “It was like somebody put a vacuum on my head and sucked 90 percent of my energy out of me in an instant.
“I was just trying to stay awake and stay alive. It felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get enough air in that moment. That was the scariest part to me.”
Ten minutes after they loaded him in the Ranger, they reached the highway. Five minutes after that, volunteer firemen from Eagle Lake arrived, cutting his waders off and putting a tourniquet on his leg. They secured Branch on a stretcher, fearing it was already too late.
“I just remember thinking about my son and my wife, and then just thinking that was going to be it. I would never see them again,” Branch says.
Branch remembers the fear, exacerbated by each bump and curve in the road. He remembers trying to catch his breath, and failing.
He doesn’t remember dying – he coded twice for almost an hour in total.
He does remember the roof of the ambulance, and how it slowly disappeared from view.
“And then nothing,” he says. “From there on, I remember absolutely nothing for the next 12 days.”
THE DREAMS WERE WILD, vivid enough that Branch still remembers them today, weird enough, at times, that he’d rather not share the exact details.
For the 12 days Branch lay in a medically-induced coma in the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, receiving enough blood in transfusions to keep 40 people alive, his leg amputated just below the hip by the doctors in an effort to save his life, his sleep was full of odd ideations, ridiculous fantasies. His wife, parents, son, family, and friends waited and worried and wondered if he would be the same when he woke up.
If he woke up.
“When your heart stops for almost an hour and you have no blood flow, a lot of times, their personalities change or that may be brain dead at that point and become a vegetable,” Branch says. “That was one of their main concerns.”
When Matt did awake from his coma, his wife, Liana, knew quickly he was, mentally, still the same. He couldn’t say much, and he could move less, but when she put her hands on his face, he could clearly articulate two words – “Cold. Hands.” – in the exact right tone to let her know he’d prefer to remain untouched.
“She said, ‘Right away, I knew, this is Matt, he’s here,'” he says. “It was just a huge relief to them.”
Relief quickly gave way to concern. That Branch would live was no longer of grave concern. How he would live, however, was. When he came to, he didn’t even realize his leg was gone. Phantom pain and powerful narcotics convinced him he still had both legs. He’d ask people to scratch his leg, and they’d stare at him, confused.
Two days after Branch regained consciousness, his father spelled it out as directly as only a father could.
“He sat down and he said, ‘You know, man, they had to take your leg because of the gunshot to save your life.’ It kind of sank in on me for a second,” Branch says.
“I sat there, and I thought about it, and in the end, I was just glad to be there, be alive, you know, be able to see my family again. And I think it sank in for a couple minutes. I looked up, looked my dad in the eye – he was kind of tearing up and everything – and I said, ‘Well, could you at least get me some mac and cheese or something?'”
At his lowest point, something kicked into gear for Branch. Every amputee awakes to a decision. When something so valuable, so assumed, so taken-for-granted as a limb is simply removed from your body, you must choose: to accept, or to reject. And perhaps it is not a choice you make, but rather one which chooses you.
However it came to be, the athlete in Branch – the one who learned, through competition and repetition, how to catalyze pain and transform it into motivation – took over.
“I just kind of sucked it up man,” he says. “It is what it is. What can I do about it now? That’s been my mindset throughout all of this. Every doctor that worked on me told me that there was no reason for me to still be alive. I was literally a walking miracle.
“Well, I mean, not a walking miracle.”
Not yet. Not at that point, at least.
ONLY BECAUSE HE WEARS shorts can you tell.
Otherwise, if you drove by his house and saw Branch, wearing pants instead, power clean the metal bar and weighted plates to his chin, press them above his head, and walk down his driveway, one step at a time, you’d think he was any other CrossFit fanatic, perhaps with a slight limp on his left leg.
Balance and core strength is the name of the game. As of this morning my prosthetic has taken over 100,000 steps since I got it 6 months ago! #hipdisarticulation #hipdisartic #hipdisarticulationprosthetic #hipdisarticulationamputee #bionicman #adaptiveathlete #ottobock #fillauerallproallstars #fillauer #disabledoutdoorsmenusa #amputee #amputeestrong #hippyscan #amputeefitness #lsufootball
A post shared by Matt Branch (@m_c_branch) on Dec 4, 2019 at 5:33pm PST
You wouldn’t know how long of a journey he’d actually been on, far longer than the length of his driveway.
Since doctors told Branch he’d never walk again over a year ago, he’s taken more than 140,000 steps in his prosthetic leg.
