Hunters must think about many things before heading back to the deer woods or the duck blind. None are more important than a simple reminder from Matt Branch of Monroe, La., a former LSU football player who almost lost his life in a tragic hunting accident two years ago:
“This could happen to you.”
It was 10 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 28, 2018, when Branch and a few friends had picked up their duck decoys to move to another spot on a family farm near Mississippi’s Eagle Lake. As he stood on a levee, a group of ducks came his way. He slipped a single shell into his shotgun, but the ducks never made it into range.
One member of his hunting party pulled up in a Ranger ATV, and Branch put his gun down in the cargo box and walked around to the side of the vehicle. The group’s Labrador retriever, Tito, finished retrieving a couple of ducks from the field and jumped in the back of the ATV. When he did, he stepped on the gun’s safety, disabling it. In another instant, the dog’s paw accidentally pulled the shotgun’s trigger, sending a load of No. 2 steel shot through the side of the ATV and into the inside of Branch’s left leg from 6 inches away.
“That’s something we all know: never leave your gun loaded,” Branch said.
“I don’t know of another time I ever left a shell in my gun. Any time I go to the deer stand or into the duck blind, 999 times out of a thousand, my gun is even going to be in the case. One time. That one time got me. I forgot that shell was in the gun, and it was just crazy what happened next.”
Being inside the back of the Ranger, the sound of the gun was muffled. It just sounded like a loud pop. Matt remembered someone yelling, “What was that?” and he looked down and saw a coffee can-sized hole in the side of the ATV, right by his leg.
“It’s so strange. I never felt a thing at first,” he said. “Obviously, when I saw the hole in the Ranger right by my leg, I figured I might be hit. When I tried to step back, my left leg didn’t move. I stumbled and fell. Then the adrenalin rush hit me. I knew I had been shot. Next came the pain, then the sudden drop in blood pressure. I don’t remember much else.”
Thanks to the quick thinking of his hunting companions, who called 911 and got him to the nearest highway to be picked up, quick actions by local first responders and medical teams at the hospital, Branch survived. He has only brief memories of the next 12 days as he struggled to stay alive from the tremendous loss of blood and tissue damage.
Spreading the word
Branch has had to make a lot of decisions since then, but none are more important than the decision to use his experience in a positive way, every chance he can, to reinforce hunting safety to others. He does every interview requested. He stops and talks about it with anyone who asks. He has made numerous talks to groups and, although he was interrupted by the pandemic, he plans to resume those talks as soon as it is safe for people to gather.
“I just want everyone to know that you can handle a gun correctly hundreds and hundreds of times, but one slip-up can change your life forever,” he said. “Know that once your gun fires a bullet, it can’t be called back. If there is a shell in the gun, anything can happen. Never be complacent.”
His other lessons for hunters? Always treat a gun like it is loaded. That’s just another basic hunter-safety item. And when a gun is loaded, never leave it unattended. Never take chances and never lose focus long enough to even leave one shell in the gun even one time. Never be shy to be the guy or gal that reminds everybody to take extra safety precautions. Never take it for granted. It’s simply not worth it.
As Branch shared his story, he has heard from other hunters who have had similar experiences but were fortunate because no one was hit by an accidental shot. He wasn’t so lucky. His injuries almost took his life and have left him with a prosthetic leg. That followed an amputation called a hip disarticulation; a majority of people who have that surgery never walk again, but Branch was determined, and today, uses that leg like he was born with it. He has conquered it, not the other way around.
There were days in the hospital bed when he wondered if he would walk again, hearing from many doctors that the prognosis was not good. But he fell back on the days when he was at LSU as a 6-foot-6, 290-pound offensive lineman. Tommy Moffitt the conditioning coach, put them through rigorous drills, and as they lined up to do one more, he would yell, “Nobody’s going to die out here today.” So Branch kept working in rehab as he had football. And he focused on his family.
His story went viral, mainly because he was an LSU football player. Prosthetist David Rotter in Joliet, Ill., reached out and offered to help, building Branch a custom prosthetic leg that got him on his way to recovery.
Disabled Outdoorsmen USA
Branch is committed not only to sharing his story, but also to working with groups that promote outdoor experiences for disabled hunters. One of those is Disabled Outdoorsmen USA.
