Carlton Bailey was born and raised in Baltimore. So last Saturday, as the Bills were preparing to face the Ravens in the AFC divisional round, Bailey got some texts from friends and family back home in Maryland, asking who he was rooting for in the big game.
“I was like, ‘Really?’” Bailey said by phone this week from his home outside Charlotte. “I told them I like the Ravens’ body of work, but I said, ‘There’s no doubt I’m pulling for the team that gave me the best opportunity of my life.’”
That was Buffalo, of course, where Bailey played his first five seasons in NFL, a glorious run when the Bills reached the playoffs every year and made it to the first three of their four straight Super Bowls.
Bailey was a ninth-round pick, a college defensive lineman who made the difficult switch to inside linebacker in the pros. He says hard work can sometimes put a man in the right place at the right time, and it led him to one of the most unforgettable moments in franchise history.
So when Bills defensive back Taron Johnson picked off Lamar Jackson in the end zone and ran 101 yards to a touchdown, Bailey was beside himself, like all Bills fans. He jumped up and down in glee, and then his cell phone began blowing up with calls from friends and family.
“Hey, what about your play?” someone texted. “Could you have done that? How many yards did you have to run?”
Bailey laughed at the memory. There’s no way, he told people. Mr. Johnson ran 101 yards. I only had to run 11. I would have needed a clear path of blockers all the way to run that far. But it was one of the most glorious 11 yards in Bills history, and in Bailey’s athletic life.
Bailey’s big opportunity came late in the third quarter of a scoreless tie between the Bills and Broncos in the 1992 AFC title game at Rich Stadium. There was palpable unease among the 80,000 fans, who had waited all day for the vaunted No-Huddle — which set a team record for points in that 1991 season — to be unleashed.
But Wade Phillips, then the Broncos defensive coordinator, had a plan that confounded Jim Kelly and the best offense in franchise history. It was the defense that saved the day in a 10-7 Buffalo win, propelling them to a second straight Super Bowl.
On a second-and-10 from his own 18, Denver quarterback John Elway attempted an inside screen to Steve Sewell. But Bills nose tackle Jeff Wright sniffed out the play and batted Elway’s pass into the air.
The football floated in the air for what seemed like an eternity. Bailey, who had blitzed from his inside linebacker spot, snatched it out of the air and raced 11 yards for the touchdown — to the same end zone where Taron Johnson would score in 29 years later — for a 7-0 lead.
“It was a blitz, a delayed blitz,” Bailey recalled. “They snapped the ball and at the very last second, Shane Conlan said, ‘You run the blitz.’ He ran out. He just left. I was trying to process getting my linemen set up, giving them the call at the last minute, because the blitz was supposed to come from Shane’s side.”
“It happened so fast, so quick,” he said. “A lot of credit goes out to Jeff Wright, too. They say big-time players make big-time plays.”
Wright, who played 16 playoff games as a Bill, seemed to rise up in those big games. He had a sack on Elway in that title game. He had seen the inside screen earlier and was ready the next time. After batting the ball in the air, he briefly thought he might be able to pick it off.
“It went through my brain so fast,” Wright said from his home in Arizona. “I tipped the ball, looked up to where it was, and I looked to my side and I saw Carlton. I knew if we collided, no one would have gotten it. If you watch the film, I kind of backed off so he could catch it and run in. Then I just followed him in. You can’t be selfish on the field, dude. That took us all the way to the Super Bowl.”
The Bills took a 10-0 lead, then held off a furious Denver comeback led by backup quarterback Gary Kubiak, who passed for 136 yards in less than a quarter of his final NFL game after replacing an injured Elway.
It was one of those fretful finishes that became so familiar to Bills fans over the years. The Broncos recovered an onsides kick with 1:38 left in the game. But Sewell, the same man who was the target on the Bailey interception, fumbled the ball away on the Bills’ 44-yard line.
“We had a high-powered offense,” Bailey said, “but for whatever reason, they had our number that day. My best friend was Kirby Jackson. He had the forced fumble that allowed us to win that game.”
Bailey, of course, was the hero. He remembers Dennis Smith, the Broncos’ Pro Bowl safety, running across the field after the gun to tell him he was the difference. The next day, Bailey was on “The Today Show” with Bryant Gumbel.
But on the day after his big play, Bailey told me he didn’t want to be one of those players who are remembered for one play. “I really don’t want that to be the story of my career,” he said then.
Years later, he’s happy to be eternally etched in Bills history for a single play — like the hit by Mike Stratton on Lincoln in the AFL title game or now, Taron Johnson for the 101-yard pick six against the Ravens.
But Bailey is even more proud of the way he worked to make the transition to NFL linebacker, having never played the position before coming to the Bills.
“For me, the great thing is the fact the ownership, management and coaches gave a cat an opportunity to go out there and hunt and play and compete. I was a ninth-round pick, which they don’t have now.
“At North Carolina, I was strictly a defensive lineman or nose guard. Walt Corey (the Bills’ defensive coordinator at the time) said, ‘You’ll never put your hand down again. You’ll strictly be an inside linebacker’.”
“I can’t say enough about Chuck Lester, who taught me what it meant to be a professional, how to watch film. I spent the offseason with Chuck, who was quality control coach and assistant linebackers coach. I was blessed to have a coach who believed in me.”
“I would drive up to Buffalo in whiteouts to my apartment in Cheektowaga, to go in twice a week and work with him. Whether you’re a first-round pick or a ninth-rounder, you’ve always got to be prepared and put the time in.”
Bailey, 56, left the Bills after the 1992 season. He spent two years with the Giants and three with Carolina, where Bill Polian was general manager after getting fired in Buffalo. He retired after the 1997 season. He did some work in real estate and some public speaking.
“I’m just taking it easy, trying to rest some of these bones from 25, 30 years ago,” Bailey said. “You walk about winning. When I left Buffalo, I couldn’t believe there were players who had never played in the playoffs. I could not imagine not playing in a Monday Night game.”
Bailey played in 17 playoff games, 13 as a Bill. He played in three AFC title games and three Super Bowls. Watching this remarkable Bills team stirs a lot of good memories. He thinks of the fans.
He was struck when he heard Lamar Jackson and some of the other Ravens say it was difficult to hear the snap count at Bills Stadium last week.
“I called my mom,” Bailey said. “She used to come to the games. I said, ‘Do you remember those days?’ She said ‘Yeah, it was freezing cold!’ I told her, ‘Imagine if they had 70,000 people in there. Those Ravens guys couldn’t hear with 6,700 people.”
“That’s a major tribute to the fans up there. The fans are just outstanding. I feel blessed that I’ll always be part of the history up there, regardless of anything.”
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning digital reporter who joined the News 4 team in 2020. See more of his work here.