NEW YORK — The price of a gallon of gas was $1.30 when Champ Bailey was drafted.
That’s a good indication of just how long the Denver Broncos’ cornerback has been chasing his Super Bowl dream.
Bailey gets his chance to fulfill that boyhood fantasy tonight, when his Broncos meet the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. (6:30 p.m., Ch. 29.).
“Every year, I don’t have doubt that I could get there or my team could get there. I always think that I have a shot. That’s the only reason I still lace them up, because I want to play in games like this,” Bailey said this week. “This is my first opportunity. I’m just looking forward to it, making sure I’m ready.”
Before Seattle’s Richard Sherman and Tampa Bay’s Darrelle Revis started grappling over the unofficial title of the NFL’s best cornerback, there was Bailey.
The 15-year veteran has been selected to 12 Pro Bowls, an NFL record for a cornerback, and has 52 career interceptions, 34 in his 10 years with the Broncos and another 18 with Washington, where he spent the first five years of his career.
“He’s been a tremendous resource for me. When I first came to the Denver Broncos three years ago, he was one of the first guys that I sought out just about Denver, about the Broncos, about the football team, and he’s been a great resource for me ever since,” Broncos coach John Fox said. “I’ve got great respect. I know it’s been a frustrating year for him because he was injured for a big part of it, but it’s been pretty awesome that he’s gotten back in time and playing at a high level.”
Frustrating may be an understatement.
Bailey has battled through a serious injury this year for the first time in his career. He suffered a Lisfranc sprain in his left foot in the second exhibition game in Seattle, keeping him out until Week Six. He played two games, then missed another four, ultimately appearing in just five games, with 14 tackles and three passes defensed.
Amazingly, Bailey had only missed 14 games in the first 14 seasons of his career.
“It’s been tough, but I’m not looking back. I’ve felt good for about a good month, and I continue to feel better, and that’s all I can ask for at this point,” he said. “I can’t get all those days and weeks back – that’s behind me – but what’s in front of me is big, and I know it. I understand it, I feel good, and I’m ready for it.”
Bailey was forced into a key role with the Broncos when cornerback Chris Harris suffered a torn ACL in his right knee in the divisional round of the playoffs against San Diego. The following week, Bailey played in 56 of 59 defensive snaps against the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game. He made three tackles in a 26-16 victory.
“You’re talking about one of the real, classy, long-standing great players in this league,” Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. “The way he carries himself, I think it’s a great example for the younger players. He’s been terrific. … He’s playing his best football and it’s a great time for him to be doing so. He’s an important piece to what we’re doing right now.”
Bailey will likely draw an assignment today that could go a long way toward determining the game’s outcome. Seattle receiver Percy Harvin has similarly dealt with injuries all season – playing just two games – but say’s he full go for the biggest game of the year.
Bailey would say only “we’ll see” about the possibility of retirement following tonight’s game.
It’s unlikely the Broncos would bring him back for the final year of his contract for the $9 million he’s owed, so sending him out a winner is a goal of his teammates.
“This is one guy that everybody wants to win for,” linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. “He’s a great person and a great teammate to be around, and we definitely want to get this victory for him.”