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Champ Bailey: 15 years in the Making

In 2004, Champ Bailey, #24, was traded to the Denver Broncos. In his first game of the season, his first game as a Bronco, and his first home game at Mile High, Bailey intercepted Kansas City Quarterback Trent Green. Many more would follow. Denver won that game, 34-24. The 2004 season would end in the first round of the playoffs when Denver lost 24-49 to the Indianapolis Colts led by Peyton Manning. Who knew that 10 years down the road, Champ would be lining up once again against Peyton Manning, but this time it would be on the practice field, and they would both be wearing orange.

As the Denver Broncos face the Seattle Seahawks this Sunday in Superbowl XLVIII, much of the pressure lies on 2013 MVP Quarterback Peyton Manning. His unquestioned leadership and record setting season is widely regarded as the capstone of this incredible journey. A journey that began long before Peyton Manning ever wore orange.

In 1999 the Denver Broncos did not win the Super Bowl. In fact they finished the season 4-10. All illusions of Elway's Orange Crush were quickly forsaken. The road to rebuilding had begun, and it would be a long and winding road indeed. In 1999 Champ Bailey also entered the NFL as a Washington Redskin. Perhaps it is coincidence that his professional career began the same year as Denver's post-Elway era would begin. Or perhaps it is something larger than coincidence.

It did not take long for Bailey to get noticed. By his fourth year in the League, he was widely respected as an elite cornerback. The Washington Redskins saw him as one of their top players, and were desperate to keep him. But for Bailey, it was not in the cards. After the two parties could not come to an agreement, Washington placed their franchise tag on Bailey, which meant he would not become a free agent at the end of the year but instead would spend at least one more year in a Redskins uniform. That was until the Denver Broncos called.

The trade included Champ Bailey and a second round draft pick for star running back Clinton Portis. Portis was coming off of back-to-back 1,500-yard seasons and was arguably the most valuable player on the Denver roster. The same could be said for Bailey on the Redskins who had recorded 18 interceptions in only 5 seasons. A blockbuster trade like this was incredibly uncommon in the NFL and both sides knew what they stood to lose. Today Portis looks back on the trade and says, "I know I got traded for a legend and a Hall of Famer. So I'm cool with that."

In Bailey's first two seasons as a Denver Bronco, they lost both seasons in the playoffs. First to Manning's Colts in the Wildcard round, then to the eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers in the conference championship. 2 years after joining the Broncos, Champ was only one game away from going to the Super Bowl. Then the road took a turn.

Champ continued to put up incredible numbers. After 4 consecutive pro-bowls on the Redskins, he continued to receive invites year after year. In fact, to date Champ Bailey has been selected for more pro-bowls than any other defensive back in the history of football. The success has not come without its physical toll. Bailey's list of injuries requires a scroll bar and his streak of seven consecutive pro-bowls was ended in 2008 after he missed nearly half the season due to injury. (He was still selected as an alternate.) The bigger concern though, was not Bailey's lack of success on the field but the lack of success of the Denver franchise.

Rebuilding is never easy, ask any Browns fan. It requires tremendous effort as well as an unwavering commitment and belief from every member of the organization. In the 14 years since Elway, Denver has started 11 different quarterbacks: Brian Griese, Gus Frerotte, Steve Beuerlein, Jake Plummer, Danny Kanell, Jarious Jackson, Jay Cutler, Kyle Orton, Chris Simms, Tim Tebow, and Peyton Manning. Each one was different. Each had something special about them. Something that not all of us may remember. But what they all have in common, and what we all do remember, is the eventual disappointment of losing when it mattered most.

After the conference championship loss to the Steelers in the 2005 season, Denver would go 5 years without making the playoffs. During this time the team cycled through quarterbacks (Plummer, Cutler, Orton, Simms) as well as coaches (Shanahan, McDaniels, Studesville). Each year faithful fans road the roller coaster of emotion as momentary success would come crashing down the following week. We had potential, but that was all.

In 2011, however, things changed. Some claim divine intervention. Others point to great coaching and a solid defense. Either way, in 2011 the Denver Broncos finally became the front page of nearly every sports section not because they were winning (which they were), but because of how they were doing it. Tebow-mania had begun.

Tebow was not your typical quarterback in any sense of the word. For one, he could not really, uh, throw the ball - at least not with any sort of consistency. But he won football games. And as a fan, even as a coach, what more can you ask of your quarterback? After a disappointing 1-3 start to the 2011 season under QB Kyle Orton, and a likely fourth loss on its way, Head Coach John Fox replaced Orton with Tebow at halftime. Tebow brought his team back from a 16-point deficit and although they would ultimately lose the game, afterwards Coach Fox announced that Tebow would be starting the next game against the Miami Dolphins.

