I was playing in NFL Europe in the spring of 2004, eating schnitzel in Düsseldorf for the Rhein Fire, when I learned that we had traded for Champ Bailey. I had just spent the year on the Broncos practice squad and Clinton Portis was my teammate. Now Clinton was gone and we had Champ coming to town.
After finishing the NFL Europe season catching passes against many corners who would never play another down of pro football, I flew back to Denver, and straight into Champ’s orbit. The first thing I discovered upon lining up in front of Champ Bailey was that he was sure of himself and sure of everything else. With all of the coverage combinations and potential offensive plays, corners get caught between coverages or looking at the wrong thing. This never happened to Champ. Whenever I got down in my stance, I thought, “Fuck, he already knows.”
Whether he was in man or zone coverage, he already knew my plan. What was I doing to tip it off? Was it on my face? My body language? Or was he simply psychic? With his visor covering his eyes, I couldn’t tell where he was looking, and his posture was relaxed, as if he was waiting for his car to be brought around from the valet lot. I don’t remember him ever breathing hard or sweating. This was unnerving to a receiver. Most corners are in a fighting stance, aggressive posture: coiled and ready to strike. That is what we are used to. What I didn’t understand then about Champ was that this relaxed posture allowed him to strike at any time, from anywhere, and you never saw it coming.
This was all pre-snap. Information gathering. He took it all in and applied it to the next phase.
Once the ball was snapped, my first twitch as a receiver locked him in on my route, and no matter how well I thought I was disguising what I was doing, he read me like a polygraph. My eyes, my face, my shoulders, my hips—all of them betraying my true intentions. If I had what we called an “acute” route, which is a 12-yard comeback, I would need to get outside leverage, make him think I was going deep, then stop on a dime and come downhill towards the sideline: acute. But against Champ, this plan would get fucked from the start, because he knew after my very first step that I was trying to get outside leverage, even if I started inside, because that inside release was an obvious lie. I didn’t “sell” it well enough. For other corners, yes. But not Champ. He wasn’t buying it. So he didn’t take the bait. He never took the bait. If he were a catfish he’d live to 230.
So I took an inside release and he’d keep his outside leverage, which forced me to push up the field and make him think I was going deep, hoping he would start sprinting with me. If I could get his momentum going down the field, I could undercut him and be open on the sideline at 10 yards. But again, me selling a deep route to Champ had worse odds of success than a Nigerian prince emailing you about a stash of gold. I almost heard him chuckling as I dug into my strides and “pretended” to be sprinting down the field. Because, at this point, it was too late—I had already shown him my hand. If I really were going deep, I never would have released like that; and if I had an inside breaking route, I would have challenged his outside leverage first instead of trying to bait him inside. So he knew what I was doing and where I would end up, and I was forced to run my doomed route anyway, and when I made my cut at 12 yards, Champ was waiting for me in my spot, and if the ball was coming my way, it was all I could do to try and break up the interception.
This was Champ in man-to-man coverage. Impossible to trick. Calm. Unflappable. Instinctual. But this “Shutdown Corner” stuff was only part of his game. What made him special was what he was able to do in zone coverage. When a cornerback is in zone, he has to see the entire field, not just the receiver he is on. He has to cover an area. He has to tackle. Some of our more famous shutdown corners would rather step aside than to take on a running back in the open field. But Champ did not shy away from the rougher parts of the game. Along with his 52 interceptions and 203 pass break-ups, he had 908 career tackles, 42 of which came behind the line of scrimmage. Once he saw what was happening—and he was usually the first to see it—he attacked it. I don’t think I ever saw him miss a tackle.
Oh, and he also played offense and special teams.
He also never talked shit, which I appreciated. No matter how stupid he made us look, he was humble about it. And he was incredibly durable. As the rest of us struggled with nagging injuries and missed games, Champ rarely set foot in the training room. The only season he got hurt was when he decided to follow the off-season weightlifting program like the rest of us. His talent was bigger than the protocol, in other words, and when he came down to meet it, it made him vulnerable.
Off the field, he was quiet, but never isolated. His teammates gravitated towards him, young DBs always jumping around trying to impress him and make him laugh. Like the Godfather, if Champ approved, it was the ultimate blessing.
During training camp of 2005, Jerry Rice, perhaps the best football player in the history of the NFL, was on his last stop, trying to make our 53-man squad as a 43-year-old receiver. Jerry’s gig was up but he didn’t know it yet. Not until he ran into Champ Bailey. It only took a few snaps of Champ vs. Jerry to see that the guard had changed. Champ being Champ, he made sure not to rub it in. Made sure he respected the legend he’d eventually meet up with in Canton, even though he knew exactly what route that legend was running.
Nate Jackson played six years in the NFL and has written two books, Slow Getting Up and Fantasy Man. He co-founded Athletes for CARE, a non-profit that advocates for the health and wellness of athletes. He lives in L.A.