JERSEY CITY, N.J. – Ever the optimist, Champ Bailey wouldn’t let himself think he might never make a Super Bowl. Not even after 14 NFL seasons, including several when he was considered the league’s best cornerback, and five fruitless trips to the playoffs.
“I always think things are going to work out,” he said Wednesday ahead of Super Bowl XLVIII against the Seahawks. “And here we are.”
The wait ends in Year 15.
Still, one would be hard-pressed to label this season — perhaps the last of Bailey’s Hall of Fame career — as “storybook.” A nagging foot injury, stemming from an exhibition loss to Seattle, forced him to miss 11 regular-season games, and even healthy, he is far removed from his prime.
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But don’t make the mistake of determining Bailey’s value to the Broncos these days by measures like interceptions. In his 10th year in Denver, the 35-year-old has become a beloved, emotional leader of the team, and his teammates have rallied around getting him to Sunday’s big game and sending him off a winner.
The fanciful notion seems to border on sappy until you hear it from the players.
“Champ is a special player,” said linebacker Wesley Woodyard, who was ushered into his first community event by Bailey. “He’s a great leader — and that’s hard to find.”
Safety David Burton added: “He’s someone you can always trust and confide in, in a lot of issues, whether it’s on or off the field. He’s been a true professional with me and a lot of the younger guys with the team, and it’s great that in his 15th season we’re getting the chance to be in the Super Bowl and try to bring one home for him.”
As a resource, Bailey’s reach has extended beyond teammates, where even players on offense, like receiver Eric Decker, credit him for tips on things like route-running. Coach John Fox said Bailey was one of the instrumental figures to offer him insight into the organization, the city and the team upon being hired before the 2011 season.
And Fox, too, has picked up on the “Win one for Champ” feeling within the locker room.
“It might have been one of my fonder moments in coaching just watching him hoist that Lamar Hunt trophy there in Denver,” Fox said of the AFC Championship Game.
Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has called Bailey “one of the real, classy, long-standing, great players in this league.”
Admiration is shared by the Seahawks. Seattle safety Earl Thomas said he had a picture of Bailey proudly displayed on his MySpace page in high school, calling it “a humbling experience to see a guy who’s been in this league 15 years, and this is his only opportunity to play in the Super Bowl.”
Receiver Doug Baldwin said he’s watched Bailey his entire career: “I’ve always looked up to him. I just loved the way he plays the game of football.”
Character aside, stats alone could have carried Bailey’s legacy. The native of Folkston, Ga., has been selected to 12 Pro Bowls (most of any defensive back in league history), seven All-Pro teams, and the NFL’s 2000s All-Decade team, as chosen by the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee.
A Super Bowl ring would seem to be all that’s left to be won for Bailey, who has deflected any questions about his future until after Sunday’s game.
Just don’t expect him to say that.
“I love the respect and everything my teammates give me, but it’s not about me,” said Bailey, who has three interceptions in five games against the Seahawks. “It’s definitely about this organization.”
Consider it the response his teammates would anticipate.
“You’re not going to get too many words out of Champ,” said fellow cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, “but if you watch him you get a lot out of him. To see him shed a tear after the last game, you know what this means for him.”
Joshua Mayers: 206-464-3184 or firstname.lastname@example.org