“I got invited up to make a duck hunt with guide Jim Stafford and Central Kansas Outfitters last November, and we turned that into a disabled hunter event,” Branch said. “They did a fantastic job. I plan on going back this year. They work with anybody with a disability: kids, adults, veterans. It takes these folks’ minds off the everyday challenges of life. To see the smile come across their face when they really need it, that’s something I feel drawn to now. I feel like I need to return the favor to them, because so many have done that for me. I’d encourage other hunters to try and help in this cause.”
Branch is motivated because of his family: wife Liana, 3-year-old son Barrett and a new daughter, Charlotte Ann, born in August, his other family and friends and what he sees that he can do to help others.
“I won’t lie. It’s been tough. It is tough,” he said. “There were many, many mornings early on that I didn’t want to get out of bed, but then I’d snap out of it. I realized I have a lot of things to do.”
Overcoming the obstacles
Nobody has watched and marveled at Branch’s journey to his “new normal” more than his father, Mark Branch, who sat by his hospital bed and had to tell the strapping, former football star that doctors had to take his leg to save his life.
“Of course, we are all proud of all of our kids, but Matt’s done something pretty special. I see a man who has worked hard, prayed hard and tried to do the very best he can under some very adverse circumstances,” Mark Branch said. “The picture that was painted for us was bleak. Most people that have this surgery never walk again. They are bound to a wheelchair. Matt wasn’t going to allow that to happen.
“Having a prosthetic leg is hard on anybody, but because of his size, it was an added challenge. He’s done so well. He’s had so many people praying for him and encouraging him. The bottom line through this is that I have seen what God can do. What He has done is truly a miracle.”
No chapter could document Branch’s undying spirit more than a deer hunt last year, the year after his accident. He went out on his own and shot a full-sized buck. When his younger brother, Connor, rode up, he offered to help Matt get the deer and put it in the back of the truck, he was too late. Matt had already done it.
“I still don’t know how he did that,” Mark Branch said.
Lessons learned not going to waste
We learn many lessons and grow in ways we often don’t even understand from trips outdoors and hunting adventures. Matt Branch of Monroe has hunted his whole life and has learned those kind of lessons as well.
But he also learned a couple that he hopes nobody ever has to learn the way he did.
When he was shot in a freak accident on a duck hunt almost two years ago, he was embarrassed by what happened. He knew better, and he had practiced better his whole life, but that one time was all it took to change his life.
“When I woke up and came to, I was embarrassed by what happened,” he said. “It was my fault it happened, but I had a choice right there. I could have gone and hidden and told people I didn’t want to talk about it again, or I could find ways to help benefit others so maybe it would not happen to them. I couldn’t change what happened to me, but I couldn’t help others if I didn’t tell my story. And I hope the impact is going to help somebody else down the road.”
The second lesson was already one that he knew, but the accident renewed his beliefs and gave him strength.
“I just decided to trust God in this process and fall in line without question to what I feel like He is leading me to do. I can’t tell you how many doctors and others told me I probably would never walk again. But I did. And it was my faith in Him and belief that I could do anything that helped me through this.”
Disabled hunters gaining attention
Numerous groups are dedicated to helping disabled individuals learn to hunt or fish, or to be able to continue to enjoy the outdoors after a terrible accident. Here are just a few:
Disabled Outdoorsmen USA: A non-profit organization created for the people who refuse to give up their dreams of living in the outdoors and use the outdoors as therapy to help cope with their disability. Learn more at https://www.disabledoutdoorsmen.com/
Wheelin’ Sportsmen: Wheelin’ Sportsmen is part of the National Wild Turkey Federation, which recognizes the need to help people with disabilities enjoy the outdoors by participating in hunting and shooting sports. Learn more at https://www.nwtf.org/about/hunting-heritage/wheelin-sportsmen
Kidz Outdoors: This group’s mission is forming bonds by linking family and friends to pass on our passion for the outdoors to a new generation, and raising funds for hospitals and research centers in hope to find cures for cancer and other childhood diseases. Learn more at https://www.kidzoutdoors.org/
Outdoors Without Limits: Outdoors Without Limits promotes awareness and teamwork between disabled and non-disabled individuals through education and outdoor recreational activities. Learn more at https://outdoorswithoutlimits.net/
Buckmasters American Deer Foundation: Buckmasters is dedicated to aiding members of our outdoor community who are in need of assistance, whether it’s putting food on the table, making the sport of hunting accessible to a disabled hunter or thanking our American military heroes for their service to our country. Learn more at http://www.buckmasters.com/Resources/BADF
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