Champ Bailey danced and rejoiced with teammates immediately after the Denver Broncos’ victory in the AFC Championship Game. Afterward, he headed home for a quiet night.
Playing cards with family is how a man celebrates his first Super Bowl in 15 NFL seasons?
“It has been a long road, but I’m just taking it in stride,” Bailey said. “I’m not trying to hype it up more than it should be.”
Plenty of great NFL players never achieved the ultimate prize of a Super Bowl title, including Dan Marino and Bruce Smith. Some, such as Barry Sanders and LaDainian Tomlinson, never even reached the Super Bowl.
Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, having returned in 2013 to try to win a Super Bowl, finally called it quits after 17 seasons with only one playoff victory.
When Bailey began his career in 1999 as the seventh overall pick of the Washington Redskins, the Broncos were defending Super Bowl champions. It took them this long to get back.
Bailey’s 226th career game, including the postseason, comes Sunday. It will be the biggest of his career.
“Yeah, it’s been tough, but I’m not looking back,” Bailey said. “… I can’t get all those days and weeks back. That’s behind me. But what’s in front of me is big, and I know it. I understand it. I feel good, and I’m ready for it.”
The Redskins traded Bailey to the Broncos for running back Clinton Portis and a second-round pick in a rare superstar-for-superstar deal. Portis played his last game in 2010, rushing for 6,824 yards and 46 touchdowns in a seven-season career in Washington that included three postseason games with one postseason win and a Pro Bowl trip.
Bailey’s résumé includes eight Pro Bowls since he joined Denver, but this marks his first Super Bowl trip.
“Finally in the Super Bowl after 15 years,” Broncos 12-year cornerback Quentin Jammer said of Bailey. “I’m sure we have the same sentiment when it comes to the Super Bowl. We’re going to enjoy this as much as we can because we both know that you don’t get this opportunity very often.
“With him in his 15th year and me in my 12th, we may never get this opportunity again. Kids don’t understand that. Young guys, they come into the league as rookies and … don’t understand that it’s hard to get here.”
Bailey, 35, played in five games this season, only the second time in 15 seasons he played fewer than 13 games. A Lisfranc sprain in his left foot healed just in time for Bailey to play a part in the Broncos’ run.
Starter Chris Harris tore an anterior cruciate ligament in the divisional-round victory over San Diego, and Bailey returned to his familiar role of starter. He made three tackles as the Broncos limited the New England Patriots to 256 passing yards in the AFC Championship Game.
Bailey’s quiet leadership has steadied a defense that has played most of the season without star Von Miller and lost Harris and Derek Wolfe in recent weeks.
“He’s handled it great,” Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said of Bailey’s role. “You’re talking about one of the real classy, long-standing, great players in this league. His work ethic, the way he conducts himself, the way he carries himself, I think he’s a great example for the younger players. He’s been terrific. It’s tough, because he hasn’t been completely healthy for large stretches of the year. He tried to come back and ended up getting nicked again, and here we are now.
“He’s playing his best football, and it’s a great time for him to be doing so. He’s an important piece to what we’re doing right now.”
Bailey signed a four-year, $42.5 million contract in 2011, which includes a $10 million cap hit in 2014, the final year of the deal. Though the Broncos are unlikely to keep Bailey at that price, he insists a victory in the Super Bowl won’t be the end for him.
“I’m not really thinking about retiring if I win,” Bailey said. “All I’m thinking about is winning.”
Then, Champ truly can live up to his given name.