The Bailey boys rounded up a few other kids in their Folkston, Ga., neighborhood for a game of Pick Up and Run. The three brothers and their pals, ranging in age from 6 to 10, plucked a pine cone from one of the evergreen trees that dot the tiny city and headed to the Baileys' backyard.
"You kind of throw it up and whoever catches it runs," said Rodney Bailey, chuckling. "And everybody else just tries to tackle him. There were no real rules. We didn't know anything about rules then. You catch the ball and go."
Rodney Bailey, now 23, Roland Bailey Jr., 24, and Ronald Bailey, 27, were the best athletes in the city of fewer than 3,000, which still has just three stop lights and one grocery store, the Big J. But there was always something special about Roland, spurring his mother, Elaine, to dub him "Champ" at age 2, shortly after he learned to run. No one, including Elaine, knows exactly why she created the nickname. But the recollections of Champ's early exploits remain vivid: Anytime Champ grabbed the pine cone, trying to catch him became fruitless.
"He'd go untouched," said Rodney, who like his brothers went to Georgia and is now one of the top linebackers in the Southeastern Conference. "Pretty much, nobody [can] touch him."
That remains pretty much true today as Bailey is entrenched as one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. Opposing quarterbacks seldom throw to receivers being covered by Bailey, who has been the most reliable player on the fifth-ranked passing defense in the NFC and is likely headed to a third consecutive Pro Bowl in his fourth year in the league.
"He's one of the most talented defensive backs I've ever been around," said defensive end Bruce Smith, a likely Hall of Famer who is in his 18th NFL season. "If he stays healthy and gets in a system and stays in it for a while instead of adjusting from system to system every year, Champ will be rated as one of the best to ever play this game."
That would mean Bailey's grand goal, which originated while eluding his brothers and neighbors during Pick Up and Run, will have been achieved.
"Since I was 8, I wanted to be the best ever," Bailey said this week in his usual soft tone. "Definitely."
The NFL is replete with world-class athletes in a game based on speed and strength. Yet Bailey stands out as if he were still starring in three sports at Charlton High, where his graduating class in 1996 numbered fewer than 100. He played quarterback, running back, wide receiver and safety for the Indians. He was recruited to play defensive back by Georgia, but by his senior season he was averaging about 100 snaps, playing cornerback full time, wideout on most offensive plays and contributing on special teams. Bailey won the Bronko Nagurski award, emblematic of the best defensive player in college football. But not many Nagurski winners catch 47 passes, including five for touchdowns, and compile 744 yards.
Bailey will be the Redskins' number one punt returner for today's game against the New York Giants, but otherwise he has been used only sporadically at running back and wide receiver, often as a decoy. That has allowed him to hone his skills at cornerback. While other NFL players can run a 4.3-second 40-yard dash or leap 42 inches like Bailey, he adds another dimension with a rare combination of dexterity, flexibility and balance.
"He's a freak of nature," cornerback Fred Smoot said. "You find some guys that are just straight-line fast. But [Bailey] can move fast east to west plus north to south. And that's what makes him special."
Said linebacker LaVar Arrington: "He's the most athletic person I may have ever seen in my whole life. The way he runs, the way he covers ground. I think I'm a very superior athlete, but Champ is just special. He makes me a fan. It takes supreme athleticism to [cover] a receiver with world-class speed, not knowing his route. Watching [Champ] do it on film is just crazy. And some of the [interceptions] he makes in practice, it's like: 'Damn, did you guys see that?' "
During training camp, Bailey split the web between the middle and index finger of his left hand. He received several stitches, and continued to practice despite his left hand being useless. While in full stride with a receiver, Bailey used his right hand to tip a pass, deflecting it enough to catch the ball with his right hand for an interception that teammates still rave about.
"He ain't got but one good one," an awed Smoot reflected. "He just balanced the ball while he was running. It takes great skill to do that."
Further evidence of his athletic ability: As a junior at Georgia in 1998, Bailey finished third at the SEC indoor track championships, setting a school record with a long jump of 25 feet 103/4 inches.
But in the locker room, Bailey blends in as if he's a member of the practice squad. While many NFL players celebrate even routine plays with dance moves more typical of a Broadway musical, Bailey avoids theatrics, often treating a momentum-turning interception almost like it's just another down.
"In today's game," linebacker Jessie Armstead said, "that's rare."
Bailey explained: "I've always been kind of reserved and quiet a little bit. But you don't have to talk to have confidence. My athletic ability speaks for itself. When you have the skills, why shouldn't you be confident?"
Bailey's quiet personality is magnified playing alongside Smoot, the colorful cornerback who can often be heard well before he's seen. They form the best young cornerback combination in the NFL, but are polar opposites.
"Smoot is going to come through talking loudly," Armstead said. "He'll let everybody know he's at work today, from the secretary to the janitor. Whereas Champ will just walk on in and quietly go about his business."
But Bailey appreciates Smoot's brash mannerisms. Smoot, one of Bailey's best friends on the team, expresses some of the thoughts that Bailey is reluctant to say aloud.
"I might be thinking something and talking to Fred," said Bailey, who spends most of his free time with wife Hanady, 22, and their 20-month-old son, Keevan. "And he'll go spit it out."
