Champ Bailey will be enshrined into the Broncos Ring of Fame during halftime at Mile High today, surrounded by people he loved the most - his Broncos teammates.
“I just hope they say I played with everything I had, played hard, played smart, played tough and I was a great teammate,” Bailey said after he retired from the NFL in 2014. “That’s all that matters.”
From the beginning of his NFL career to the moment he accepted his rightful place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame this past August, Bailey has always emphasized the role his teammates played in his career.
At his retirement speech in Dove Valley, Bailey talked about the guys he looked up to and choked up when he had to admit “it’s real tough walking away.”
Bailey reiterated his love for his teammates Friday during the Fantennial celebration at Empower Field honoring the Top 100 Broncos and highlighting his Ring of Fame induction today.
“They’re the ones that make it special,” Bailey said. “I tell everybody all the time the thing I miss about the game are the guys I used to go to battle with. Those guys laid it on the line just like I did, and I have a lot of respect for them.”
Widely considered the top cornerback of his era, Bailey played in 215 games over 15 seasons, 10 of them in Denver, finishing his storied career with 52 interceptions and 12 Pro Bowl appearances.
D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution put it best when he noted that Bailey successfully transitioned his play from “the heavy-contact era to the current one where defenders can barely breathe on receivers.”
That comes from discipline, technique and honing a craft.
Nobody did that better than Bailey.
And though Bailey once said he hoped the Broncos got as much out of him as he got from the Broncos, if anything, it has been the Broncos who couldn’t quite deliver enough.
Perhaps the biggest regret from the Peyton Manning era is that the NFL’s last true shutdown corner was in the shadow of his career just two seasons too early to get the Super Bowl ring his talent so deserves.
But pro sports are unforgiving and talent and timing don’t always match up. No doubt Bailey wishes he had that ring on his finger, but his greatest memories from football - the ones he highlights in every speech - are those related to teammates.
“You guys are what I miss the most,” Bailey said that 2014 October afternoon as he looked into the audience full of his past and present teammates. “Seeing you guys’ faces today...That’s why I played. That’s why I played.”
But how he played is what his teammates - and the whole of Broncos Country - will always revere.
“He’s a legend. On and off the football field, he’s taught me a lot,” says Von Miller. “I still talk to him to this day, whether it’s football or off the field or business. He always has great advice for you and it’s going to be dope to see him in the Ring of Fame. I remember when I first came in, you see all the names in the Ring of Fame and you have dreams of getting up there one day. To see a guy that I played with actually become part of the Ring of Fame is pretty cool.”
Vic Fangio, who never got to coach Bailey but had wanted to way back when Bailey was drafted, noted that No. 24 was the complete player.
“He had the size, the mirror ability and the speed to cover anybody,” Fangio said. “When you have that, you’re a 12-times Pro Bowler and you’re a first ballot Hall of Famer.”
John Elway became Broncos’ GM in 2011, at the end of Bailey’s career. But he helped build the defense around the future Hall-of-Famer, so even if Bailey did not get to enjoy the spoils of his hard work and leadership on the team, he is every bit as responsible for its championship down the road in 2016.
“I came here when he was late in his career, but he was a guy who was a great competitor. He was a very good leader and a guy that made big plays at the right time,” Elway said. “Obviously when you have a guy that makes 12 Pro Bowls as a cornerback, he gets a lot of respect from a lot of people. He was a tremendous player.”
Bailey’s Hall of Fame speech was remarkable, but his retirement remarks five years before will always be remembered for their raw emotion and clear love of the game and his team.
“To my last snap I tried to be the best on the field,” he said then. “Coming here was a great thing because the Broncos were always in contention. I hope the Broncos got as much from me as I got from this organization.”
Trust me, Champ, we did.