Skyline junior Zeke Branham has always been motivated to succeed by those around him.
Whether it’s his older sister, Marlena, who is now at the University of Michigan, or his parents, Branham has always been one to push himself in the classroom to obtain an opportunity to better his future by attending a good college. His football skills just happened to come along with it.
“My sister graduated from Desert Ridge with a 4.5 (GPA) and I’ve always been competitive my whole life with her so I’m trying to do what I can to beat her,” Branham said. “It builds good habits. I don’t have a lot of free time to play Call of Duty or anything but that’s fine with me.
“It’s helping me get my college paid for, which I’m extremely happy about.”
Branham currently has a 4.03 GPA at Skyline. That, along with his athletic ability, has resulted in him receiving calls from some of the top academic institutions in the country to continue his football career and receive a top-notch education.
He took an official visit to the University of Pennsylvania on Feb. 1, about a month before the NCAA shut down in-person recruitment due to the spread of COVID-19. The down time has allowed for college coaches to evaluate more film rather than traveling from state to state.
That has helped Branham stand out despite Skyline having a difficult season.
The Coyotes, in their first year under new head coach George Hawthorne, finished 2-8 in 2019. The program was depleted by seniors graduating and players transferring to other schools after former coach Angelo Paffumi was fired in 2018. Branham was one of the few left with varsity experience, and it showed.
Primarily a defensive back, the 6-foot-2, 200-pounder was third on the team with 51 total tackles, three of which for a loss. He also accounted for a sack and two interceptions. He also had 238 rushing yards and three touchdowns on offense.
“Reckless abandonment,” Branham said when describing his style of play. “I don’t have anything to lose, in my mind. Even if I do have something to lose, I play like I don’t. I don’t hold back.”
That mindset has quickly put him on the radar for college football programs.
Since his visit to Penn, he’s picked up offers from UNLV, NAU, Montana State, Army, Air Force, Fresno State, Abilene Christian and UC Davis. He’s also had other Ivy League schools call, including Yale and Columbia.
He plans to set up official visits with some of the schools that have already offered him once campuses open back up. For now, though, he spends his days doing schoolwork online and training any way he can.
“Most people would say they feel happy or excited about (the offers),” Branham said. “But for me, it makes me feel more motivated. I want to achieve even more goals. I want to become the best. I want to work hard and achieve more accolades. It makes me feel confident that what I am doing works.”
Branham said being away from his teammates and coaches has been difficult and hopes to be able to compete in some 7-on-7 games by the time summer rolls around. He’s kept in contact with most of them as they also prepare for what they hope to be a turnaround season for the Skyline program.
Before schools closed, he was routinely in the weight room with Hawthorne, who played football at the University of Iowa before participating in training camp with the Cleveland Browns and joining the Arizona Rattlers. At the end of his football career, he moved his way up to become captain for the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office while spending time as an assistant coach at Chandler.
Hawthorne brought a new mentality about the weight room at Skyline. As someone who works out frequently, he helped players such as Branham quickly make good progress. It’s that new mindset, along with the desire to quickly turn around the program, that has Branham determined to do everything in his power his senior year to change the Coyotes’ culture.
“We are trying to change the name of Skyline,” Branham said. “I want people to know that when they come off the field after playing us, nothing was handed to them. I don’t want to hold anything back.”
Win or lose, Branham wants to make a statement. Whether it be physical play or unwillingness to quit, he hopes teams no longer look at Skyline as the doormat of the East Valley.
For him, helping lead the program in the right direction as a senior would be ideal for his legacy at Skyline. In the process, he aims to continue making strides as a student athlete.
And for as long as he is seen as a leader in the Coyote football program, he will push his teammates to work just as hard off the field as they do on.
“Coming off of last season, we don’t have a single thing to lose,” Branham said. “We are going to come with a lot more confidence. This program is going to have a way better mentality.”