You’re a Bear fan, watching as NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue stands at a podium, looks at the card in his hand, then says: “With the seventh pick of the 1999 draft, the Chicago Bears select Champ Bailey, cornerback, University of Georgia.”
And then you wake up.
The past may be for cowards and losers but since Mike Ditka is part of this story, that’s OK. Because sometimes the past is fun. It’s been fun, for instance, to see Champ Bailey on final approach to his first Super Bowl after 215 regular-season games.
And it’s amusing to think back to how close he was to being a Chicago Bear from the very beginning. How would a defensive core of Bailey, Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman and Brian Urlacher have been for most of the past decade? They played their entire careers (so far) as Bears. Bailey?
The best cornerback on the field next Sunday will be Richard Sherman. When Sherman has been to 12 Pro Bowls (a record for NFL cornerbacks) and been All-Pro seven times, he will belong in the conversation with Bailey.
The Bears didn’t really draft Bailey; that only happened in a Bears fan’s fantasy. But they were about to.
Except for Mike Ditka.
The scene: The Bears held the No. 7 pick of the 1999 draft. The Washington Redskins sat at No. 5. The New Orleans Saints were at No. 12, coached by Ditka in his third, and what would be final, year coaching in the NFL.
Ditka wanted Ricky Williams and first tried to trade his entire draft to the Indianapolis Colts up at No. 4. The Colts wanted Edgerrin James and Bill Polian, looking for a wingman for Peyton Manning who’d come in the ’98 draft, wasn’t moving.
When the Colts left Williams on the board, Ditka upped the offer for the Washington pick. But the only way the Redskins would make the deal was dependent on the Bears and personnel chief Mark Hatley: Washington, who wanted a running back but also a franchise DB, would drop down to No. 12 only if the Bears were part of a three-team trade and were willing to take a package of picks to move back up to No. 7. Bailey and Arizona corner Chris McAlister (who went 10th to Baltimore) were going to be there, but not past No. 10.
Hatley, who died in 2004, said later that the Bears were intent on grabbing Bailey; quarterback was the higher need but coordinator Gary Crowton did not like Daunte Culpepper (who went 11th to Minnesota) and Cade McNown was not a top-10 pick.
So the Bears took the parcel of Washington picks, took McNown, and Bailey went to Washington, then on to Denver in a trade. And now to a Super Bowl.
But for a time back on April 17, 1999, he was headed for Chicago.