The cornerback position is a very important one in the National Football League. Having a capable one can mean the difference between allowing a key reception and getting a game-saving stop.
When a star wide receiver was being covered by former NFL cornerback Champ Bailey back in the day, he knew he was in for a frustrating game.
In 15 pro seasons, he earned the reputation as perhaps the best corner in the game, and one of the greatest to ever play the sport.
He was truly a gem during an era when the NFL was more defensive-minded than it is today.
Humble Beginnings In The South
Bailey was born Roland Bailey Jr. in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and he was raised in Folkston, Georgia, a very small, low-income town that is just minutes away from Jacksonville, Florida.
At a young age, his mother Elaine nicknamed him “Champ,” and he perhaps felt that it gave him a whole lot to live up to in the years to come.
“People would talk about me and my name all the time, saying I couldn’t be all that good,” Bailey once said. “But nobody could say anything for long, because they knew I was faster and better than they were. It’s happened everywhere. I’m sure I’ll get teased about it my first couple of years in the NFL.”
He came from good stock, as his brothers Ronald and Boss were also standout athletes who would both make it to the NFL. Champ, though, was the crown jewel of the family.
Many pro athletes don’t feel they can reach that level until they’re in high school or even college. But Bailey had the notion very early on that he was destined for greatness.
“I was about 8 when I realized I could make it to the pros,” Bailey said. “I was way better than guys my age. I was a skinny kid, and I knew I had to grow a little bit. But I knew I could do it if I got bigger, stronger and faster.”
He ended up attending Chalton County High School in Folkston, and in addition to football, he also played basketball and ran track. As a track and field athlete, he won Georgia’s high jump championship in 1994.
Bailey quickly showed how special he was on the gridiron while at Chalton County High, playing both quarterback and free safety. In his senior season he focused on playing the tailback position, and he didn’t disappoint, rushing for 1,858 yards and 28 touchdowns in just 12 games, both of which are school records.
Behind the scenes, however, things weren’t the least bit easy for him, as he faced a major challenge at home. At the tender age of 14, he fathered a child and was forced to pay child support.
To make those payments, he took multiple jobs, which included yard work and a stint at Dairy Queen, while attending school and playing sports. It’s very likely that this experience formed the roots of his legendary work ethic.
Bailey has admitted that having to raise a child at such a young age taught him the virtue of responsibility.
“I tried to take care of that, as much as I could, on my own, and leave (my parents) out of it,” he told Frank Schwab of the Colorado Springs Gazette. “Just trying to grow up a lot faster than I should have. It was nerve-wracking. It was tough. It wasn’t good for me to have a child that early, but at the same time, it made me grow up”
Achieving Greatness at Georgia
Bailey decided to stay close to home for college, as he received a scholarship to play for the University of Georgia Bulldogs. There, he continued to display his unique package of skills, as he played both sides of the football, as well as on special teams as a punt and kick returner.
As a wide receiver, he tallied 234 yards and 12 receptions as a sophomore, but he really stood out in his junior season with 744 receiving yards and five touchdowns. He even added 84 rushing yards on 16 run attempts for good measure, and all told he averaged 103.5 all-purpose yards a game.
Defensively, he played both cornerback and safety and put up 52 tackles (four for losses), three interceptions and seven deflected passes in his junior season.
Because of his impressive all-around skills, he regularly took part in more than 100 plays per game, increasing his value to the Bulldogs.
Bailey copped unanimous first-team All-America and first-team All-Southeastern Conference honors, and he was also awarded the Bronko Nagurski Trophy as a junior as the top defensive player in NCAA football.
That year, Georgia participated in the Peach Bowl against the University of Virginia. Bailey made his presence felt throughout the game, as he registered 73 receiving yards on three passes, including a 14-yard touchdown, five kickoff returns for 104 yards, as well as two tackles and one pass defended while playing corner.
Thanks to Bailey’s work, the Bulldogs overcame a fourth-quarter deficit to win 35-33.
