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Champ Bailey bids farewell to 'the greatest place on Earth'


ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- **For the last decade, there was no place Champ Bailey wanted to play other than Denver. And there was no place other than Dove Valley, in front of nearly 20 former teammates and dozens of coaches and staff, that he wanted to say goodbye to his life as a player -- but not his life in football.

A future in the game, perhaps on the broadcast side, is next for the Broncos' revered No. 24. But Tuesday was about looking back at 15 seasons in which he played cornerback better than anyone in his era, including 10 in a spot that he called "the greatest place on Earth."

With his voice quivering after a tribute video played, Bailey's "thank yous" were only surpassed by the number of interceptions he recorded during the 2005 and 2006 seasons that were the best of his career and arguably the best for any cornerback in NFL history.

"This is special for me because when I look back, all I wanted to do when I started playing this game was be the best on the field," he said. "My parents never asked me to do that. They never asked me to be the best, just be the best you can be. To me, I felt like if I wanted to be where I am right now, I've got to be the best on the field.

"That's the way I approached everything. Until my last snap, I tried to be the best on the field."

It did not end the way he wanted it to. His last home game in Denver was perfect: an AFC Championship win over New England. But the Lis franc injury he suffered in Seattle during the 2013 preseason left him in pain throughout that season. That discomfort lingered through his attempt make the New Orleans Saints' roster this summer.

"We all get old in this game. I don't have any regrets about what's happened or what's transpired throughout my career -- any shortcomings," Bailey said.

A moment later, he turned to the players gathered in front of him. Some, like Rod Smith and Jake Plummer, were here when he arrived in 2004. Another, John Lynch, signed his contract less than two weeks after Bailey became a Bronco. But there were plenty on hand who arrived long after Bailey, who saw him as a mentor, but came to know him as a friend.

Champ Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowler, officially retired as a Bronco on Tuesday.

"It is unfortunate that we're here now, but again, I'm smiling because I love it," he said. "I don't have to grind everyday with you guys. I miss you guys, but hell, I don't miss practice. I'm just going to be honest.

"I do miss you guys, though -- a lot. That's what I miss the most. It was easy to sit at home and be content, but just being here, seeing you guys' faces, that's why I play."

For Bailey, Dove Valley was a spot unlike any other because of the people that surrounded him -- from the teammates who gathered at his side after the press conference to the people who led off the festivities: President and CEO Joe Ellis, Executive Vice President of Football Operations and General Manager John Elway and Head Coach John Fox.

After Bailey investigated continuing his career elsewhere following his post-preseason release by the Saints, he realized what existed in Denver, and what he missed.

"When you get stuck somewhere, you kind of forget what it's like everywhere else. You hear people talk, but until you experience, there's some bad places out there," Bailey said. "I mean, it's good to be in the league, but compared to here, it's bad for me.

"It all starts up top," he added. "It's the leaders. If you don't have good leaders up top, the place will go bad, quick. I think I got that impression just visiting a couple of teams. It's unbelievable. They just don't have it. And they do here."

And one who made a profound impression was Owner Pat Bowlen, who stood at the same podium 10 years and eight months ago and declared that Bailey would provide the kind of lockdown cornerback play not enjoyed by the Broncos since the days of Ring of Famer Louis Wright.


Champ Bailey was one of Mr. Bowlen's favorite Broncos, one of his favorite players. It came down not only to his skill on the field but how he carried himself on the field, how he carried himself in the locker room and how he carried himself in the community," said Ellis. "Those were high expectations to set upon a player, and Champ, you exceeded those expectations."

"I always knew I was better than Elway," Bailey later said, laughing. "It's great.

"When I got here, Pat Bowlen talked a lot of smack. He loved to win. He always asked me, 'What do you think about this week?' and even up until early last year, he was asking me, 'What do you think?'

"I miss that. The Bowlen family has been great to me. His kids have been great to the end -- his whole family has. I miss Pat Bowlen a lot."

The Broncos will miss Bailey, as well, but his presence will remain a factor, in the former teammates who soaked up his wisdom, in the standard he set, the bonds he forged in Denver, and his eventual place in the Ring of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where he'll be remembered for his Broncos days.

"I look forward to my new challenge, whatever that may be," he said. "Right now, I'm enjoying the moment. I appreciate all you guys -- this whole organization -- and what you've done for me."

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