With three minutes to go against the Dolphins, Denver was down 0-15. He would rally his team to comeback and win 18-15 in overtime. This became the modus operandi for Tebow and the 2011 Broncos. With Tebow under center, Broncos fans learned to watch until the very last whistle. Tebow taught us what it meant to believe. What it meant to never give up. He also taught us to appreciate our defense.

I would argue that Tebow's signature victory came in week 10 over the Kansas City Chiefs. 17-10 was the final score. Tebow threw the ball for a grand total of 69 yards including the game-winning touchdown to Eric Decker. He was an abysmal 2/8. That's 2 completed passes all game. But that's what the Broncos became - an 'anything-but-throw-the-ball' team. Willis McGahee, the star running back, helped with a 1200-yard season. But the games were really decided by the defense. And the defense was led by none other than Champ Bailey, #24.

While Tebow made front pages around the country, Champ silently went to his eleventh pro-bowl in twelve years. Bailey has never been one to seek the limelight. He is a soft-spoken, humble, behind-the-scenes kind of guy. In the first round of the playoffs, the Broncos were once again matched up against the Pittsburgh Steelers who had beaten them 6 years before in their last playoff run. This time, though, the Broncos would not be beaten. Divinely inspired or not, the Broncos defeated the Steelers 31-19 and went on to face the New England Patriots in the divisional round.

It was Tom Brady, a future Hall-of-Famer, signature pocket passing, Belichick led quarterback versus Tim Tebow and his rag-tag offensive supported by Orange Crush 2.0. But Brady could not be stopped. 41-10, season over. Tebow finished 9-9 overall with the lowest passing completion rate in the NFL. At the close of the season John Elway, Executive VP of Football Operations for the Denver Broncos, announced that Tebow would be the starting quarterback going into training camp in 2012.

But Tebow would never arrive at training camp. At least not in Denver. In the offseason, legendary quarterback Peyton Manning, coming off of serious neck surgery, would be signed by the Denver Broncos to a $96 million, five-year contract. Tebow was subsequently traded to the New York Jets.

Manning was coming into a system that was entirely organized for his arrival. The offense would become his immediately. He had a young, athletic receiving core and a big, powerful, expensive offensive line. And of course, a rock solid defense capped with shutdown secondary veterans Brian Dawkings and Champ Bailey. They breezed through the regular season at 13-3 and were set up after a first round bye to face the Baltimore Ravens, at home.

That fateful game against the Ravens is still hard to talk about. Just when it appeared the stars were perfectly aligned for a Manning-led Broncos Super Bowl run, everything fell apart. Even Champ.

Baltimore Ravens Wide Receiver Torrey Smith simply outplayed him. Smith caught two touchdown passes over Bailey, one 32 yards and the other 59. The game went to overtime after free safety Rahim Moore mistimed his jump allowing a 70-yard bomb to Jacoby Jones. Denver was dumbstruck. Looking back, the double-overtime field goal by Raven's kicker Justin Tucker seems like merely a formality. Just like that, it was all over.

Plenty of people blamed not just the defense but Champ Bailey in particular for the tragic loss. "He just doesn't have it anymore," they said. After 12 pro-bowls, it looked like the end was near.

But all was not lost. Off-season additions of slot receiver Wes Welker and the rookie running back Montee Ball helped to create the most powerful offensive that the sport of football has ever seen. The defense is not what it once was. To start, Bailey has been limited at best this season after suffering a Lisfranc foot injury during preseason and re-aggravating it again in week 7. His role has been reduced, but with recent injuries to other members of the secondary (namely the torn ACL of Chris Harris Jr.) Champ has been forced to step up. Recently his play has shown that although he may not have the youth that he used to, his mental prowess and football intelligence is unparalleled. Finally, after 15 long years, Bailey will be walking out of the tunnel in his first ever Super Bowl appearance. He has become a symbol of the Denver struggle more so than Peyton or any other player on the roster. In his career with the Broncos, he has been to 8 pro-bowls, played in 135 games, and intercepted 34 passes. But over the course of his whole career he has never been to a Super Bowl. And of course that means he has never won a Super Bowl.

Time is precious. Champ will certainly be back next year, he's too good not to be. He says he will stop playing when he stops enjoying it. Nevertheless, nobody knows when Denver will be back in this game. It may be another 15 years. For Champ, as for all Bronco fans, this is the game that matters most. And while there is no doubt that Champ Bailey has already secured his legacy, the question still remains – do you believe in destiny?