.@GeorgiaDome Memories#UGA’s Champ Bailey holds the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl trophy after the Bulldogs defeated Virginia in front of a record crowd at the Georgia Dome in 1998.
Via: @ajc pic.twitter.com/GMnIgbJufY
— Gradick Sports (@GradickSports) November 20, 2017
His stardom wasn’t just limited to football, however. He also stood tall as a track and field athlete, running the 55 meter and 60 meter events.
In 1998, he even set a Bulldogs record in the indoor long jump event of 7.89 meters (25 feet, 11 inches). This performance earned him a third-place finish in the SEC Indoor Track and Field Championships.
Stardom In The Nation’s Capital
Bailey was considered an impressive physical specimen entering the 1999 NFL Draft. At the NFL Combine that year, he registered a 4.28 second time in the 40-yard dash, and scouts could also start to see his high football IQ.
The Washington Redskins made Bailey the seventh overall pick in the draft amidst a flurry of draft-day trades. Washington originally had the fifth pick, which it could’ve used on Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams, the talented running back from the University of Texas.
Instead, the Redskins dealt the pick to the New Orleans Saints for a slew of picks, including the 12th pick in that year’s draft. They then flipped that pick to the Chicago Bears and received the pick that became Bailey.
Instead of traveling to New York City for the draft, as many draftees do, Bailey decided to remain in his hometown of Folkston and watch the draft on television.
“I was a little scared. . . . I knew they were really interested,” he said. “I knew they really want me in their organization.”
Bailey was immediately given a five-year, $12 million contract, which included a $2 million signing bonus. Not too shabby for a family-oriented man who hailed from a quiet, backwoods town in the South.
The Redskins were coming off a 6-10 campaign in 1998, during which they were one of the worst defensive teams in football. It had been a long time since they had last won the Super Bowl following the 1991 season, and they hadn’t reached the postseason since ’92.
One thing they did have going for them was Hall of Fame veteran cornerback Darrell Green. At age 39, Green was well past his prime, but as a member of the Redskins since 1983, he had played on two world championship teams for them, and that experience allowed him to serve as a mentor to Bailey.
“I told him that he can glean more from me than I can say to him,” Darrell Green recalled later. “In the old days, people who picked crops left some behind for others to take. I told him to take what he wanted from me, that when he was ready to talk, I would be here.”
Bailey started to make an impact right away. In Week 6, Washington visited the Arizona Cardinals, and Bailey had perhaps his first great performance as a pro.
He intercepted consecutive passes made by Arizona QB Jake “the Snake” Plummer, the first of which he took in for a touchdown. On the day, Bailey had three picks to help Washington win 24-10.
With five interceptions, 16 passes defended and 80 tackles (73 solo) on the season, Bailey made the NFL All-Rookie Team and helped the Redskins finish 10-6. Washington finally returned to the playoffs, and with Bailey intercepting a pass, they got past the Detroit Lions in the NFC Wild Card game.
The next season, Bailey also benefitted from the presence of another Hall of Fame defensive back, Deion Sanders. Sanders was another two-time world champion cornerback whom Bailey learned from.
The Folkston native was eternally grateful to learn from two of the best corners in the game.
“So I get to see two older guys at my position that I look up to,” Bailey said of entering the league. “I mean, these are my top two corners growing up. So how the hell did that happen? I get on the same team. … I’m the luckiest guy in the world. But I just knew I had to soak it up. The way they carried themselves at that point of their careers, I just carried that over to my career. Just knowing it’s not just about being ready for games. It’s practice, practice. Take care of your body. Take care of your body. … Those little things that people don’t see, I tried to take to my game.”
The tutelage clearly paid off, as he earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl in 2000. In each of his next three seasons, Bailey continued to play in the Pro Bowl, and in 2002 he led the NFL in passes defended with 24.
It was around this time that he was starting to be considered arguably the best corner in the game.
