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DENVER — Champ Bailey's eyes were watery; his voice cracked.

He showed all of the signs of a man choked up by emotion.

"I lost my voice, really," the veteran Denver Broncos cornerback insisted to USA TODAY Sports. "You know I keep my emotions in check. But all of this hasn't sunk in yet."

This was late Sunday, in a euphoric locker room after the Broncos secured a trip to Super Bowl XLVIII, after Bailey and teammates celebrated on the field before a sea of raucous fans dressed in orange.

Bailey, 35, has been in the NFL for 15 seasons. He's going to the Super Bowl for the first time.

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It was rather cool to catch him in that moment. This has been a trying season for Bailey, once one of the NFL's most gifted athletes. Including the playoffs, he has played in just seven games this season while battling through a foot injury.

Time flies. I vividly remember when he broke into the NFL with Washington in 1999 as the hotshot seventh overall draft pick who eagerly became an understudy to eventual Hall of Famer Darrell Green. It was special how he picked Green's brains — in film sessions, on the practice field and about the playbook.

Now it's Bailey passing on knowledge to young cornerbacks.

I told him about the text-message that came in after the game from a giddy mutual friend of ours in D.C., urging me to give him a hug for her.

Rather than hug, we laughed.

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Last week, she texted and told me not to call Bailey "Gramps."

He laughed at that, too.

"Everybody likes to tease me like that," he said last week, coming off the practice field.

Age is nothing but a number and something to use to make a point to the young teammates.

"When I tell guys I've been in the NFL for 15 years and never been to the Super Bowl, they understand," Bailey said as he dressed Sunday, widening his eyes for emphasis. "You've got to take advantage when you have the opportunity."

Bailey kept believing he would get to a Super Bowl, but he also came to grips with the possibility that he could wind up like Tony Gonzalez — the tight end who just wrapped up a brilliant, 17-year career — as a distinguished player who never reached the ultimate game.

"Tony, that's Example No. 1 in that category," Bailey said.

There is no shortage of aging Broncos relishing their first chance to win a ring.

The Broncos have 13 active players on their 53-man roster who are in their 30s.

Toward the end of Sunday's game, defensive end Shaun Phillips, 32, shared a moment on the sideline with cornerback Quentin Jammer, 34, to reflect. Phillips and Jammer, who played for years together with the San Diego Chargers, are also headed to their first Super Bowl.

"We just said, 'It's been a long time,'" Phillips said. "Especially for a guy like that. He's one of my best friends. He's been playing for 12 years. I've been playing for 10."

Phillips and Jammer played on several contending Chargers teams repeatedly upset in early playoff exits.

"When playing this game, you play to win Super Bowls," said Phillips, who joined the Broncos this season as a free agent.

"You want to make as much money as you can, go to as many Pro Bowls as you can. ... But you also want to win as many Super Bowls as you can."

Drawing even less attention is the path of 12th-year linebacker Paris Lenon, a 36-year-old on his eighth NFL team. And Lenon's tally is not padded by his two stints with the Green Bay Packers, nor by his time in NFL Europe with the Amsterdam Admirals or the stint in the XFL with the Memphis Maniax.

Then there's Wes Welker. He's been to two Super Bowls, but the New England Patriots came up short both times.

"I even told them last week," said Welker, 32. "I went to the Super Bowl in '07. I thought I'd be back the next year and the next year after that. It's hard. You've got to seize the opportunity."

No need to remind Bailey.

His résumé includes 12 Pro Bowls and selection to the All-Decade Team of the 2000s. And during an AFC divisional playoff game in 2006, he picked off a Tom Brady pass in the end zone and ran it back 100 yards — the longest non-scoring interception return in NFL postseason history.

The next week, Denver was upset at home in the AFC title game by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Until now, Bailey never came close again to go to a Super Bowl.

"Now that it's here," he sighed, "I've got to go win this thing."

***

Follow NFL columnist Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell

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