"They farm all the land around Eagle Lake," Heckford told the newspaper. "Every year we go over there. For the most part there's five to eight of us that have been going six or seven years now. We deer hunt in the evenings and duck hunt in the mornings."
The group of five awoke the morning of Dec. 28 excited about a new day of hunting, Heckford said. They began loading up a Polaris Ranger with supplies, which included Branch’s shotgun, which he laid down flat in the bed of the vehicle.
As Branch stood on the passenger side, a Labrador retriever named Tito jumped up into the bed of the Ranger to find himself a seat, the Clarion-Ledger reported. As the dog walked in the bed, he stepped on the gun's safety mechanism and somehow pulled the trigger, causing it to fire a blast through the bed and into Branch's thigh.
"Everybody looked up. The first thing I saw was Matt and within two to three seconds he realized he was hit," Heckford said.
Branch's cousin immediately called 911 and the rest of the group got Branch, who had been struck in the femoral artery and was bleeding heavily, into the Ranger and drove to the closest road where paramedics could meet them, the newspaper said. As they waited for help, they laid Branch's 6-foot, 6-inch frame on the ground and elevated his legs as Heckford kept pressure on the wound.
It wasn’t until paramedics cut off Branch’s pants and waders that Heckford realized how badly his friend had been hit.
"I think that's when it hit me how serious it was," Heckford said. "It was at that point in time I realized how much he had bled. His pants were just soaked in blood."
A CaringBridge page set up to keep family and friends updated on Branch's condition went into further detail.
"No one realized the amount of blood that was being lost because it was flowing through his waders into his boots," the page read.
Paramedics initially took Branch to Merit Medical Center in Vicksburg, where doctors were able to stabilize him well enough that he could be flown to UMMC, which has the state’s only trauma center, the page said.
"He's been in ICU at University since Friday (Dec. 28) evening and, in order to save his life, we had to make the choice to amputate his lower left leg," the page read. "He's not out of the woods yet and it's a long road to recovery, but we're getting positive signs by the hour."
After the accident and initial surgery, Branch required more than 200 units of blood. All tests showed that his cognitive function, which could have been affected by the lack of blood bringing oxygen to his brain, is fully intact, the page said. Several blood drives were held in Mississippi and Louisiana to replenish the blood he'd used during his surgeries.
Branch started to wake up over the weekend and on Tuesday, 11 days after his accident, he was off the respirator and more fully awake, the CaringBridge page said.
ESPN reported that Branch played for LSU from 2009 to 2011. After playing in 28 games, his career ended in his junior year due to several injuries.
Heckford told the Clarion-Ledger that his friend's near-fatal accident has him thinking more about gun safety.
"All of us have hunted for 20 years or more and none of us thought about that happening. We were just moving 200 yards to set up and hunt," Heckford told the newspaper. "The opportunities for an accident are there and we just don't realize it. We think we're being safe, but are we?
“If there’s a shell in that gun, anything can happen.”