— NFL Throwback (@nflthrowback) August 2, 2019
One thing that made him special was his ability to also stop the run, which is a rare quality for a cornerback, since most focus on shutting down the wideout they’re assigned to cover.
Matt Bowen, who played safety alongside Bailey for a season in Washington, gave him some high praise.
“In the early 2000s, he was the best cornerback, maybe the best defensive player in the league, to be honest,” said Bowen. “I mean, there were times during practice, in one-on-ones, he just looked like he was dancing with the receiver step for step.
“I’ve played with a lot of good defensive backs, guys who had great reaction time, great ball skills. But Champ had everything, I mean everything. He could’ve played offense if he wanted to. Could’ve played wide receiver, slot receiver. He was just that talented. Guys like him don’t come around that often.”
Another safety, John Lynch, remembers being impressed with Bailey the first time they practiced together at the Pro Bowl.
“He could play bump [coverage],” said Lynch, who is now the general manager of the San Francisco 49ers. “He could play off. He took the ball away. He took sides of the field away. He’s just a complete football player.”
Dealt To Denver
As great as Bailey was, the Redskins continued to sputter, failing to make the playoffs after the 1999 season. After Joe Gibbs, who had coached them to their last two Super Bowl titles, returned in 2004, the Redskins decided to trade Bailey to the Denver Broncos for running back Clinton Portis.
The Broncos had been mired in an identity crisis for the last few years. After winning back-to-back Super Bowls in the late 1990s, the legendary John Elway had retired, while Terrell Davis’ career was cut short by injury.
Bailey started to take his game to the next level in 2004, his first season in Denver. He wasted little time, intercepting his first pass as a Bronco on September 12, the first Sunday Night Football game of the season.
“He’s impressed me,” Denver safety Kenoy Kennedy said. “I’ve seen him make plays that I haven’t seen anybody make, even watching highlights on ESPN. I’ve seen him take balls from guys when they’ve had it and thought they caught it, and he’s going the other way. He can do it all.”
He finished the season with a new career-high of 81 tackles, as the Broncos won 10 regular season games and made the playoffs, losing to Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, despite Bailey’s eight tackles.
But he became truly dominant during the 2005 season.
In Week 2, Denver took on the San Diego Chargers, who possessed a young stud quarterback named Drew Brees. On one play, Bailey intercepted a Brees pass and took it back 25 yards for a touchdown to help Denver to a 20-17 win.
Brees couldn’t help but give Bailey props.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Brees years later. “We were beating ’em 14-3. It was in the third quarter. And we were running this, just a hitch outside to slot, so it was across the field. And he just read it and jumped it and picked it and took it to the house.”
Impressive enough, but even more impressive considering that Bailey had suffered a dislocated shoulder just one week earlier while tackling Miami Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown.
Brees realized that every time he played against Bailey, it was going to be a battle.
“He’s a stud,” Brees said, still shaking his head in disgust at the memory.
“You just knew every time you were going up against that guy, ‘I cannot make a mistake, because he will make me pay,'” said Brees, who said Bailey’s area of the field was always considered a “no-throw zone,” a term reserved for only a few elite corners.
“It was just, ‘Don’t even think about it. It’s not worth it,'” Brees said. “And whereas a lot of good cover corners have no interest in tackling, he’s the exact opposite. He’ll come up and hit you. He prides himself on being a good football player, not just a good cover guy. That sets him apart from the rest.
“I can’t think of anybody that’s done it as long as he’s done it, at as high a level as he’s done it.”
Bailey intercepted eight passes that year for a total of 139 yards and two touchdowns. He earned his sixth consecutive trip to the Pro Bowl and his second straight First-Team All-Pro selection.
The Broncos finished 13-3 that season, and fans throughout Colorado had visions of a trip back to the Super Bowl. In Denver’s divisional playoff game against the defending world champion New England Patriots, Bailey prevented a touchdown by intercepting a Tom Brady pass in the end zone, then running it back 100 yards to the Pats’ one-yard line before being tackled.
