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Meet the heart of the Vipers defense

Safety Marcelis Branch is the leading tackler for the Tampa Bay Vipers and the heart of their defense.

PLANT CITY, Fla. -- At the tender age of 6, Marcelis Branch fell in love with the game of football. He dreamed, as many boys do, of one day playing in the NFL.

Achieving a dream, especially one with the odds stacked against you, is never easy.

Less than two percent of NCAA football players ever make it to the NFL.

Branch was not highly recruited coming out of Miami Southridge High School. Robert Morris University -- a small private college just outside of Pittsburgh -- offered him a full scholarship.

On an RMU team that suffered losing seasons during Branch’s career, he was a standout from the moment he first stepped foot on the field at Joe Walton Stadium.

“I came in with the mindset that I was going to take somebody’s spot,” said Branch. “I didn’t want to play behind anybody, but even if I did, I always had the mindset of a starter.”

He was named Northeast Conference freshman of the year, defensive rookie of the year, and was an FCS freshman All-American after starting nine games, forcing five turnovers with 58 total tackles.

Branch played cornerback during his early RMU career but moved to safety in his final season.

In 43 starts -- the most in Robert Morris history -- Branch recorded 251 tackles, 33 pass breakups, and seven interceptions. He was also a three-time All-Northeast Conference selection.

In 2017, Branch entered the NFL as an undrafted rookie free agent. He signed with the Atlanta Falcons, where he spent two preseasons. In eight preseason games, Branch registered 24 total defensive tackles and two tackles on special teams.

“My first year was all about learning and dissecting the game,” said Branch. “I saw the game from so many different angles I had never seen before.

“There’s so much I didn’t know going from college to the pros, and the game was so much faster. I had to learn to play like a pro, and that was a big thing for me.”

Shortly after being waived by the Falcons in 2018, he spent that season out of the football.

The following season, Branch returned to Pittsburgh when the Steelers signed him. He recorded seven solo tackles, two passes defended and an interception in three preseason games but was unable to land a spot on the practice squad.

In the end, Branch was a casualty of two teams that were stacked in the defensive backfield.

“I was down at first,” he said of being waived by the Steelers. “Getting cut sucks.”

But Branch had persevered before, and he’d do it again.

“I just went to work training hard. I wanted to be ready for the next opportunity,” Branch said.

That opportunity was awaiting him back home in Florida.

The Tampa Bay Vipers selected Branch in Round 5, Phase 4 of the XFL Draft.

At 5-foot-11, 180 pounds, Branch certainly plays bigger and stronger than his size might otherwise suggest. He currently leads the team in tackles (26), two of which are for a loss. He also has a sack, a pass defended, and one quarterback hit.

When asked how he likes playing for Jerry Glanville, Branch immediately smiled, “Coach is a character.”

“I think I fit his profile perfectly,” he continued. “I’m just trying to make the biggest impact I can make. I got evil intentions every time I am out there."

Though Branch did not initially succeed in the NFL, it doesn’t mean that dream doesn’t still exist.

“I’m going to do what I can do [in the XFL], and hopefully teams see that I can play and give me another shot.”