ATLANTA — Broncos fans certainly know what made former cornerback Champ Bailey a Pro Football Hall of Famer.
His lock-down defense. His 12 Pro Bowl selections. His famous 100-yard interception return in the playoffs to help beat the Patriots.
But Bailey’s story began long before he arrived in Denver in 2004.
The Folkston, Georgia, native began to show flashes of greatness long before that, and there may be no better person to explain Bailey’s brilliance than the man who coached him in college.
Jim Donnan’s first season at Georgia was 1996 — the same year that Bailey started playing for the Bulldogs — and he racked up plenty of memories with the UGA great.
As Bailey approaches enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, take a moment to relive some of the finest moments of his collegiate career. These stories, as much as what he did in his pro career, help explain why Bailey was destined to earn a place in Canton, Ohio.
Because, as Donnan said in Athens during Super Bowl week, “if you’re going to have a Hall of Fame, it’d be hard to have it without Champ Bailey in it.”
A SURPRISE PHONE CALL
“I don’t know if a lot people know about his background, but he grew up in Folkston, Georgia, which is right across the border from Florida — very close to the Florida line — so the University of Florida was recruiting him extremely hard. He had an older brother, Ronald, who was already on the team [at Georgia] who was a corner, and I hadn’t recruited him at all for Marshall [where Donnan was previously head coach], but when I got here, one of the first things I did was go down to watch him play a high-school basketball game. The family was very pro-Georgia, so that helped a little bit. But he wanted to know what our situation [was] going to be, where we’re going to play him and all that.
“An interesting kind of scenario: We’re eating dinner there at the house, and he’s got this sister named Danielle — whose nickname is ‘Doll’ — and Boss Bailey, his other brother who ended up playing in the pros [but] was just a 10th grader, [who were both there and] the phone kept ringing. And sometimes coaches know you’re there and they try to disrupt the recruiting process a little bit, and it was [Florida] Coach [Steve] Spurrier. I didn’t know at the time, but ‘Doll’ would go over there and whisper to her mother. It rang about three times, and finally, the last time, Ms. Bailey picked up the phone and said, ‘Coach Spurrier, this is Ms. Bailey, and I just want to tell you you’re worrying me, and I’m going to tell you right now, Champ’s going to Georgia.’
“Well, that’s the first time I’ve heard that. So of course I jumped up and grabbed his hand and everything. That’s one of the best commitments I ever had, while Steve Spurrier is on the other line. The mother was just so strong from the standpoint of she was sold on Georgia because of the academics that her other son had been going through here and the support system. She was really strong academically. You know, you just don’t normally get three brothers from one family. It was just tremendous how they represented us.”
At the University of Georgia, it's easy to see how Champ Bailey's path to the Broncos and eventually to the Pro Football Hall of Fame really began to take shape. The legacy of his impact there is still evident throughout the Bulldogs' athletic facilities.
STAYING ON THE FIELD
“We talked about him playing both ways, and we played over at Auburn and one of the things our trainer used to say is we wanted to monitor the amount of snaps he had. You do that with everybody, but when a guy is playing both ways and you add special teams and everything, [it’s really important]. … The trainer kept coming over and said, ‘Coach, Champ’s getting close to 100 plays here now. You’ve gotta watch him.’
“So I told Champ, I said, ‘Hey, we really need to probably cut you back a little bit on offense.’ Because he was playing on special teams and playing every snap on defense. He said, ‘Coach, don’t take me out. I’m ready to go.’ He played 120 snaps in that game. You talk about guys now playing in a game, the way they substitute and all, it’s a big game if you play 70 snaps. Just incredible the way he played that night, and it was a big win for us. Just shows you what he’s like as far as wanting to be part of a winning game.”
LIKE A PRO
“The pro scouts and GMs, they go and, particularly the big players, they come in for their pro day. When Champ had his pro day, everybody was here. A lot of head coaches, too. And I’ll never forget, right outside here, they did some cover skills and timed him and vertical jump and all. They told him, ‘Well, we want you to run the 40[-yard dash]. We want to get a couple of times on you.’
“He said, ‘I’m not going to run it but once.’
“I thought that was pretty cool, but what was great about it [was], he lined up down there at the end … of this building here on the track. He had everybody around him for a couple hours weighing [him], measuring, jumping, talking to him — and he ran the 40 and ran right out of the building. He said, ‘I’m tired of this. I’m leaving.’ Nobody even saw him. He just showed you his tail lights and ran right out. It was great.
“I’ll never forget everybody just looking going, ‘Hey, that guy knows what he’s doing. He didn’t need but one time.’”