CANTON, Ohio — Champ Bailey shook his head, trying to come to grips with what was happening around him. He sits on the doorstep of immortality, preparing for his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday. The honor alone creates “wake up and pinch me” moments. That Bailey will enter with Broncos owner Pat Bowlen provides an even deeper meaning.
Bailey's entire career spent swimming toward the setting sun is about to finish, in many ways, where it began.
“There could not have been a better script for this. I get to Denver, a great organization, and my first game is against the Redskins (Bailey's former team) in this (Hall of Fame stadium). (John) Elway was going into (the Hall of Fame). A lot of this is coming full circle,” Bailey said. “It’s bringing back old memories, being on that field last night. Seeing Elway. It’s surreal. I think my Hall of Fame career really started with the Bowlens. To have Pat go in with me is unbelievable.”
Bowlen never sought this as an owner. But the way he ran his franchise made it inevitable. He bought the Broncos in 1983, and the Broncos have posted as many Super Bowl appearances as losing seasons in that time. The Broncos won three rings under his leadership, changing the perspective of a team, city and region. Bowlen’s mission statement never wavered: Be the best at everything. Saturday, Bowlen will be acknowledged as one of the all-time greats. For the family, it is difficult, though rewarding. The children miss their father, who passed away in June after a years-long battle with Alzheimer’s, but appreciate the significance of this weekend.
“He is looking down probably getting a chuckle at all of this. But it means a lot,” said Brittany Bowlen of Pat, who demanded excellence while sidestepping the spotlight. “It is going to be emotional.”
Added Beth Bowlen Wallace, “It’s humbling to have an opportunity to represent him, and we are grateful that his legacy of excellence is going to go on forever and ever.”
Bailey says he’s nervous about the upcoming moments – receiving the gold jacket on Friday, the ceremony on Saturday -- a notion that remains hard to believe. Bailey is near his playing weight. He looks like he could blanket a top receiver – he said Marvin Harrison was the toughest to cover “because of Peyton Manning” – or light up a running back. Butterflies? Uncertainty? That's not the Champ everyone remembers in orange and blue.
“What do I do with the jacket? Do I wear it? I believe I will. ... How can you not think you are on (The Hall of Fame team and be humbled). You turn left and you turn right and you see somebody way more accomplished,” said Bailey, who thanked his family, and specifically his brothers, for helping achieve his goal. “That happens every second every gold jacket walks by. I am on their team now.”
Bailey earned 12 Pro Bowl berths, and lists seven All-Pro honors on his resume. Broncos star Chris Harris Jr., who considers Bailey a mentor, ranks him among the three best defensive backs of all time.
“For me it’s Deion (Sanders), then Champ and Charles Woodson,” Harris Jr. said after the Broncos won their preseason opener 14-10 over the Falcons. “Champ was so consistent in how he prepared and played.”
Bowlen’s entry comes with a notable distinction. At the State of the Hall event on Friday, the class of 2019, led by center Kevin Mawae, presented a donation to the Hall of Fame in Pat Bowlen’s name. It marks the first time the players have ever done this. Mawae hatched the idea after hearing of a story of a local Canton resident who honored his wife with a contribution to the Hall after selling his home to make room for the Hall’s expansion project.
“That was a surprise for our family. For them to do that was amazing,” Bowlen Wallace said. “We all thought what a special moment it was for them to stand up like that for our dad. It was just another example of how (Pat) impacted the people around him, whether they played for him or not.”