It set a new record for the longest non-scoring play in NFL history.
45. TD-SAVING CHASE-DOWN
Jan. 14, 2006
In Divisional Playoffs, CB Champ Bailey intercepts Tom Brady in end zone but is chased down, 100 yards later, by TE Ben Watson, who knocks ball out of bounds at the 1.
Factoid: Bailey ran a 4.28 40 at the 1999 combine. Watson is 255 lbs. pic.twitter.com/YM2dk27As3
— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) July 22, 2019
Unfortunately, the Broncos ended up losing the AFC Championship to the eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, 34-17.
Bailey continued to terrorize opposing defenses in 2006, leading the NFL with 10 picks for 162 yards and finishing second in the balloting for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, as he did not give up a single touchdown. It’s considered one of the best seasons ever by a cornerback.
From 2005 to 2006, Champ Bailey compiled…
— A_Fans_Opn (@AFansOpinion_) June 20, 2018
The next year, according to Pro Football Focus, he led all corners in run stops, showing off his versatility as a defensive back. It helped earn him an eighth straight Pro Bowl appearance.
In 2009, Bailey again did not allow a touchdown out of 80 passes that targeted him. After a one-year hiatus, he made his way back to the Pro Bowl that season.
Unfortunately, it was around this time that injuries started to take their toll on him. His style of play led to lots of wear and tear, and it wasn’t long before that wear and tear affected his production.
A Trip To The Brink
Prior to the 2012 season, Peyton Manning was traded to Denver, giving the team and its fans its strongest hopes of Super Bowl contention in over a decade. Bailey wasn’t quite the same player at age 34, but he still put up 66 tackles and made his 12th Pro Bowl.
Peyton Manning on Champ Bailey:
“Playing against Champ in college and in the NFL when he was on the Redskins, he was just one of those guys you knew was a Hall of Famer. Champ was a great player, and it was an honor to call him a teammate with the Broncos. I’m so happy for him.” pic.twitter.com/satHZZJKXX
— RK (@RyanKoenigsberg) February 3, 2019
The next season, he was limited to five regular season games due to a foot injury. Still, Denver won 13 games and advanced to the AFC Championship Game against Brady and the Patriots.
Sensing his shot at a championship ring, Bailey helped Denver to a 26-16 win. In Super Bowl XLVIII in East Rutherford, New Jersey, Bailey had four tackles, but it did little good, as the Broncos got routed by Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks, 43-8.
That would be it for Bailey. Denver released him weeks later, and although the New Orleans Saints signed him shortly afterward, by now he was washed up.
Failing to make the Saints’ final roster, Bailey was released just prior to the start of the 2014 regular season. About a month later, he signed a one-day contract with Denver so he could retire as a Bronco.
A Storied Legacy
Bailey was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2019, his first year of eligibility.
Champ Bailey has been elected into the Hall of Fame!
— NFL Stats (@NFL_Stats) February 2, 2019
Many consider him the last “shutdown” cornerback in the NFL. Late in his career, rule changes, especially when it came to pass interference calls, made it much tougher for corners to bother, let alone stop opposing wideouts.
Former NFL coach Herm Edwards, himself a former DB, admired how Bailey continued to get the job done even as the pro game became more offensive-minded.
“What stands out most is how he has really tailored his game to the years that have gone by,” said Edwards. “When Champ came into the league 15 years ago, it was a little different. Now, it’s more wide open with the formations, and he’s been able to adapt to all that. It says a lot about him.”
Opposing players, such as wide receiver Steve Smith Jr., admitted that Bailey was a handful.
“Very frustrating, but he was the type of cornerback you had to study on film,” Smith said. “You had to watch him. At that time they were DVDs, so I had four or five DVDs just on Champ Bailey and all his plays.”
When it was all said and done, Bailey was placed on the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 2000s. No other DB has played in the Pro Bowl as many times as he did.
The game may never see anyone like him again.