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A champ's Champ: One of the Greatest Of All Time hangs up his cleats

Former Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey retired from the NFL Tuesday after 15 seasons, 10 of them with the Denver Broncos. A big Mile High Salute to one of the best corners to play the game and one of the greatest Broncos ever. Period.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

In the annals of Broncos history, Champ Bailey's 10-year career here will be among the most-storied ones.

And for so many good reasons - G.O.A.T being just one.

milehighsalute champ

His 15 years in the NFL will undoubtedly be rewarded with a first-ballot Hall of Fame induction.

His long resumé of accomplishments will forever be exalted by secondary coaches and players alike who desire to be, like Bailey, students of the game.

His legacy as one of the best shutdown corners to ever play pro football will not be too lauded a claim.

Champ Bailey is one of the best to ever do it, in my opinion. A great conserver of energy, Champ wasn't in a rush to get anywhere fast unless it was on the football field. He was one of the most knowledgeable and gifted players I've ever played with.   -Brian Dawkins, former Broncos teammate

Bailey was everything we thought he would be when he became a Bronco - and much more.

"He's as good as there has ever been, not only as a cornerback but on defense, period," said head coach John Fox. "Champ was the consummate pro and a real student of the game. He studied, took care of himself physically and helped younger players. He worked hard on and off the field. He earned respect from his teammates and held guys accountable. He was a big part of turning this program around, and I will always cherish my time coaching Champ."

Heralded as one of the best shutdown corners in the NFL, Champ was feared by OCs, quarterbacks and receivers alike who schemed against him even into his aging years.

But perhaps most impressive was that there was equal dread from running backs  - even quarterbacks! - who were all-too-familiar with Champ's willingness to get dirty, make a tackle, do whatever necessary to stop an offense.

Jeff Legwold writes about a tackle Champ made on Ronnie Brown during a sweltering game at Miami in 2005 - a game the Broncos would lose in spite of Champ's heroics.

"Bailey charged the line of scrimmage, stopping Brown in the dirt for a 5-yard gain with no yardage after contact as Bailey dislocated his shoulder doing it. It's not that Bailey, a top-shelf cornerback, made the play. It's that he was willing to make the play."

And Champ would make that play over and over and over again. That's what made him special - 15 years of making a play on the ball - doing it quietly but fiercely.

For five years he did it for the Redskins, before doing it even better for another 10 years with the Broncos.

As the Redskins' No. 1 draft pick in 1999, Champ tallied five interceptions and one touchdown. He also had one sack and 61 tackles, third best on a playoff-bound Redskins team - as a rookie.  The former Georgia Bulldog was known for being everywhere on the field and was earning respect from coaches and teammates alike early on.

Peyton Manning recognized it while a quarterback at University of Tennessee where the UT-Georgia game was always a hot SEC matchup. In fact, Manning still remembers one of Champ's interceptions on him.

"I still haven't gotten over...I scrambled out to the right, I had a guy open in the back of the end zone, and I thought I was going to throw a touchdown," Manning recalled. "And Champ Bailey intercepts it, so I knew then what a special player and athlete he was."

He was truly a great competitor with talent and work ethic. He had unbelievable cover skills and unbelievable ball skills. Champ Bailey is one of the best cornerbacks to ever play in the NFL. I miss him. I miss seeing No. 24 out there.    -Peyton Manning, quarterback

"Going all the way back to my days playing against him in college, he was truly a great competitor with talent and work ethic. That's what made Champ such an incredible player," said Manning, who hit the NFL just a year before Bailey. "His knowledge of the game and his understanding of offenses - with different pass pattern intricacies and combinations - was very impressive. He had unbelievable cover skills and unbelievable ball skills. Champ Bailey is one of the best cornerbacks ever to play in the NFL, in my opinion."

And then in 2004 - in what should be considered the trade of the century - the Broncos handed over their superstar running back, Clinton Portis, to the Redskins in exchange for Bailey and a second-round draft pick.

Portis had just finished his second 1,500+-yard rushing season for the Broncos and Bailey had accumulated 18 interceptions in his five years at Washington.

If there is ever a testament to the value of that trade, it is Portis himself being in awe of the man for whom he was traded.

"Knowing Champ and being a big fan of Champ since his [University of Georgia] days, I'm thinking like, ‘Man, I'm getting traded for Champ Bailey?'" Portis said about the trade deal. "So to me it was just an honor to be in a trade with Champ Bailey. And then they also got a pick for me, so I felt like I was hot stuff."

It was Bailey, of course, who really turned out to be hot stuff.

Bailey's 12 career Pro Bowl selections trail only Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White's 13 among all defensive players in NFL history, and Champ is tied for the sixth most overall. Eight of his Pro Bowl selections came with the Broncos, tying for the second-highest total in team history behind Hall-of-Fame quarterback John Elway.

