Champ Bailey finally gets a chance

January 27, 2014, 2:09 PM

— -- 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.

He played with Irving Fryar his first two seasons in Washington. That, alone, makes Bailey seem ancient. He played, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, 215 regular-season games without reaching a Super Bowl. When the Redskins drafted Bailey in 1999, the late Sean Taylor was still in high school, and Daniel Snyder was weeks away from purchasing the team.

Broncos cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who has been in the league for six years, grew up wearing Bailey's jersey. Seahawks safety  Earl Thomas said he used to have Bailey on his MySpace page when he was in high school.

Bailey's introduction to the NFL in 1999 was much like any other rookie's. He was a kid from Folkston, Ga., trying to make it in the pros. He was subjected to mild hazing, which included fetching breakfast for the veteran defensive backs. There was one time, during training camp, when Bailey scored a prime seat on the team bus, only to be ordered to get Gatorade. When he was finished with the task, his seat was gone, forcing him to shoehorn himself between two large rookie linemen.

Bailey didn't fight it, even though he was Washington's first-round draft pick, a rare talent from the University of Georgia with jaw-dropping speed and physical gifts to match up with anyone. One of his teammates in the defensive backfield,  Jamel Williams, promised Bailey that in a few years, when he was older, no one would be able to touch him. And when Bailey got on the field, no one could match him.

"In one of his first preseason games, he broke on a pass and took it right to the house," Williams said of Bailey's preseason debut against New England, which was followed by a headline that read, "Champ of a Start." "After that, I think he was starting ever since. I knew he was good. He played with leverage, and he knew how to use his body at a young age. He had a heck of a break, and he was so fast. I figured he'd play for a long time."

Bailey had the great fortune of playing with two Hall of Fame cornerbacks in those early days in Washington: Darrell Green and Deion Sanders.

Sanders taught him swagger; Green helped him become a man. He was 39 when Bailey came in as a rookie, old enough to be his father. Knowing the great value of Green's experience, Washington secondary coach Tom Hayes asked him to work with the rookie. So Green and Bailey met twice a week, early in the morning, to study game film. Green, a Christian man who didn't regale his teammates with stories of booze and parties, was dubbed the ageless wonder. He played until he was 42.

There was no great secret to his longevity. He approached the NFL as a job, as a way to feed his wife and kids. "My motivation wasn't the fame, and people screaming my name," Green said. "It was going to work and being the best I could be."

Green said he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds a few years ago. He was 50 at the time. He never told Bailey to be like him. He used to always say he didn't want him to be his "Mini Me." That was impossible, anyway. Bailey was 6 feet tall, more than 3 inches bigger than Green, and played the game differently. Green used to get on him for taking his eyes off his receiver on deep routes, for turning back toward the quarterback, but then Green stopped. Bailey was just fine being himself.

Their relationship represented something that Green believes the NFL is missing these days, as veteran players are exiled for younger and cheaper talent. Green hasn't talked to Bailey in about five years, but said he watched him last week with the pride of a father. He scoffs at the notion that Bailey is wearing down.

"If he is in the mold that I believe he is, he doesn't even have to begin to look over his shoulder for three years, maybe four," he said. "I didn't feel like until I was 38 or 39 years old that I needed to take a breath. That's a once-in-a-generation kind of gift. People don't have that. I say it humbly, but it's true. I was blessed that way, and I think Champ is, too."

He was born on June 22, 1978, with the name Roland Bailey Jr., though no one really calls him that. Sometime when he was a baby, he acquired the nickname Champ, and from there, according to his mom, "people just started running with it." She believes he got the nickname because he was such an active baby. By the time he could walk, he was running everywhere. For a while, his family was convinced his name was actually, "Sitdownchamp."

Times were different then. Kids played football outside, climbed trees and chased each other around the neighborhood, unencumbered by computers, video games and iPhones. Elaine rarely sees kids playing outside her home in Georgia anymore.

She says her son's steps are getting shorter, but that it's a blessing he's played 15 seasons without an injury that has taken him out for an entire season. About 35 family members made the trek to Denver two weekends ago for the AFC Championship Game, and none of them doubted what Bailey would do in that game.

He quietly bottled up the Patriots' slot receivers, and provided leadership to a defense that has been through so much in 2013, from Harris' injury to linebacker Von Miller's suspension and season-ending ACL injury to defensive end Derek Wolfe being placed on injured reserve because of seizure-like symptoms.

"I was always confident I'd get back," Bailey said. "I just had to let [the foot] heal. I couldn't force it. That's something I've learned about my body, not to try to force things and to let things take its course. It just took a little longer than I expected."

Bailey said he's far more conscious now about what he eats and how he trains. But he's "not religious about it." He'll have an occasional burger, and still loves his candy. He's learned from Green and Lynch and Dawkins how to manage his body.

On Mondays, Bailey said, he feels as if he's just crawled out of a car wreck. So he tries to stay off his feet. He stretches and loosens up on an elliptical machine.

When he came to Denver in 2004, Bailey was known as one of the more physical cornerbacks in the league. And for 14 years, he was the guy who was assigned an opponent's best receiver. He went to 12 Pro Bowls -- an NFL record for cornerbacks -- and dominated with his speed. In his later years, he's relied more on brains and instinct.

His absence in 2013 was noticeable. The Broncos went from a top-five team against the pass to the NFL's sixth-worst passing defense.

"He's always been a competitor," said former Chiefs receiver Eddie Kennison. "He's played 15 seasons because he's always prepared himself for Sundays. When a guy works as hard as he's worked for as long he has, he makes guys like me go and study tape to try and find a weakness. That's what made the competition so fun. We had to make sure we were on our A-game."

Bailey just doesn't let things get to him. Maybe that's why he's lasted this long. About four or five years ago, his agent, Jack Reale, mentioned an article he assumed Bailey hadn't seen. "I read everything," Bailey told him. When Reale asked why, Bailey said he does it so if he's ever questioned about anything, he knows how he feels about the subject and what his answer should be.

"I thought that was incredibly insightful from a guy as quiet and unassuming as he is," Reale said.

"I think Champ is the embodiment of the old adage that still waters run deep. Anyone who takes him for granted winds up getting burned. We live in a society where people put a lot of credence in numbers and chronology because that's easy. But last year was one of the best seasons he's ever had, and that was at 34. So at 35 he didn't all of a sudden go from being one of the best to having lost his skills.

"Anybody who makes that assumption purely based on age that he can't play for a number of years is making a significant mistake."

Bailey isn't talking about the future at all, beyond this week. His demeanor is no different than it was in the preseason. He's always this way. Now, Bailey has had his moments. There was a Patriots game that Dawkins remembers his friend being surprisingly amped up for in warm-ups. Dawkins, now an ESPN analyst, came to Denver after a long and successful career in Philadelphia. But he was still a little in awe when he took the field with Bailey for the first time in 2009, in the preseason.

"As I was lining up," Dawkins said, "I looked to my left, and I'm thinking, 'Man, I'm on the field with Champ Bailey.' And that was a special moment for me."

And this week will be special. Numerous family members are making the trek to New York, including his mom and his dad, Roland. His brothers and sister are expected to be there, too. His kids -- Bailey has six of them -- are staying home, Elaine Bailey said.

But his 4-year-old son Brayden was there on Jan. 19, after the Broncos beat the Patriots. He bounced around the locker room wearing a jersey that said, "Lil' Champ."

Every five minutes or so, he asked his dad when they were going home.

"He doesn't get it all the way," Bailey said. "He knows it's a big moment, but he doesn't grasp it yet. He'll probably remember. … I remember things when I was that young, big stuff. Maybe he will."