An NFL field is 160 feet wide—except when Champ Bailey is playing defense. The league's premier shut-down corner, Champ cuts an opposing quarterback's options in half. That's why the Denver Broncos were so quick to pull the trigger when they had a chance to acquire him. At six feet and nearly 200 pounds, Champ has the size to match up with the NFL's most physical pass catchers. And thanks to his sprinter's speed, he can also run with the fastest of them. But what really sets Champ apart is his understanding of the game—he roams the secondary as if he owns it, all of it. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Roland Bailey Jr. was born on June 22, 1978 in Folkston, Georgia. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) He was the second of three football-playing brothers brought into the world by Elaine and Roland Sr. His mother nicknamed him “Champ.”  Younger brother Rodney (who also plays in the NFL) was given the moniker “Boss.” By the time Champ and Boss were teenagers, they looked so much alike that many assumed they were twins.

When Champ reached his early teens, his parents separated. Elaine gained custody of the kids and had to raise four children (including a girl named Danielle) on her own. She worked two jobs to support the family.

With Elaine looking over their shoulders, the Baileys were all serious students and well-disciplined athletes—they made her job much easier than it could have been. Their grandfather, John, helped out when he could, as well. He operated a small logging business in the county.

In Folkston—a swampy section of Georgia near the Florida border, where alligator outnumber people—Friday nights were reserved for football. That would explain how a three-stoplight town has produced nearly 50 Division I gridiron stars. When Champ was growing up, he played with Larry Smith and looked up to future college studs Joe Hagins and Henry McMillan as role models.

Champ had every bit of their athletic ability—and them some. He showed quick moves and explosive speed from the day he stepped on a football field. Champ had amazing instincts and could read opposing quarterbacks and anticipate plays with uncanny proficiency. By the time he was in seventh grade, fans from his area were already funneling tips to the University of Georgia.

Champ entered Charlton County High School in 1992 and was installed as the team’s quarterback and free safety. He dominated the field no matter who had the ball. During the winter, Champ played on the basketball team for the Indians. With a vertical leap of 43 inches, he was a dunking machine. In the spring, Champ ran track. As a junior at Charlton, he was Georgia’s high jump champion.

During Champ’s senior year, coach Rich McWhorter moved him to tailback and Boss to quarterback. In Champ’s first game at the new position, he ran for more than 300 yards and scored five touchdowns. In his next game, he rushed for more than 400 yards and scored six times. He finished the year with 1,858 yards and 28 touchdowns. Champ and Boss led the Indian to an 11–1 record and a regional championship before they lost in the state quarterfinals.

Champ was now the top recruit in the state. Ronald was already playing football at Georgia, so there was no question which college Champ would attend. He and Ronald suited up two years together for the Bulldogs, and Champ and Boss played together one year.

ON THE RISE

Champ’s freshman season for the Bulldogs, 1996, was also the first for coach Jim Donnan. There were high expectations for this talented young team, but the wins proved hard to come by, and Georgia finished a disappointing 5–6. Champ saw duty here and there, mostly on special teams and at defensive back. He made his first start in a loss to Ole Miss and got to share the field with Ronald on several occasions.

Even as a sparely used freshman, Champ’s skill and versatility were not lost on the legions of Georgia faithful. Until Champ's arrival on campus, they had considered Scott Woerner, Jake Scott and Terry Hoage held sway as the finest defensive backs in the school's history. Champ would change that opinion .


 

 


Champ began his rise past that group in 1997, when he nailed down a starting job at cornerback and started shutting down enemy receivers. Champ was excellent in coverage, made several great open-field tackles, and picked off three passes in 11 games—returning one for a touchdown. He also saw his first action as a receiver, reeling in 12 catches and averaging just under 20 yards per grab. He also saw duty on kickoff returns.

The Bulldogs finished 9–2, scoring impressive wins over Florida, Mississippi State, and Georgia Tech. The offensive stars of the team were Hines Ward, Robert Edwards and Olandis Gary. Lineman Matt Stinchcomb, one of the best blockers in the nation, was a one-man wrecking crew. The Bulldog QB was Mike Bobo. He completed 26 of 28 passes as Georgia beat Wisconsin 33-6 in the Outback Bowl for its 10th victory of the season—the first time since 1992 the Bulldogs had won in double digits. Their only two losses came in a blowout to Peyton Manning and Tennessee and a 45–34 barnburner against rival Auburn.

With most of Georgia's offensive stars graduating—including wideouts Ward and Corey Allen—the 1998 season looked uncertain for the Bulldogs. Coach Donnan, who doubled as offensive coordinator, responded in partby expanding Champ’s role as a receiver. Replacing Bobo was talented freshman Quincy Carter. Enemy defenses stacked the line against the inexperienced QB, but the Bulldogs found an answer to this strategy by calling tunnel screens for Champ. He would take a step back after the snap, catch a sideways pass from Carter, then head for the seam behind the line with his tight end plowing the field in front of him.

On defense, Georgia used Champ and fellow corner Jeff Harris to jam receivers at the line, freeing the safeties to help with the run. When opponents put three wideouts on the field, Harris and the safeties would play a zone on the strong side, leaving Champ to cover the other half of the field by himself.

As the '98 season unfolded, Champ became increasingly effective on both sides of the ball. Experts regarded him as the best two-way college player since platoon football began in the 1950s. That had been said the previous season about Charles Woodson of Michigan, who won the Heisman Trophy for his versatility. Most people agreed that Champ was better.

