Champ Bailey played 15 years in the National Football League, earning respect from all peers and seasoned observers, regarding his cornerback play which was so proficient that he was elected to the NFL Hall of Fame as soon as he was eligible. Some, who would know, say he was the best ever at his position.
The stories about him, emanating from Charlton County when he was growing up, are still the stuff of legend. He was athletic, intensely competitive, indefatigable, versatile and often unstoppable. Need a first down, need a score — give the ball to Champ. Need a critical stop on defense — put Champ at corner and send the rest of the DBs to the sideline. Punt returns, kick returns, Hail Marys, hell yes. Just get the ball in Champ’s hands. The opposing quarterback might take exception to that, but if he put the ball in the air Champ would ruin his day.
Champ was a whirring dervish on the football field and the basketball court. All the coach had to do in track was list Champ’s name by all jumping events and all sprints — and Champ would get enough points to win the meet single handed. He made all-state in several events in track and was all state in football and basketball.
Football is where his legend grew and developed to the fullest. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. He never backed away from any challenge, although starting out he was pretty much known as the “skinny kid nobody can catch.” As he matured, he would strike like a diamondback on defense. His ball hawing ability was extraordinary.
He became the main attraction in the city of Folkston. See Champ run. See Champ jump. See Champ score. All the while, he was imbued with a polite smile and spoke with such limited verbiage that he hardly talked only in class except when he answered the roll.
Growing up with an older brother, Ronald, and a younger sibling, Boss, Champ honed his skills in back yards and on playgrounds. He learned to compete at his own home. In pickup games, he was always the first player chosen when the teams were determined.
“Before he got to high school competition, all of our coaches knew about Champ,” says his high school coach, Rich McWhorter, who is now the head football coach at Jackson County. “He was simply spectacular in rec ball. All we had to do was look out our window and we would see this marvelous talent at work. He was something special.”
“As soon as he entered the ninth grade, the biggest concern was that we were afraid he was not big enough to play, but his determination was such that he let us know that he was ready. As soon as he got on the field, he showed us his heart was big enough and the rest didn’t really matter.
“The thing that we noticed first off was that he could play and you have never seen a greater competitor. The other thing is that he was so quiet. He never said anything. He was the quietest player I think I have ever coached. His brother Ronald was quiet like Champ and Boss was a little more vocal….but Champ was a man of very few words.
“It was such a joy to see him in space. When he was one on one with a defender, you always knew Champ would be the last one standing. He just had that marvelous leaping ability and that top-end speed. He was a 48-minute kid who never wanted to come off the field. He returned punts and he also punted. Everything he did, he did well.”
All across the National Football League, everybody is giving Champ Bailey high marks, but nobody could be any higher on this child prodigy than his family, friends and coaches from back home. It was the same way at Georgia where he was coached by Jim Donnan.
Here’s to Champ Bailey, Georgia’s latest inductee into the National Football League Hall of Fame.