For 14 years in the NFL, cornerback Champ Bailey has taken on the best receivers in the league, and he's still loving every minute of it.
Every Hall-of-Fame career has to start somewhere.
It just so happened cornerback Champ Bailey's started with an interception off a Hall of Fame quarterback.
In the very first game of his career, Bailey – then a Washington Redskin – was matched up against another legend in Michael Irvin for the majority of the day against the Dallas Cowboys.
"You've got to think, since I was little, Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith, I'd looked up to them," Bailey said. "That was a surreal moment. You don't get an opportunity like that to play against guys you really watched and liked growing up."
He had mixed results in the contest, as Irvin notched five catches for 122 yards and two touchdowns.
But Bailey, ever the competitor, wanted to make sure it was known that those scores weren't against him – he was on the sideline late in the game with cramps. And in addition to five tackles in his first-ever game, he snared the Aikman interception – a fitting start for the now 11-time Pro Bowler.
"I felt like I belonged at that moment," he said. "You pick a Hall of Fame quarterback – not a lot of people can say they did that. It was a special moment for me."
By: Gray Caldwell
From that game on, Bailey has never backed down from a challenge, battling opposing teams' top receiver for more than a decade.
"Back then it was just my raw ability and trying to learn as I go," Bailey said. "Now it's a lot more about my knowledge and my instincts. That never leaves."
Nine games into his 14th season, Bailey has already squared off against wideouts the likes of Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace, Atlanta's Julio Jones, Houston's Andre Johnson, New Orleans' Marques Colston, Cincinnati's A.J. Green and Carolina's Steve Smith.
None of them reached 100 receiving yards, and Bailey has surrendered just one touchdown this season.
"That's what allows us to be among the top of the league in sacks," defensive end Elvis Dumervil said. "Having a guy like that, he still goes against the top guy every week."
So how has Bailey maintained such a high level of play for so long?
"First of all, he's just a smart player," Dumervil said. "He used to be a student of the game, he may be a professor of the game now."
His position coach agreed.
"Good genes," Secondary Coach Ron Milus laughed, noting that Bailey also keeps himself in great shape. "He's one of the guys that I kind of point to as a coach on the field, even though he's playing. He knows exactly what's going on at all times."
Dumervil said it's not uncommon for Bailey to let the defense know what's about to happen in a play before the snap. That comes from tireless preparation not only every week during the season, but throughout the offseason.
"That's why he has adjusted and why he's lasted as long as he has and why he's been such a centerpiece of the Broncos since he's been here," Executive Vice President of Football Operations John Elway said.
Rules have changed – "They definitely favor the offense a lot," Bailey said.
Receivers have changed – "Everybody's 6-3, 6-4, 220 (pounds)."
But Bailey has continued to play at an elite level throughout it all.
"I love Champ, how he plays and what he does," Cincinnati Bengals Head Coach Marvin Lewis said. "He's still doing it. I remember being on Georgia's campus when Champ came out. It's fun to see him still doing it the way he's doing it."
And he's done it within the rules.
Bailey has been targeted 469 times since 2006. He has been penalized for pass interference on just three occasions – less than one percent of the times the ball has been thrown his direction.
"I haven't had to tweak my game a whole lot," said Bailey, who leads all cornerbacks with 51 interceptions since his rookie season. "Even though I'm a physical corner, I've always tried to just play with my feet and not grab a lot, pull and depend on snatching people and trying to break the rules."
That technique is what stands out to Bailey's teammates, on offense and defense.
"He's able to get up and press you or play off," wide receiver Eric Deckersaid. "It's just that mix of you don't know what he's going to do. He's very athletic, he can cover very well, he knows how bigger guys release compared to smaller guys, he knows how to play certain splits – he just knows how to play the game. That's what I think as receivers we appreciate, because we get so much better going against him every day. It's fun to watch him against the other team on Sundays."
At 6-foot-3, 229 pounds, wide receiver Demaryius Thomas has three inches, 37 pounds and 10 years of youth on Bailey. But the 2010 first-round pick knew better than to underestimate the veteran corner when he first lined up opposite him in training camp.
Just as Bailey grew up idolizing Dallas' big three on offense, Thomas grew up with a great appreciation for what Bailey can do on defense.
"I was dreading going against him when I first got here," Thomas said. "But I knew it would make me better."
A DECADE-PLUS OF DOMINANCE
When Bailey first got started in the league, he always dreamed of a decade.
"That was a big thing," he recalled. "I remember guys would always say that. 'If I can just get 10 years in.' I was one of them, I'm not going to lie. But as I approached 10, I thought, 'I'm still playing at a high level. Why walk away from something I love to do? And I make a good living doing it.'"
Prior to the 2011 season, Elway signed Bailey to a four-year contract extension with the team, essentially ensuring the cornerback will end his career in orange and blue.
"Winning is going to happen a lot sooner than people think," he said at the time.
Twenty-two months later, the Broncos have their first playoff victory since the 2005 season under their belts, and currently sit atop the AFC West again this season.
"I'm not going to say I'm a genius," Bailey laughed, "but once Elway took over, it kind of encouraged me to believe in the system and the team and where it's going. I'm just glad I made my decision to stay here."
Now, he is serving as one of five team captains along with Peyton Manning, who he called "hands down" the best quarterback he has played with.
With that type of talent and leadership on both sides of the ball, Bailey has welcomed the high expectations surrounding the club this season.
"When you've got guys in the building knowing that we've got a chance to go all the way, it makes you work a little harder," he said. "It makes you want to come to work every day."
Bailey still covets his job and the challenge of going up against the best week-in and week-out.
And he doesn't plan on slowing down any time soon.
"Story of my life for the past 14 years," he said. "I love it."