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 KIRKLAND, Wash. (AP) -The last time Deion Branch was in uniform on a field, he was getting spit on by a fan while limping into the locker room in Pittsburgh.
Since that disgusting exit a month ago, the Seahawks' leading receiver and former Super Bowl MVP has gone from soaring to just plain sore. After 20 catches for 329 yards in three games, Branch has missed Seattle's last three games with a badly sprained right foot that he initially feared may require surgery.
The foot was tightly wrapped and propped on a seat Wednesday, as Branch sat behind the wheel of an equipment cart and watched the middling Seahawks (4-4) practice yet again without him.
He joked with kicker Josh Brown and laughed as teammates passed by preparing for Monday night's game against San Francisco (2-6) without him.
``Feeling good. Just day-to-day,'' Branch said, smiling unconvincingly on a day coach Mike Holmgren said that Branch was iffy to return against the 49ers.
At least Branch wasn't getting spit on.
``I'm probably one of the most notorious, hated guys in Pittsburgh, just from the New England days ... when they feel like they should have won a Super Bowl,'' he said.
His former Patriots beat the favored Steelers on the road in the AFC championship game at the end of the 2004 season, when Branch had a game-high 116 yards receiving and the game-breaking touchdown in the fourth quarter.
As Branch was sitting on the back of a cart getting driven into the locker room during the first half of a 21-0 loss at Pittsburgh Oct. 7, he said a fan in the lower deck of Heinz Field who had been heckling him for hours spat on him and yelled, ``I told you I was going to get you!''
Branch could be seen on network television looking up, angrily gesturing to the fan and shouting, ``I'll be back.''
Sure enough, Branch hobbled back out to confront the fan.
``I went in, came right back. But I think they went and got the guy,'' Branch said. ``He was arrested.
``A drip landed on my arm. I think that's the worst thing you can do. They ask us, as professionals, not to go in the crowd. But these guys, the fans ... you can say whatever you want to say to me, but don't try to do that. Don't try to spit on somebody.''
Now, Branch is just trying to get back out to practice, let alone reappear for a game.
``Hopefully, one day I may wake up one day and feel great and I'm out there, know what I am saying?'' he said. ``I'm just thankful I am improving.
``It's a weird injury. I'm thankful and blessed. ... A lot of guys have had to have surgery coming from this injury.''
The Seahawks thought they were going to get him back a week ago, after their bye. Yet Branch remains idled while Holmgren vows to abandon much of a stalled running game in favor of a more wide-open, pass-filled offense.
``You are always antsy, but you've got to be smart,'' Branch said. ``I don't want to come back for one game and then be out for seven games.''
Holmgren said he isn't curious to see what Branch can fully do in the passing game because he already knows.
Branch arrived last September in a trade, after a preseason holdout with the Patriots. He then signed a $39 million, six-year contract with the Seahawks that included $13 million in a bonus and other guarantees. But he spent most of 2006 trying to catch up in learning the offense instead of starring.
This season, after Holmgren admitted erring by not getting him the ball in the opener, Branch was taking off. Then came the sprain and the spitting incident in Pittsburgh.
``It's a shame he got hurt. He was off to a great start, catching a lot of passes,'' Holmgren said. ``I think as soon as he (gets back), we plug him in and off we go.''

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