Champ Bailey finally gets a chance

Denver Broncos

DENVER -- He played cards deep into the night, swapping old jokes and stories like it was a family reunion, not a party. Champ Bailey's mother, Elaine, asked if she could get in on a poker game with $5, and when she was met with silence, she decided to clean his house. It was Sunday night, hours after Bailey's Denver Broncos won the AFC championship, and this is how he celebrated finally going to the Super Bowl after 15 years: With his family, at least 30 people strong, with a casual night devoid of emotion or deep reflection.

"I don't want to make it sound like he was not happy about it," said Bailey's sister, Danielle.

"Champ is pretty much the same. He was excited, but it was a quiet excitement."

It almost seemed as if the rest of the NFL was more moved about the developments than Bailey. Old football players know about opportunity, and closing windows. Just a few weeks ago, Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, a 17-year veteran and future Hall of Famer, faded into retirement without ever getting a chance to play in the big game. Many guys don't even make it to the playoffs.

This was not lost on Brian Dawkins. The retired NFL safety was vacationing at Disneyland with his kids on Jan. 19, the day of the AFC championship. But he was riveted to his hotel TV, watching Bailey's every move. For a minute, he saw emotion from his old friend in a shot from the sideline. He watched Bailey's shoulders drop in relief when the Broncos finally sealed the victory, and saw tears well up in his eyes as he took a deep breath.

Dawkins used to buy his old buddy vitamins. He'd tell him about hyperbaric chambers and stretching specialists, anything to fight Father Time.

"I may have gotten on his nerves a little bit," Dawkins said. "I cared about him so much. I wanted him to play the game at a high level for as long as possible."

After the game, another former teammate, John Lynch, met Bailey at his locker. "I'm proud of you," he told Bailey.

"The light is at the end of the tunnel," Lynch said later. "He can see it. He's a really mellow guy, so people don't see it. But a big fire burns inside of him."

Unlike Richard Sherman, his cornerback counterpart in Seattle, you will most likely not hear a lot about what's burning inside of Bailey this week. Sherman is young and uninhibited; Bailey is 35 and one of the most mild-mannered individuals to ever play a position that commands its share of trash-talking and theatrics.

But he reads everything, according to his agent, Jack Reale. He knows every word that is being said about him. For the past year or so, since the Broncos' defensive meltdown in last season's playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens, the storyline has focused on how Bailey has lost a step. He missed most of the season with a Lisfranc sprain in his left foot, and is entering the final season of a four-year, $42.5 million contract with a cap-heavy salary.

He'll be counted on dearly in the Super Bowl, especially with young cornerback Chris Harris out with a torn ACL.

What happens after that is anyone's guess, so Bailey's friends -- and there are many of them -- hope he stops and takes in this week in New York. And that the world takes a minute to savor Champ Bailey.

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