Branden Oliver’s comeback is gaining traction.
A little more than two years after suffering a devastating Achilles tendon injury, the University at Buffalo great looks like his former self running for the Salt Lake Stallions in the new Alliance of American Football.
Oliver has rushed for 99 yards and a 4.5-yard average in two games and shows the burst that made him a surprise rookie standout for the San Diego Chargers in 2014.
“It feels great to be playing,” Oliver said by phone from Salt Lake. “It’s been awhile, and it’s been a blessing to get back out there.”
Oliver beat the odds as an undrafted rookie four years ago. He led the Chargers in rushing and ranked third among NFL rookie running backs in yards from scrimmage with 854.
It was no surprise to UB fans, who watched the 5-foot-6 1-2, 208-pounder set a Bulls rushing record of 4,049 yards over a four-year career.
Then injuries derailed him. A foot injury limited him to eight games in 2015. His right Achilles tendon blew out in a preseason game in August 2016.
“Every doctor I came in contact with told me I shouldn’t be able to play again, because of the way it snapped,” Oliver said. “Even the doctors were saying they never saw it snap like that. It was like a rubber band. You could see it moving in my leg. It’s on YouTube. You see it pop and go up and down a couple times.”
Oliver made the Chargers again in 2017, but he probably came back to action a little early and only managed limited duty. He sat out all of 2018.
Oliver’s Twitter handle is “BoBelieves.” He never has doubted his ability to make it in the NFL, and he hopes the AAF earns him another shot.
“You’re going to be hit with certain things in life, and you definitely gotta continue to believe if you want it that bad, if you’re that passionate about something,” Oliver said of his Twitter handle. “You’re going to have thoughts of doubt and fear come into your mind. But at the end of the day, the truth is your passion, and go from there, not giving up. As long as you can wake up and breathe another day, you might as well go after it.”
It’s the kind of attitude that endeared him to UB coaches and staff, who regarded him as arguably the hardest-working player they ever had.
“This is my 35th year representing athletes,” said Oliver’s St. Louis-based agent, Harold Lewis. “I’ve pretty much seen them all, every size shape and personality, close to 1,000 players I’ve represented. And Branden has to be on the list of the top 10 guys. There’s nobody with a higher quality off the field that I’ve ever come across. He’s just class. And he’s so humble. You wish you had a whole school of guys like that on your team.”
Oliver had the chance to sign with Hamilton of the Canadian Football League last season. But CFL contracts lock a player in for the year, and he was hoping an NFL team would call.
The eight-team AAF is in the midst of a 10-game inaugural season that will end 10 days before the NFL draft, perfect to allow NFL teams the chance to fill roster spots.
“The AAF is a tremendous opportunity for him and all players and coaches,” Lewis said. “A lot of the guys who have been playing in the NFL, when I had mentioned to them maybe you should think about playing the AAF, a lot them said, ‘Me? What, are you kidding me?’
“When I mentioned it to Branden, he said, ‘H, that sounds great. I’d love to go there and help rebuild my career and help some young players and show them what I know.’ He’s such a team guy, a humble person, he’s just a great kid.”
Oliver has good hands. He caught 36 passes in 2014. And despite his size, he’s good at blitz protection.
“I definitely feel like I’m better than I was before just because of the simple fact of the mental aspect of the game,” he said.
“As a player I think he’s kind of what the NFL is going to these days,” Lewis said, “the shorter guy who kind of hides underneath the tackles and guards, and you don’t see him till he passes you, with a real strong lower body. … If he can continue on this pace, I think we’re going to see him back in the NFL on Sundays.”
While sitting out the 2018 season was tough, the year was hardly a total loss for Oliver.
In August, he was on his way from Buffalo to his Miami home and got delayed in the Atlanta airport by two cancelled flights. That allowed him to make the acquaintance of a flight attendant based in Atlanta named Alicia Lynn Davis.
The two started dating, and Oliver said they intend to get married. They aren’t officially engaged yet, but Oliver said, “it’s already in the works.”
Meanwhile Oliver remains a big booster of his alma mater. He’s loving the UB basketball season. And he’s in regular contact with UB running back Jaret Patterson, who just finished a sensational, 1,013-yard freshman season. Oliver got to know Patterson through former UB player Justin Mulbah, who was a coach at Patterson’s Maryland high school.
“I’ve been tight with Jaret since he was in high school,” Oliver said. “He loves the game. He wants to be great. He’s going to be the one to do it.”
UB fans noticed Oliver in last week’s game wearing a wristband with the word “Remember41,” a tribute to late UB football player Solomon Jackson, who died in 2016. Oliver was a senior in Jackson’s freshman season.
“He was always mindful about what he could do better,” Oliver said. “A great people person. He had that smile that could light up the room. He’s smiling down on us right now.”