ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — Champ Bailey said goodbye to the NFL on Tuesday after signing a ceremonial one-day contract with his beloved Denver Broncos.
Bailey retired at age 36 with a cornerback-record dozen Pro Bowl selections, more interceptions (52) than any active player and no regrets.
“Until my last snap I tried to be the best on the field,” Bailey said. “We all get old in this game.”
In addition to John Elway, John Fox and Joe Ellis, dozens of current players joined former teammates including John Lynch, Brian Dawkins and Jake Plummer in celebrating Bailey’s unparalleled career that ended because of a left foot injury.
“I need my feet,” Bailey said afterward. “It’s like a quarterback and his arm.”
Bailey’s last NFL season was a bittersweet one. He missed 11 games last year with the Lisfranc sprain before returning to action down the stretch. His performance in the AFC championship game finally got him to a Super Bowl, which proved both the apex and nadir of his 15-year career.
Yet, Bailey said hoisting the Lamar Hunt trophy was special even though he never got his hands on the Lombardi trophy.
“Regardless of what happened after that, that moment was special for me and I’ll never forget it,” he said. “The biggest game you can play on your own field. Hopefully, this year they don’t come up short — I would say ‘we’ because I feel like I’m still a part of this. I hope WE don’t come up short this year.”
Bailey said his foot no longer aches with every step — unless he runs a lot.
That’s why he didn’t make the cut for the first time in his life this summer, released by the New Orleans Saints in August. He had some tryouts after that but he knew his time was up.
“I never thought this day would come,” he said. “Just like all NFL athletes don’t think it’s going to end, I’m one of those guys. Reality hits. It’s here.”
Bailey wants to stay in football, maybe do some broadcasting. For now, he’s just catching up on missed family time, playing fantasy football and enjoying waking up without being stiff and sore.
Bailey thanked the Washington Redskins and Charley Casserly for drafting him with the seventh overall pick in 1999 and Mike Shanahan and the Broncos for bringing him to Denver in the 2004 trade for Clinton Portis.
When Elway returned to the Broncos in 2011, his first order of business was signing Bailey to an extension that former coach Josh McDaniels had pulled off the table.
“We needed a pillar to build around,” Elway said. “And Champ was that guy.”
Peyton Manning paid him the ultimate compliment, saying Bailey, in addition to being a shutdown cornerback, had “as good of hands as any top-flight receiver in the NFL.”
His versatility befuddled opponents.
“One of the things that made him so good was his ability to match up on so many different types of receivers,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “He could handle speed guys, he could handle size guys. He could match up on tight ends. … It didn’t really matter who he was on, he had a way to match up with them.”
Plummer called Bailey the ultimate teammate.
“He just made you want to be a better player every day,” Plummer said. “And you really couldn’t help it. If you came out there soft, he’d expose all your weaknesses on the field.”
Bailey took many a young player under his wing, from cornerbacks like Chris Harris Jr. — whom he said is “playing better than anybody in this league right now” — to receivers like Demaryius Thomas.
Bailey said his 100-yard interception return that saddled Tom Brady with his first career playoff loss in 2005 was among his career highlights. So was playing the 2008 season with his brother, Boss.
He said he doesn’t waste his time thinking about what might have been had he not gotten hurt last year.
“Football has done too much good for me to worry about the bad,” Bailey said.
Oakland’s Charles Woodson said he was certain Bailey could have morphed into a safety as he himself had done. But Bailey was never asked to do that and his foot injury ended any thoughts of that transition.
“I was a corner,” Bailey said, “and everybody looked at me as a corner.”
One of the greatest ever.
– By Arnie Stapleton, AP Sports Writer
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