They weren’t wrong, per se. Most who undergo hip disarticulations – the surgical removal of the entire lower limb by transection through the hip joint, per a Google search – spend their lives in wheelchairs. They don’t climb trees, or go hunting, or walk down their driveways. Only 25 percent choose to use a prosthetic, and of that quarter, most require a walking device: a cane or crutch.
“From day one, when I put this leg on, I’ve never used a crutch, never used a cane. Nothing. I took off on it,” Branch says.
It all started with that decision, in the hospital, to accept certain things and reject others. Branch would accept the loss he had suffered. He would accept the hand he had been dealt.
He would not accept limitations, though. Nor would he accept doubt or statistics or the status quo, which, when he awoke from his coma, was a basic inability to do any physical activity as strenuous as lifting a bottle of water.
“I just remember thinking to myself, All right, we’ll see. Bring it on. Let’s see what we can do,” he says.
For four or five days, others fed him. Then, he started feeding himself. Then, stretch bands. Later, sitting up to standing up to wheeling to walking. After a ton of painful physical therapy, he made it 30 feet down the hall, a monumental achievement.
“Now,” he says, “I can walk miles and miles.”
Physical therapy and work with his prosthetist were key. Rehabilitation, in a word, sucked, but Branch had a mental crutch to lean on. He’d suffered physically before. No doctor could inflict as much pain, motivation, or discipline as LSU strength coach Tommy Moffitt.
“I was just thinking about Moffitt the whole time,” Branch laughs. “I was thinking back to what we used to do, what Moffitt used to tell us as we toed the line for another 110, ‘Nobody’s going to die out here today.’ I just kept thinking in my head, I’m just going to keep pushing. This is going to be uncomfortable, it’s not going to be fun, but I don’t have a choice at this point.”
The motivations were obvious. Branch wanted to be as active as he could as a father and a husband – playing catch with his son, going to ball games, fixing breakfast. He wanted to hunt, too, to climb into tree stands and get back in the duck blind.
Others were more subtle. Branch wasn’t proud of his LSU career. He felt he short-changed himself. He could’ve been stronger mentally. He could have dealt with adversity with more fortitude.
“I wasn’t very proud of my career down there,” he says. “I had injuries, other things I let, emotionally, bother me and took me to a bad place. I caught a tough break when I was playing there. Some of that was self-inflicted, not working as hard as I should have. Some of it was bad luck.
“Having been a part of the LSU program, understanding how hard you have to work to get to where you want to be, having lived through that and learned through my experience, remembering where I fell short in my time at LSU and wanting to not go back there again. I didn’t want to make the same mistake twice. I wanted to push myself as hard as I could and see what I was capable of.”
He was capable of far more than his doctors expected. He has more than 140,000 steps of proof. A key part was losing weight. “The lighter you are,” his prosthetist told him, “the easier this will all be.” A stronger core meant more stamina and more stability, which meant more independence. So Branch changed his diet and customized his workouts. He lost pounds of fat and gained rows of abs.
“I never would have dreamed I would ever have a six pack,” he laughs. “I went from a 300 pound, big gravy offensive lineman to a lean, mean 170 pounds, shredded with a six pack. It’s crazy how I’ve changed physically.”
Branch gained more than a six pack, too. Such a near brush with death changed his perspective on life. How could it not?
“We think about all these things every day that bother us and let us down,” he says. “I’ve been given a gift, because I breathed my last breath and lived to tell about it. What really matters and what’s on your mind in your last moments is not all the drama and the work stuff and bills and everything that bogs us down throughout the day. It’s our family, our friends, and our loved ones that we’re close to. That’s what really matters, and it woke me up. It’s changed my thinking.”
He gained a mission, too. Branch is telling his story across the country. He wants to share his mistake with others, in hopes he can prevent it from happening to another person one day. He’s done work with Disabled Outdoorsmen USA, a non-profit which helps provide outdoor experiences for disabled persons. He’s speaking in schools, churches, and hunting banquets about gun safety and overcoming adversity. He’s doing old LSU workout routines Coach Moffitt taught him, and he’s learning about adaptive sports programs – he hopes to see LSU adopt them for disabled student-athletes, one day.
Most importantly, he’s being a friend and a son, a husband to his wife, and a father to his son.
And, soon enough, to a daughter, coming to the family later in 2020.
“I’m pushing myself as much as possible in order to build a better future for me and my family,” he says. “It’s a blessing and a miracle that it all worked itself out.”
It’s not exactly how Branch envisioned his future. He always pictured two boys. A girl? He admits it: he has no idea what he’s in for.
What he does know is how he will approach this new challenge – with the same mentality that brought him from the brink of death to a life he never imagined, and one he wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.
One step at a time.