A hunting dog relaxes after a quail hunt at Beaux Eden Plantation near Fort Valley, Georgia. Credit: Sue Cocking | Miami Herald | MCT

Ex-LSU player Matt Branch has lost a leg after being shot by a dog while on a hunting trip. That’s according to a close friend and hunting companion of the former offensive lineman who warned others to be “the utmost careful when it comes to gun safety.”

“All of us have hunted for 20 years or more and none of us thought about that happening,” Micah Heckford said to the Clarion Ledger recently about the incident, which occurred in late December and resulted in the amputation of Branch’s left leg. The Louisiana native, who played at LSU from 2009 to 2011, was reported to be in intensive care at University of Mississippi Medical Center and is expected to recover.

“The opportunities for an accident are there and we just don’t realize it,” Heckford added. “We think we’re being safe, but are we? If there’s a shell in that gun, anything can happen.”

Branch was struck by a shotgun blast when a dog who was with his group jumped into the back of their Ford Ranger and stepped on the weapon’s safety, setting it to fire mode, while also managing to pull the trigger. Heckford said he and Branch’s cousin, David Joe Branch, immediately put Branch in the vehicle and called 911 while they drove to the nearest access point for an ambulance.

When first responders arrived and cut off Branch’s waders and pants, Heckford said, “I think that’s when it hit me how serious it was. It was at that point in time I realized how much he had bled. His pants were just soaked in blood.”

The incident occurred Dec. 28, at approximately 9:40 a.m. at Eagle Lake, Mississippi, located about 70 miles west of the university’s hospital, in an area where Branch and his friends have gotten together for annual duck hunts. In a Facebook post a few days afterward, Heckford said, “Matt has undergone multiple critical surgeries including the amputation of his left leg and re-connecting his femoral artery in his left upper leg.”

A GoFundMe page, noting that Branch has a wife and a 1-year-old son, has been set up to help him pay for his medical expenses. “Normally, sustaining these injuries while in such a remote geographic area would be life ending for most any human being,” the page states, “but miraculously Matt has survived.”

The accident happened while Heckford, Branch and other members of their group, including Branch’s younger brother, were reconvening after spending the early morning hunting in a spread-out formation. The plan then called for them to spend the rest of the morning hunting as a group, and they were putting their equipment in the Ranger with the intention of “just moving 200 yards.”

In his Facebook post, Heckford said that the blast from the 12-gauge shotgun tore through the side of the pickup truck’s bed and struck Branch “in the upper inside of his left thigh approximately 2-3 [inches] from his groin,” at which point the former player “screamed and fell to the ground.”

“Sadly, I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have left shells in my gun while moving to a different location to hunt, or even wading around moving decoys between flights,” Heckford wrote in his post. “I would like to encourage everyone that reads this to take the time to not only double check themselves going forward, but take the time to double check everyone else you’re hunting with as well.”

Heckford said he has “known Matt for a very long time,” and added, “He is big, he is tough, he is a fighter, and most importantly, he is no quitter.”

“There is no doubt Matt has an extremely long road to recovery ahead of him,” Heckford said, “but there is nobody more confident than me that he will shake back and continue to live an amazing life and continue to impact others.”