When Arrington first joined the Redskins in 2000 -- Bailey's second season -- the linebacker mistook his new teammate's reticence for shyness. But Arrington soon changed his assessment after hearing the cornerback's subtle brand of trash-talking. Bailey simply picks his spots and speaks to hapless wideouts as if in a telephone conversation, one on one.
"Champ might talk more trash than anybody," Arrington said. "He's just real discreet with it. That's all. You might not see his head bobbing. When I start talking trash you see me pointing and talking. He might talk as he's walking back to the huddle.
"Those receivers hear him. He's not trying to be flamboyant, but he's letting you know he's out there."
Bailey has been less reserved since Smoot's arrival last season, and is chattier with teammates he gets to know. ("He's just like a woman," Smoot said, jokingly. "Once you break the ice, she'll talk.") Nonetheless, Bailey has maintained the demeanor from his childhood, which contrasted with the excitement generated by his performances. Shortly before Bailey participated in a high school track meet, a buzz enveloped the area. Spectators made sure to pay attention just in case Bailey high jumped 6-101/2, his personal best. And when Bailey played football on Friday nights, Indians Field was filled with about 2,000 spectators, which was only several hundred less than the city's population.
"People who saw him play on Friday nights saw this person who expressed himself with a football like nobody they've ever seen," said Richard McWhorter, Charlton's football coach since 1990. "And then they encounter him in public or in the classroom, and he's very quiet and kind of to himself a little bit."
Champ and his brothers inherited their personalities from their father, Roland Sr., and their grandparents, who all lived on the same block in Folkston (known as the Gateway to the Okefenokee Swamp, a 700-square mile area of wildlife and the main tourist attraction in southern Georgia).
"That family is just that way," said Freddy Jones, a lifelong friend who attended Charlton High with Bailey's parents. "And the grandparents on both sides were that way. It's a quiet, humble family.
"Those boys were raised to be that way. If they walk into a party, they're not going to take over. They're far from anti-social. It's just their upbringing."
In 1974, high school sweethearts Elaine and Roland Sr. -- a three-sports star at Charlton High like his sons -- were married.
Roland Sr. signed with Albany State to play linebacker before suffering a neck injury during his senior year at Charlton that shelved his college career.
"He was a good athlete," said Jones, now an assistant athletic director at Georgia. "But nothing like the boys."
The Bailey boys, who have a sister Danielle, all starred at quarterback at Charlton before heading for Georgia to play different positions. Their competitiveness never caused tension in their relationships, according to people who saw them interact daily.
"A lot of siblings, that's exactly all they are: siblings or family members," McWhorter said. "But [the Bailey brothers] were the best of friends. And they were really close. It was kind of neat.
"I'm sure they had their battles, but you never sensed it or saw it. They were each others' biggest fans."
When reporters heaped praise on Champ Bailey while he starred at Georgia, the cornerback told them that his younger brother would be even better.
Rodney Bailey goes by the nickname Boss, given to him because he was the biggest Bailey. Boss Bailey finished as the leading passer in Charlton's history before becoming a 6-foot-4, 220-pound linebacker at Georgia. Champ Bailey was right about Boss -- at least when it came to the vertical jump. This season, Boss broke Champ's school record of 42 inches by leaping 46 inches.
The Redskins' cornerback was one of the first people Boss called to tell him about the new mark. But the act didn't indicate any animosity or jealousy. The two talk about twice a week during the season. And in the NFL's offseason, Champ takes classes at Georgia, where he said he is 20 hours short of earning a psychology degree. Last spring, Champ lived in the same dormitory as Boss, just one floor above. The brothers were inseparable, spending countless time discussing everything from family matters to the NFL.
"I wouldn't choose anybody else to follow," said Boss, speaking from his dorm room, even more softly than his brother. "He made it that much easier by being himself and being a positive influence."
The two were teammates when Champ Bailey was a junior at Georgia, in his final season with the Bulldogs.
Champ and Ronald Bailey played cornerback together for two seasons at Georgia. Champ started the final two games of his freshman season in 1996 alongside Ronald, a junior at the time. During Ronald's senior season, Champ started every game. (Georgia is such a family affair for the Baileys that cousin Kenny Bailey is a junior running back who also played at Charlton.) Ronald, who is 6 feet, and 195 pounds like Champ, went undrafted in 1997 but signed with the Dallas Cowboys in 1998. He broke his foot during that offseason after playing for the Frankfurt Galaxy in NFL Europe, essentially ending his pro football career. Boss Bailey is projected as a 2003 NFL draft selection.
"He'll make it," Champ Bailey said, "and be very successful in the league."
Champ Bailey has been destined for success since entering the seventh grade, when his middle school organized a team of seventh- and eighth-graders that played other schools in southern Georgia. Champ Bailey treated his opponents the same way as he did neighbors when they played Pick Up and Run.
"They would just have to take him out of games," Jones said, "just because each time he got the ball, he scored. Nobody could catch him; Nobody could bring him down. It was his choice."
The NFL is much more of a challenge. Yet not much has changed for the cornerback when it comes to impressing others with his speed and grace. And Bailey's grand goal -- to be the best -- remains the same.
Bailey was asked why he won't settle for being one of the best.
"Why be one of the best," replied Bailey, almost sounding offended, "when you can be the best?"
The cornerback settled into his locker room seat at Redskins Park and quietly changed into his dress clothes amid the loud chatter of teammates.