Champ Bailey strolled up to the podium and removed his sunglasses - because his “wife said so” - and opened his Pro Football Hall-of-Fame speech with the best line ever:
“First, I have to start by thanking God for Broncos Country,” he said to howling applause before promising to “get back to that.”
Bailey was one of two Denver Broncos inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame for the Class of 2019, sharing the spotlight with his beloved owner, the late Pat Bowlen.
Hearing Bailey thank Broncos Country would have made Bowlen very proud because he always said the team was for the fans - something Bailey pointed out when he eventually “got back” to thanking the Broncos organization, his Denver coaches and teammates, and of course the fans.
“I salute my Broncos fans,” Bailey said 25 minutes into his 30-minute speech in which he honored all the people who helped him earn the coveted Gold Jacket, including the people cheering for him at Mile High.
“Every single home game I could feel your energy. Even in San Diego, a road game, you made it feel like a home game. It was so infectious. I cannot overstate how grateful I am to be part of the Broncos family. I will always consider Denver my home,” he added. “And I’m super proud to be standing here today as the seventh member of the Denver Broncos to go into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”
It was an impressive speech - filled with happy tears as he thanked his momma for giving him his competitive drive, his “pop” for giving him his athletic talent, his “baby brother” Boss for always making him strive harder and his sister Danielle for keeping him honest.
Bowlen would have been honored to be on the stage with a Bronco who shared a loyalty to his team and a drive to win that rivaled his own.
“I’m a very competitive person, and if anybody knows my mom - if you play spades, or checkers or taboo with my mom - you’d know where I get it from,” Bailey said. “She’s the most competitive person I know. She’s also the one who named me Champ. Thank you, mama, for all that pressure.”
But it was Bailey’s dad who told young Champ and his brothers a phrase that has stuck with No. 24 his whole life - and certainly something Bowlen always believed and strived for - be the best at what you do. In fact, it’s the one thing Bowlen said he wanted people to say about him - “that he wanted to be No. 1 in everything.”
Bowlen surely would have liked Bailey’s parents.
“My dad had subtle ways of motivating his kids, and he would always say this one phrase that stuck with me - ‘If you are going to do something, try to be the best at doing it,’” Bailey told the Hall of Fame audience. “I think I did a good job trying, Pop.”
As one of the best NFL cornerbacks of all time and now a “gold jacket” member, Bailey certainly did - and his former owner would no doubt have agreed.
So it’s fitting that an emotional part of Bailey’s acceptance speech was thanking “Mr. B” for giving Bailey that Hall-of-Fame career.
“The best thing for my career happened in 2004. I was traded to the Denver Broncos,” Bailey said - this time to raucous applause.
“Once I began to learn about Mr. Bowlen and the Denver Broncos, I was sold,” he continued. “There were a few things I learned to appreciate from a good leader - they lead by example, they are accountable, they are competitive and they know how to win. That’s what I learned and loved about Mr. B.”
Bailey quoted former teammates and Bronco greats Jake Plummer and Rod Smith who had told the former Redskins safety of Bowlen’s reputation caring for his players - something Bailey came to know an love personally about his then new owner.
“Simply put, Mr. B was a great man, a great leader. He will surely be missed, but he will forever be my teammate,” Bailey said, as he patted his heart in honor of Bowlen. “Love you.”
Bailey also thanked coach Mike Shanahan for “always putting me in positions to thrive during my prime years. I thank you for that. I love you for that,” and then he thanked his former Broncos teammates who came to the ceremony - Chris Harris Jr., Von Miller, Derek Wolfe, Rod Smith and D.J. Williams. “Great going to battle with you. Love you.”
But as he closed his speech, No. 24 got personal.
Though he considers himself “an expert in the game of football” as he does many of the people he mentioned as his supporting teammates and coaches and mentors throughout his career, Bailey noted that most of those mentioned were, like him, black men.
So he had a message for his fellow black men - as well as everyone else.
It was from the heart - and it was important to say.
Which is why he begged his audience to “please, listen.”
“I’m a firm believer if you want to create change, start with your friends and your family.
“The first thing people see when they look at me is not a Pro Football Hall-of-Famer, or a husband, or a father. They view me first as a black man. So on behalf of the black men I’ve mentioned tonight and many more out there who have had the same experiences, to all our white friends, when we tell you about our fears, please listen.
“When we tell you we’re afraid for our kids, please listen. When we tell you there are many challenges we face because of the color of our skin, please listen.
“And please, do not get caught up in how the message is delivered. ....The things that make us great on the field - size and aggression - are the same things that could get us killed off of it.
“All of us are dads, sons, brothers, your friends. We all understand if we can’t get our friends to listen, then no one will. And to my black brothers, if you do not have anything positive to say about our challenges, please keep your mouth shut.”
Bailey let out a big sigh of relief after delivering his edict - and then issued his final thanks.
“There is nothing more important in a success story than being inspired by someone or something. I’m not the only one with a long list of inspirations. So many of these great men inspired me. If not for them, I would not be standing here today. I will remain forever humbled by this honor.”
To quote Bailey in his respectful-yet-poignant dig at Hall of Fame voters earlier in his speech while thanking them for choosing him...
“Thank you for getting it right the very first time.”
Bowlen most certainly would have liked that too.