By Dave Bruning
It is very rare for a professional athlete to retire on their own terms. Too often the athlete is holding on for a paycheck while nursing a broken down body. John Elway and Rocky Marciano are notable exceptions to the rule. Champ Bailey of the Denver Broncos is coming home to retire, and it is only fitting.
Bailey has reached an agreement with Denver to sign a 1-day contract and retire as a Bronco. His stellar career began with the Washington Redskins, but he will always be remembered as a Bronco.
Bailey came to Denver in the blockbuster trade of 2004 that sent running back Clinton Portis to Washington. I have to admit I was initially not a fan of this trade. Portis seemed to be the perfect running back for Denver’s zone blocking scheme.
However, the NFL has evolved into a passing league that requires “shutdown cornerbacks.” You can make a very strong argument Champ Bailey, along with Deion Sanders, were the prototypical shutdown cornerbacks. The excellence of these two men has made cornerback a premium salaried position in the NFL.
Bailey was a quiet, unassuming leader whose voice spoke volumes in the Denver locker room. He was selected to 12 Pro Bowls, the most of any cornerback in NFL history. He was underrated as a tackler, a skill most of today’s cornerbacks give lip service to. He approached his community service the same way he played; with quiet excellence.
I always felt a vital moment in the resurgence of the Broncos was Bailey’s decision to resign with Denver in 2011. The Broncos were coming off the debacle of the Josh McDaniels’ coaching era and were preparing to move away from Tim Tebow. Bailey was an unrestricted free agent and could have signed with a contender in pursuit of a Super Bowl. A key component of any well run organization is to take care of your core employees/players. Elway made one of his first priorities as Denver’s new general manager to secure the services of Bailey.
Sadly, Bailey and the Broncos parted ways after the Super Bowl loss to Seattle. Bailey battled a foot injury all last year and his skills as a player have eroded. The Broncos released him to save $10 million on their salary cap; a sad, but necessary move. Once again, Bailey was able to help the Broncos.
My favorite moment of Bailey’s career came on a Monday Night football game. He intercepted a pass against the St. Louis Rams while playing for the Redskins. Champ was running down the sideline for the inevitable touchdown when he was tripped up by offensive lineman Orlando Pace. In perhaps his only memorable moment as a broadcaster on Monday Night football, Dennis Miller uttered the following classic line: “Even the Champ can’t pass the pace car!”
Father Time takes its toll on all of us. Most athletes are forced to deal with this reality sooner than others. If they’re fortunate, they can look back on a wonderful career and look forward to the rest of their lives with financial security and their health. Thank you, Champ Bailey. It has been a pleasure watching you play and you will be missed.