Champ Bailey's mother didn't vote for him for the Pro Bowl this season.
“Because,” Elaine Bailey explained, “I knew we were going to the Super Bowl.”
This was the first time she didn't vote for him. But what was the point of doing so? Super Bowl participants, after all, don't play in the Pro Bowl. As it happened, the cornerback was not elected to his 13th Pro Bowl after a season spent mostly on the sideline because of a nagging foot injury, but he is headed to his first Super Bowl.
Near the end of the Broncos' AFC championship game victory Sunday, Bailey waved a towel while standing a few feet onto the sun-splashed field. His helmet was off, as if he wanted fans to see his elation. The Broncos had just picked up their game-clinching first down — Elaine Bailey was proven right — and her son squeezed his close friend Demaryius Thomas like he was wrapping up a Patriots receiver.
Denver 26, New England 16.
This one's for Champ.
The soul of Denver's defense for nearly a decade, Bailey never has played in a Super Bowl. With a lingering foot injury, he missed 11 games , and when he did play, we saw more Roland Bailey than we did Champ Bailey. But when the team needed him most, he was valiant, starting at cornerback and also playing some nickelback.
Afterwards, in the winning locker room, in their oversized championship T-shirts, teammates praised his performance defending New England's stingy slot receivers. He didn't make a game-changing play. He didn't make a drive-ending tackle. He just played solid football, which is what Denver needed.
“This is what it's all about, get yourself a chance to get in the big one,” Bailey said. “That's where we are now. I knew I would come back — you might not have known — but I knew I'd be back at some point. My coaches and teammates never gave up on me. And here I am, playing my best football of the year. I'm just looking forward to the next one, man.”
A generation of Bronco fans have grown up with Champ. Players come and go, but Bailey is Broncos staple, ubiquitous. He's part of Denverites lives, he's your guy, and now, with him finally going to the big one, you feel genuine happiness for him. This is what sports do to us. This feeling, this connection, is what makes it fun being a fan.
Perhaps Bailey's biggest fan actually did get to meet him. While a college student, he proudly wore a BAILEY 24 jersey around the campus of Tennessee State. And sure enough, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie went on to the NFL, and after a game with the Arizona Cardinals, he met Bailey.
“He told me he liked the way I played and to keep pushing, and that's what I did,” Rodgers-Cromartie said. “I always tried to model myself after him.”
Now, they have a locker next to each other at Sports Authority Field. They're Denver teammates, and “DRC” is the new Champ, the cornerback assigned to the opponent's top receiver, the guy Tom Brady tried to stay away from.
“Anytime you have a guy like that, a true pro, you want to win it for him,” Rodgers-Cromartie said. “If you're a cornerback in this league, I think you had to watch Champ Bailey and look up to him. And to see him go out on top, get to the Super Bowl, is just an honor.”
Sitting outside the winning locker room, Elaine Bailey proudly wore a Broncos jersey with MOM BAILEY above the 24 on her back. She had flown up from Folkston, Ga., the home of Champ Bailey, and watched the game in a box with about 35 family members.
“Even with his injury, I said — God is going to reserve him for this time of the season,” she said in her sweet Southern accent. “And it worked.”
Champ Bailey finally is going to the Super Bowl. Elaine Bailey knew all along.