In 215 career regular-season games, Bailey amassed 52 interceptions, 983 tackles (837 of them solo), 235 passes defensed, three sacks, nine forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries.

His 52 interceptions were the most among NFL cornerbacks during his 15-year career (1999-2013), and his 235 passes defensed led all NFL players during that period.

Bailey started 10-of-11 career postseason games, recording 34 tackles, two interceptions - for 105 yards -  and 10 passes defensed.

Among those playoff interceptions is one of the most talked-about among Broncos fans - an end zone interception of Tom Brady in the 2006 divisional playoff against the New England Patriots.

After making the Pro Bowl during four of his first five NFL seasons with Washington, Bailey immediately made his mark in Denver, totaling 21 interceptions during his first three years with the club and earning first-team All-Pro honors from the Associated Press following each of those seasons.

Bailey finished his Broncos career tied for fourth on the club's all-time interceptions list with 34, including a personal-best 10 interceptions in 2006 as runner-up for the Associated Press' NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Mike Shanahan, Broncos head coach at the time of Bailey's addition, noted the cornerback's skills as well as his work ethic.

"You can see his skill on film, but what you don't know is what a great guy he is, how he practices, how accountable he is and how much you enjoy being around him," Shanahan said after news of Champ's retirement.

"With Champ, you just didn't have to worry about the receiver on his side of the field," Shanahan added. "When you talk about Hall of Fame cornerbacks, those are the guys you can say that about. He always played at a very high level and had such a presence and class about himself. You just don't find guys like Champ Bailey very often."

No you don't, but somehow, by the gods of good fortune (and of late, the magic of Elway), the Broncos have had more than their fair share of hard-working "good guys."

Like Ring-of-Famer Rod Smith.

So it's no wonder Smith had respect for the all-pro corner he practiced against every week.

"The trade to get Champ Bailey is one of the best moves the Broncos have ever made," Smith said. "We got his best 10 years in the NFL, and I'm grateful to be able to call him a friend. His work in practice was the foundation for excelling in the games, and he served as a great example for any athlete."

His skill was obvious. He was one of the best tacklers I have ever seen. Coupled with that he was able to play shutdown, zone and bump-and-run. He did it all and was truly a complete player.   -John Lynch, former Broncos teammate

Elway, who exited the NFL the year Bailey entered, and who was not yet part of the front office that brought Champ to Denver, still played a critical role in keeping the Pro Bowler with the Broncos as long as possible.

When it came time to look at Bailey's contract in 2011, Elway didn't flinch at doing whatever it would take to keep him.

"Champ was the pillar in this organization for a long, long time," Elway noted on Tuesday. "He brought great stability to the Broncos, not only as a player but as a person, through his ability and leadership. He was the guy we were going to build around, and we were fortunate to have him for three more years to get this team back on track. He was a big part of that turnaround."

Elway certainly knows a thing or two about turnarounds. And he saw in Champ the kind of skill that the entire team - and Broncos Country - could benefit from and appreciate.

"He was a complete corner with tremendous toughness and ability to cover," Elway added. "I believe Broncos fans respected him not only because of the example he set on the field but also because of his hard work in the community. Not many had better careers than Champ Bailey, and I bet when he looks back on his, he will be able to say he put everything he had into it."

And that is exactly what Champ did say Tuesday when he announced his retirement from the NFL.

"Every professional athlete knows and understands that at some point his career will end and it will be time to move on to another phase in life. For me, that time is now," said the 36-year-old, who despite nagging injuries in his final few years remained one of the most feared cornerbacks on the field. "I have been truly blessed. I have been able to play this NFL game I love for 15 seasons."

I had the chance to play with one of the greatest quarterbacks ever and make it to the Super Bowl. I could not have played for a better organization or had better teammates and coaches. I thank them all. God bless and go Broncos! -Champ Bailey, G.O.A.T

Bailey thanked the Redskins for making him their first pick 15 years ago, and he noted his privilege for getting to come to Denver and play for the "best fans in the NFL."

Finally, he thanked Elway for bringing in Manning to help build a championship team for Champ and his Broncos.

"I had the chance to play with one of the greatest quarterbacks ever and make it to the Super Bowl," Champ said. "I could not have played for a better organization or had better teammates and coaches. I thank them all."

And we thank you, Champ.

You leave the NFL quietly, with no Super Bowl ring but a mountain of respect from your peers, reverence from your successors and love from the fans you so often impressed.

Make no mistake, any Super Bowl bling that comes to this franchise belongs to you, too. You helped rebuild this team and keep it alive during the lean years.

You weren't drafted a Bronco, and you haven't yet retired a Bronco, but to us, you will never be anything but one of the greatest Broncos of all time.

So here's a big Mile High Salute, No. 24 - you more than deserve it.