Champ finished the year with 100-yard receiving games against Wyoming, LSU, and Vanderbilt—all victories—and nabbed eight passes for 99 yards in a loss to Florida. He totaled 47 catches, 744 yards and five TDs on offense, and three interceptions on defense. He was voted first-team all-SEC and was a unanimous All-American.

Georgia accepted an invite to the Peach Bowl and beat Viginia 35-33. Champ had a great game and was named the defensive MVP. He also caught three passes for 73 yards and a touchdown.


Hines Ward, 1998 Press Pass
 


By virtually any measure, Champ was now NFL-ready. He decided to leave Georgia and throw his hat into the professional ring. On ESPN's tab, Champ could have flown to New York and attended the draft live. He chose instead to go home to Folkston, where the entire town watched on TV and then had a blowout party. Champ did not last long. The Washington Redskins grabbed him with the #7 pick. His high school teammate, Larry Smith, was taken in the second round. It was a big day in Folkston.

Champ joined a club coming off a 6–10 season. The Skins' revamped defense included veterans Dana Stubblefield and Darrell Green, who was in his final year as a starter. Brad Johnson and Stephen Davis led the offense. The team had a nice season to reverse its record and finish 10–6 atop the NFC East.

Champ started all 16 games and picked off five passes. Three of those interceptions came against the Arizona Cardinals in an October game. Champ was the youngest player in NFL history to turn this trick and earned NFL Defensive Player of the Week honors for his effort. Overall, he met the high expectations that greeted him in the NFL, proving a more than capable coverage man. The Redskins defeat the Detroit Lions in the first round of the playoffs and then lost 14–13 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Champ’s cornermate in 2000 was newly acquired Deion Sanders. He soaked up Primetime's knowledge and experience, and by the end of the year, Champ was regarded by many as the NFL’s premier shutdown CB. He also worked a little punt return magic with Sanders, returning a reverse for 54 yards. Washington used Champ in a few offensive sets, and he was also a demon on special teams.

Despite having one of the best pass defenses in football, the Redskins were up and down during the '98 season and missed the playoffs with an 8–8 record. For his part, Champ made another great stride in his development and started in the Pro Bowl for the NFC.

MAKING HIS MARK

By 2001, opponents were testing Champ less and less. Fred Smoot was coming into his own as a cornerback on the other side of the Washington defense, thanks in part to the extra action he saw as Champ’s teammate. Despite their fine work, new head coach Marty Schottenheimer (in a one-year experiment for the Skins) could not get the team past the 8–8 mark. Washington missed the playoffs again. Champ, by contrast, had another standout season, intercepting three passes and returning to the Pro Bowl.


Darrell Green,
Black Book Partners archives
 


The Broncos faced the Wild Card New England Patriots in the playoffs and scored a resounding 27–13 victory. The Pats were in control of the game in the third quarter when Champ snagged what would have been the go-ahead TD pass from Tom Brady to Troy Brown. Champ turned upfield and took it all the way back to the one-yard-line before getting hit and fumbling the ball out of bounds—a rare 100-yard return without a TD attached!

Looking like a championship team, Denver lost a week later in an upset in the AFC Championship Game to the the Cinderella Pittsburgh Steelers. Jake Plummer struggled all day long, and the Steelers pounded the Broncos with a punishing running game. The final score was a lopsided 34–17.

The following year, Champ reached the next level as a cornerback when he completely denied his side of the field to enemy receivers. He tied for the NFL lead with 10 interceptions and recorded 98 tackles. There were no gimme INTs, either. On the contrary, six of his 10 picks came inside the six-yard-line or in the end zone. They were as good as points on the board for the Broncos.

The Denver defense was on flying around the ball early in the year. Champ’s interception in the end zone against the Baltimore Ravens helped the Broncos become the first team since the 1934 Lions to go five games at the start of the season without allowing a touchdown.

Keeping pace with the red-hot Chargers proved a bigger challenge. San Diego opened up a lead on Denver, and the Broncos could not close it. In the waning weeks, the Kansas City Chiefs tied Denver and then slipped into the last Wild Card spot by virtue of a better division record. After such a promising start, Champ and the Bronocs found themselves on the outside looking in. For his part, Champ brought home All-Pro honors for the third straight year and did not allow a TD pass.

Champ was on his game again as the 2007 season began. The Broncos held several opponents under 100 yards passing, and Champ also chipped in with some nice special teams tackles. An injury slowed him somewhat midway through the year. But after an embarassing loss in Detroit, the Broncos regrouped as a team and vaulted back into the picture in the weak AFC West.

Champ is happy to spend his time in the defensive backfield—and not as a receiver trying to get open. He much prefers life as a shut-down corner.

CHAMP THE PLAYER


Champ Bailey, 2005 SI for Kids
 


Champ ranks among the most highly skilled cover corners ever to play in the NFL. He is very fast and extremely athletic. He also has excellent footwork and turns his hips well to keep up with receivers. Champ is physical enough to knock receivers slightly off-balance, and no one is better at getting in and out of his breaks.

There are no stats that can adequately measure Champ's influence on a game. But when facing the league’s top receivers, he holds them under their game average about 75 percent of the time.

Like his former teammate, Champ does what Deion Sanders did in his prime. He makes game plans irrelevant.

 


Champ Bailey, 2006 Ultra

 

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