It’s a long way – 821.16 miles -- from Folkston to Canton, Ohio, where one of Georgia’s football icons will be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.
Champ Bailey, who starred at Charlton County High and the University of Georgia before entering the NFL, is one of eight members for the class of 2019.
Bailey, considered the top cornerback of his era, played in 215 games over 15 seasons with Washington (1999-2003) and Denver (2004-13).
“When I look back, I’m glad I grew up in a small town,” Bailey said. “There, it’s just you, your family and whatever you make of it.”
In addition to Bailey, former Chiefs/Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, safety Ed Reed, center Kevin Mawae and cornerback Ty Law will be enshrined along with contributors Pat Bowlen and Gil Brandt. Safety Johnny Robinson, a senior candidate from the AFL era, will also be enshrined.
Bailey played at Georgia from 1996-98 and went on to become a 12-time Pro Bowl cornerback and five-time All-Pro selection.
He had 10 interceptions to lead the league in 2006. He finished his career with 52 interceptions. He was named to Denver’s 50th anniversary team.
Bailey played for 11 defensive coordinators and made the transition from the heavy-contact era to the current one where defenders can barely breath on receivers.
He widely is considered one of the last true shutdown cornerbacks.
Bailey reflected on his glorious career, which was not injury-free.
“I prepared myself to play every week, regardless of the pain or whatever. ... I didn’t prepare for the week after,” Bailey said.
After a bumpy start in Washington, Bailey continued to flourish in Denver.
“You have to believe you can do it,” Bailey said. “I think it’s just discipline, the little details of football … communication… If you’re not on top of your stuff, they’ll expose you.”
Determination was instilled in Bailey at an early age.
“I’m not perfect, but I know when I start to do something, I don’t like to not finish,” Bailey said.
He attributed his longevity to shunning bad habits.
“You got to be real with yourself and not just let yourself pass on things that tend to become a bad habit,” Bailey said. “Make sure you stay on top of practicing well and preparing the way you always do.”
Bailey said he never worried about getting tired.
“I played with my heart,” Bailey said.
Bailey was known as a vocal leader as he tried to lead by example.
“I think as a veteran player, in general, you should feel that sense of responsibility to try to lead these guys to becoming good pros,” Bailey said. “You want the league to be in good hands, and you want these guys to become great NFL players and then pass it along to the next generation. You can only lead by example, and that’s pretty much what I tried to do.”
With the rule changes, there may never be another true shutdown cornerback.
“I really do think Champ is a once-in-a-generation type of player,” said San Francisco general manager John Lynch, who played with Bailey from 2004-07 in Denver. “He was that gifted. But you combine that with the smarts, (and) he’s special. There are good ones out there (currently in the NFL). Champ was great.”
Former Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. didn’t enjoy his matchups with Bailey.
“Very frustrating, but he was the type of cornerback you had to study on film,” Smith said. “You had to watch him. At that time they were DVDs, so I had four or five DVDs just on Champ Bailey and all his plays.”
Bailey’s 12 Pro Bowl selections are the most by a defensive back in NFL history. He was also picked for the NFL All-Decade Team of the 2000s.
Bailey is the fourth member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame who attended the University of Georgia. The others include running back Terrell Davis, quarterback Fran Tarkenton and running back Charley Trippi.
Bailey will become the 19th cornerback in the Hall of Fame.
Longtime Atlanta attorney/sport agent Jack Reale will present Bailey at the enshrinement ceremonies.
Reale, a partner at Drew, Eckl and Farnham law firm, has represented Bailey throughout his professional career.
“I just hope they say I played with everything I had, played hard, played smart, played tough and I was a great teammate,” Bailey said. “That’s all that matters.”
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