CANTON, Ohio • At the Enshrinees Gold Jacket Dinner on Friday night, Troy Aikman tossed a basket of rolls toward former teammate Emmitt Smith.
Champ Bailey intercepted the pass.
When Champ needed a break, he dashed 40 yards to the bathroom in 4.28 seconds.
Another member of the elite gold-jacket club had a question for Bailey. “Were you the best cornerback of all time?’’ Champ deflected it.
Hall of Fame humor. I made up all that.
I wasn’t invited to attend.
But Champ could have done those things Friday, and so much more.
Apologies to Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib, Champ and Louis Wright were the best corners I ever covered in half a century of NFL football. One will be inducted Saturday. The other should be someday yet.
I did spend time in a group interviewing Champ on Friday afternoon in the media center adjacent to the Hall headquarters. When he got up to go try on his new gold jacket, Champ left behind the placard at his table. I followed him out the door and said: “I have a present for you, Champ.’’
He responded: “Don’t you want to put that on the wall in your bedroom?’’
“No, I got all the great memories.’’
“Me, too,’’ he said.
“How you doin’, Champ?’’ I asked.
“Still figuring out life on the other side. There’s been nothing like this weekend in my life.’’
I realized then that the only other athlete I ever called “Champ’’ was Muhammad Ali in a Vegas hotel room.
Ali and Bailey were better than Barnum & Bailey, and the rest.
In 2006 I witnessed every Broncos game, and the season generated a rather forgettable 9-7 record.
But, Champ ...
He intercepted 10 passes that year and gave up zero touchdowns. He was unanimously named first team all-Pro, and he was called on “Monday Night Football” “by far the best defensive back in the league.”
Over a two-year span, Champ picked off 18 passes and went 31 straight games without allowing a touchdown reception by a receiver.
Champ, the Broncos were fortunate to trade for you (before the 2004 season) and even more privileged to have you for 10 years and a Super Bowl in your final season.
And, of course, a 100-yard record return of an interception off some guy named Tom Brady in the playoffs.
“I gave it everything I had,’’ Champ told me when he retired.
Everything he had was just fine.
Only 30 defensive backs are in the Hall of Fame, and Champ played with Darrell Green and Deion Sanders in Washington, and with Brian Dawkins and fellow 2019 enshrinee Ty Law in Denver. And Champ was as good as any of them, and probably better. He was selected by his peers to 12 Pro Bowls, most of any cornerback in league history.
At the Pro Bowl he became friends with Willie Brown, another Hall of Fame cornerback in the old days (1963-78) with the Raiders for 12 years after being traded from, yes, the Broncos. “Willie would gather all the corners at the Pro Bowl and tell us stories.’’
When Washington, which had drafted Champ out of Georgia in the first round, prepared to franchise him in ’04, Bailey threatened to be a holdout. He was traded to the Broncos for exceptional running back Clinton Portis.
Champ thought it snowed in Denver every day, and he didn’t even know who the owner was. He found out the owner was named Bowlen. He asked players with the Broncos and other teams, and the feedback totally was positive. “I was excited to play for Mr. Bowlen.’’
Bailey told me that the first time he heard from representatives of Washington about his Hall of Fame induction was three weeks ago.
He then spoke about the first time he met Pat and told the owner he hadn’t made a mistake. “He sort of said, ‘Well, OK.’ I had a lot of confidence in myself.’’
With good reasoning. He intercepted 34 passes with the Broncos, and few quarterbacks had the temerity to test him. When they did, Champ defensed (deflected, knocked down, intercepted) more than 200 of the throws. And Champ rarely was called for interference.
At 41, he still looks like he could intercept a Brady pass or get across the room in seconds or still play for these Broncos.
Congratulations to the aptly named Champ.