NEW YORK — Nicknames are like steroids for egos.
In sports, superstars' handles are superfluous. LeBron James, for one, already is the best at playing basketball, yet his "King James" moniker anoints him as sports royalty. The whole thing, really, seems over the top, until you look at Roland Bailey.
They call him Champ. The Broncos cornerback exudes all of the virtues of what fans desire in a champion. He's cool by not acting cool. He has this aura around him, but not because he's a self-proclaimed stud. It's because he's revered in football circles. It's because he speaks softly, yet with resonance. It's because he's actually so humble, it's hard to believe that someone with his talent isn't shouting about it.
Really, the only problem with the nickname Champ is that he's not a champ.
But, after 15 seasons in the NFL, this sure Pro Football Hall of Famer finally will play in the Super Bowl. The 35-year-old cornerback faces the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. Winners get title rings.
"That's the only reason I still lace them up," Bailey said, "because I want to play in games like this."
Father Time must be an Oakland Raiders fan. How else could you explain how he treated this legendary Bronco? In what seemed destined to be a Super Bowl run, Bailey missed 11 games this season because of a foot injury. And when he did play, he seemed slow-footed at times, looking more Roland than Champ.
"He's been hurt. Everyone thinks he's old and over the hill. But great players, when it matters most, play great," said former Broncos safety John Lynch. "And he really did that against New England."
In the AFC championship game against the Patriots on Jan. 19, Bailey didn't just cover slot receivers, he smothered slot receivers. It was an eye- watering performance, the aging warrior mustering up one more fight.
And now, his lifelong goal is attainable. Sports are cruel because, well, even a transcendent cornerback has no control over the success of his team's offense, just like an ace pitcher needs his offense to score. As such, some men like Champ never become champs. Bailey is a 12-time Pro Bowl selection, an NFL record for a cornerback, but only now will he play in the only bowl that matters.
"You think of all the great players who never made it to a Super Bowl and how hard it is to get there," said Boss Bailey, Champ's brother and a former NFL linebacker. "I played six years in the league, and I never even had a winning season. He's been a great pro all of his career. It's been 15 years and he still plays at a high level, so the timing couldn't be more perfect for him."
Front yards do something to boys. It's where they escape. It's where playing make-believe and playing football become the same thing.
"We always pretended we were great athletes. Deion Sanders — oh, my God — Darrell Green, these are the guys we'd emulate," said the Broncos' Bailey, who was raised in tiny Folkston, Ga.
A rookie with the Washington Redskins in 1999, Bailey sure enough played with Green, an iconic cornerback who was a two-time Super Bowl champion. The next season, Sanders and his two title rings joined the Washington secondary.
"You were them in the front yard and then you were their teammates," Bailey was told.
"How unbelievable is that?" he replied during a quiet moment amid Super Bowl preparation.
"A dream come true?"
"I never dreamed that," he said, "because I never thought it could happen."
Bailey has joined Sanders and Green on the shortlist of all-time great cornerbacks. At his best, Bailey not only is track-star stealth but freakishly strong, a rare combination at cornerback. He cherishes open-field tackling, which some diva cornerbacks look as dirty work that is saved for safeties. For years, quarterbacks chose to throw to a lesser receiver than throw to their best guy if he was being covered by Denver's best guy. In perhaps Bailey's greatest season, 2006, quarterbacks threw at him only 35 times. He intercepted 10 of those passes, allowing only four receptions. That's right, four.
"He should have been the defensive MVP in 2005 and 2006, especially 2006," said Andrew Mason, a longtime statistics analyst of the NFL. "The best play from a cornerback in my lifetime. Insane stuff."
But first it was Folkston that made Bailey, well, Bailey. His mother, Elaine, said she started calling him Champ when he was a baby, a preordained nickname for a boy who would become a pro's pro. Elaine, who still lives in Folkston, flies to numerous Broncos games, wearing a jersey with MOM BAILEY above the No. 24. She, Boss and 35 family members came to Denver for the AFC championship game, a heck of a locale for a family reunion.
"We had a pretty close family. We lived right next door to my grandmother. That's one thing we had — each other," Boss Bailey said. "We weren't rich by any means, and we definitely didn't have it all, but at the same time, we had so much family support that we were able to play sports, and (received rides) to games. They put in a lot of hours on the road, getting us to different games in different cities.
"And, shoot, we'd play out there in the front yard or whatever yard we could find. Family reunions with the cousins, just around the neighborhood. We used to go around town and play pickup games."
And now, Champ will play a game in the front yard of front yards.
He is beloved from Folkston to Fort Collins. Dads in Colorado dress in No. 24 jerseys, while their boys pretend they're Bailey in front yards. Broncos cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie even wore a Bailey jersey on campus while he was a college student. Bailey's aura touched a generation.
"It was just a pleasure for me to finally get a chance to play with him and see how he handles himself," said former Broncos safety Brian Dawkins. "See, he was a professional. A lot of guys that have success aren't professionals."
Sunday's matchup is fitting — the Broncos have the quiet, cool cornerback, while the Seahawks have the brashest dude in the NFL. For years, everyone just knew Bailey was the best cornerback in the league. He didn't have to scream that line on national TV, as all-pro Richard Sherman of the Seahawks did after the NFC championship game.
"Champ's humble, and you don't see Champ being flashy or demanding respect or using his seniority to get things," said Broncos safety Mike Adams. "His presence alone — when Champ walks in the room, it's like, 'that's Champ.' His presence alone says enough."
But Bailey is famous for flipping the switch, nice to nasty in the snap of a football. And with Seahawks wide receiver Percy Harvin now healthy for Super Bowl XLVIII, Bailey's performance Sunday will be crucial for Denver to stop this suddenly bolstered Seattle offense. When Harvin lines up in the slot, it's likely Bailey who will be opposite him.
Neither Champ nor Boss has ever attended a Super Bowl. The brothers never wanted to go unless they were playing. So, when Denver defeated New England, Champ Bailey suddenly was whipped into the whirlwind that is Super Bowl week.
Sitting at a podium during Super Bowl media day last week, dozens of reporters peppered him with questions — until he was interrupted by an old friend. Deion Sanders now works for NFL Network, and he wedged his way next to the podium for a fun-loving interview with his protégé.
Asked why he doesn't boast loudly like Sherman, Bailey told Sanders: "My game speaks for itself. I'm still here, ain't I?"
"You ready to go," Sanders asked, "after all these years?"
"You know I am. Come on, man — I'm always ready," Bailey said. "I feel good. It's been a long year, but I'm ready to go."
After Sanders left, Bailey was asked about his early days with the Redskins, when he played alongside the man he emulated in the front yard.
"Man, he's one of a kind with his personality, the way he played the game," Bailey said in his slow, soft, Southern cadence. "One thing about him, though — people don't understand how hard he worked. You don't just strap them up and think it's going to happen. He made it seem like that, but that man put the time in. And that definitely rubbed off on me. That's why I'm still sitting here."