SMITH COLUMN: Champ Bailey, one of the greats

Published 9:30 am Thursday, December 8, 2022

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College football is under duress these days with all the transferring in a free agent world nobody could have predicted along with a grab for money which is stressing a wonderful system.

In the beginning, it was an opportunity to obtain a degree by playing a sport. What a sensational tradeoff in the greatest of American traditions!  

The college game is fraught with ills and evils lurking about, which is why it remains a refreshing high when you see a team bonding together and making a run to a championship because of cogent leadership and an underscoring of unselfishness.  

With all the challenges and negatives that are bandied about, Walter Mitty stories remain on the college front. There will always be a Champ Bailey story as long as the grand old game exists.

A minority kid from across the tracks was free to run with the wind — his feet and his remarkable hand-eye coordination making him the class of football where it is revered in South Georgia. Friday Night Lights were a perfect world for him, a kid who could outrun everybody, outjump everybody, out-everything those who lined up against him. He excelled at all sports but was especially adroit at football and track. There was seldom his equal on the football field. In track meets, he could score enough points in multiple individual events to bring home the team trophy by himself.

His mother, Elaine, recalls that he was always active, growing up. “Never still,” she says. “I watched him in constant motion and one day said, ‘He is going to be my little ‘Champ,’ and the name just fit. All my children were active, but Champ was accelerated, always running and jumping.”

Small, lithe and lean, Champ had height but the question was, could his body take the pounding? That was a constant concern of his coaches in those formative years. Champ’s deep-rooted love of competition drove him to stay on the field, a tradition he continued at Georgia. It didn’t take long for his coaches to realize he had remarkable endurance with all that remarkable talent. They couldn’t keep him off the field.

When he got to the NFL, first with the Redskins, and lastly with the Broncos, he concentrated on defense and was so accomplished some pundits say he was the best corner to ever play the position.

On Tuesday night at the posh Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, Champ became the 16th Bulldog player inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. 

With four coaches inducted, Georgia now has 20 individuals elected to this august body.

One of those in the audience was his Bulldog coach, Jim Donnan who took advantage of Champ’s older brother, Ronald, being on the team to gain an edge in recruiting Champ. It didn’t hurt that the Bailey boys’ mother, Elaine, became sold on the academic support provided by the academic counselors on the UGA staff.

As an aside, Donnan experienced an exalted high with Champ and Oklahoma’s Keith Jackson both being inducted into the Hall in the current class. The former Bulldog head coach was Jackson’s offensive coordinator when they were together at Oklahoma. Jackson was a tight end in the wishbone formation and was such a home run threat that the position during his time in Norman became known as the “breakaway tight end.”

“Those two guys,” Donnan said, “are two of the best college football players I ever coached.”  

A memorable game for Champ at Georgia was the Auburn game in 1998 when he played 127 snaps, seeing action as a defensive back, wide receiver and special teams’ player. “He got upset with us when we took him out of the game,” Donnan smiled as he recalled his halcyon days with Champ.

Champ makes his home in Atlanta and was happy to be among the numerous NFL greats who were inducted into the college Hall. “I am happy about this, naturally,” Champ said before the dinner got underway. “I feel that this award is for my teammates as well. I owe them a lot.

“When you win awards like this, there is a nice advantage that comes with such honor.  It connects you with some interesting and accomplished people.” That, he grinned, is good for business.  

Continuing, he noted that has really come to appreciate living in Atlanta and being connected to the network of UGA graduates and aficionados. “It is such a wonderful thing to see Georgia people everywhere you go in Atlanta. They are so proud to be Bulldogs. Makes me proud, too.”