DENVER — At the western-most edge of the Broncos’ Ring of Fame plaza, the 33rd inductee into the illustrious group grabbed the end of an orange ribbon and pulled quickly.
It had been quite the year for Champ Bailey. In January, he was elected a first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer. Then, in August, he was officially enshrined into the Hall.
But as he slid a large piece of blue fabric off his new Ring of Fame pillar, he took the next step toward joining the select few who comprise a group that epitomizes what it means to be a Bronco.
“It’s crazy,” Bailey said Friday night after unveiling the pillar. “It’s been unreal. When I look around at all these greats, I can just remember the first days I walked into this stadium and seeing these stats and learning about the culture around here and what it’s like to be a Bronco. I’m just happy to be a part of this family now.”
It was only fitting that Bailey, whose 12 Pro Bowl appearances are the most all time by a cornerback, has a pillar that sits next to his former defensive teammate, John Lynch.
“That’s my guy,” Bailey said. “We got here the same time. He taught me what it takes to be an old player in this league. The way he took care of himself, I took a lot of those traits and tried to make sure I implemented in my game later in my career. To this day he’s still showing me how to lead.”
Bailey did a fine job of leading in his own manner.
Pro Football Hall of Fame President David Baker, who on Sunday will present Bailey with his Pro Football Hall of Fame ring, issued the highest of compliments during the Broncos’ Ring of Fame dinner.
“He is humble,” Baker said. “He is a great teammate. He’s the kind of guy you want in your huddle.
John Elway had only just started his role leading the Broncos’ football operations as Bailey’s time in the NFL came to a close. But Elway could sense, even at the tail end of a Hall of Fame career, that Bailey stood in an elite class.
“I came here when he was late in his career, but he was a guy who was a great competitor,” Elway said. “He was a very good leader and a guy that made big plays at the right time. Obviously when you have a guy that makes 12 Pro Bowls as a cornerback, he gets a lot of respect from a lot of people. He was a tremendous player.”
A former Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year nominee, Bailey was more than just a tremendous player. He served the community and mentored young players like Chris Harris Jr.
Bailey made it clear during his Ring of Fame enshrinement that he simply followed the example that was set from high above in the organization.
Bailey was joined in this year’s Hall of Fame class by Pat Bowlen, a man whose accomplishments are plentiful and long-lasting.
“I don’t know how you can write the history of the National Football League without Pat Bowlen,” Baker said.
The Broncos unveiled a new plaque on Bowlen’s Ring of Fame pillar to reflect his newest accomplishment, and it wasn’t lost on Bailey that he was able to enter the Hall alongside a man whom he deeply respected.
“It’s been a great year for Mr. B and his family,” Bailey said. “To be able to be a part of it, [and] to go into the Hall of Fame together and be a part of that class [is amazing]. … I never imagined it would end like this, my career here and all the accolades that come along with it. To be able to share it with him, it’s amazing because he was the ultimate leader. I can’t say it enough how much he did for us, and as a player … all you want is people to lead you the right way.”
Members of the Bowlen family represented Bowlen on Friday to unveil the updated pillar, but there were dozens more who were there to celebrate both Bowlen and Bailey.
The Broncos honored members of their Broncos Top 100 Team on Friday, and several paid tribute to the two men’s’ careers.
“It’s always nice to be able to see the Broncos greats and be able to honor them and get them recognition because of what they gave to the Broncos,” Elway said. “I think it’s obviously been great for Mr. Bowlen. This whole year’s been great for Mr. Bowlen as well as Champ.”
For Bailey, being among his former teammates, Ring of Famers and Broncos alumni was both a cap to a momentous year and a start to Ring of Fame weekend.
“They’re the ones that make it special,” Bailey said. “I tell everybody all the time the thing I miss about the game are the guys I used to go to battle with. Those guys laid it on the line just like I did, and I have a lot of respect for them.”
On Friday night at Empower Field at Mile High, it was clear the feeling was mutual.