ENGLEWOOD – It only took Keith Brooking 18 games played for him to experience what the Super Bowl was like — something that through 217 games of a Hall of Fame career, Champ Bailey has yet to experience.
So it can often go for players who pass through the NFL. The list of Hall of Famers who played in the Super Bowl era and yet never sniffed it is distinguished, a club that includes recent inductees like Willie Roaf and Cortez Kennedy, legends like Dan Fouts, Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas, Ozzie Newsome and Merlin Olsen and even a former Bronco, 2010 inductee Floyd Little.
But those are names of the past, whose experiences don’t always register. The tales of Bailey and Brooking have a better chance of finding a receptive audience.
Nevertheless, how do you properly embrace the potential scarcity of this chance and understand that it might be your best, once-in-a-lifetime shot — when you’re young and don’t understand what the old pros innately know through myriad heartbreaks and letdowns?
Bailey, Brooking and other veterans are trying. But they remember how they felt in as rookies: Brooking in Atlanta in 1998 and Bailey in Washington one year later, where the Redskins won the NFC East but fell short in the playoffs after a wayward field-goal snap in the divisional round.
“I was picking everyone’s brain and taking it all in and trying to feel the same way they were, but I think as a young player you don’t realize that,” Brooking said.
Brooking hadn’t been around for the Falcons’ profuse bleeding. He hadn’t experienced the 31 years the franchise had played without as much as back-to-back winning seasons or an appearance in a conference championship game, let alone the Super Bowl.
“Jessie Tuggle, Cornelius Bennett, Eugene Robinson, Chuck Smith, just speaking on the defensive side of the ball. You had Jamal Anderson, Chris Chandler, a lot of guys there on the offensive side of the ball, as well,” Brooking said, rattling off the names of the veterans who provided counsel during that charmed, out-of-nowhere Falcons season that proved to be their only winning campaign in an otherwise fallow six-year stretch.
The names came just as easily to Bailey.
“A lot of guys. Guys that have won rings and guys that have gotten close. Darrell Green, Dana Stubblefield, I had all these guys that had gotten rings, and they’d talk about how special those moments are,” Bailey remembered.
Years later, Bailey and Brooking find themselves reciting the same advice they received — but understanding that the younger Broncos, try as they might, won’t quite grasp until they’re older.
After all, Bailey and Brooking didn’t.
“It takes years to really get it,” said Bailey. “When you have a few bad years — as we did, my next four years, we didn’t make it. It was tough. And then you kind of appreciate those moments, looking back at that rookie year, at that time, you have a different level of appreciate for it.”
Added Brooking: “It’s just the nature of the position you’re in. The different perspective you have is that you have more years in this league, and you realize how tough it is, and until you actually witness that and see that first-hand, you never really know. But you do try to press that upon these guys.”
And those young Broncos will listen. But only with experience will they understand — experience that Bailey and Brooking hope they don’t have to face, since that would mean yet another season in their distinguished careers fell short of the last goals they have left as players.