The day after Carlton Bailey caught Dan Dierdorf's attention with a goal-line hit on "Monday Night Football," he caught some good-natured flak from friends in Baltimore for the hit he didn't make.
Bailey, an inside linebacker with the Buffalo Bills, missed an open-field tackle on New York Jets running back Brad Baxter early in the first quarter. Baxter went for 12 yards. Four plays later, Bailey nailed running back Freeman McNeil for no gain on first-and-goal at the 1.
Dierdorf, a member of ABC's broadcast team, complimented him for the hit. But guess which play former Woodlawn High teammates Donnell Pratt and Stafford Sutton wanted to talk about this Tuesday?
"They called me to say they saw me on television and saw me miss the tackle," Bailey said yesterday, chuckling at the irony. "It was all in fun."
In little more than two years in the NFL, Bailey clearly has made an impression with the Bills. Drafted in the ninth round of the 1988 draft, he developed a reputation as a solid special teams tackler a year ago. Then, when veteran Ray Bentley was hurt in a Monday night game against the Los Angeles Rams, he stepped in with a nine-tackle performance.
This season Bailey moved ahead of Bentley to win a starting job, although they continue to split time at the right inside position.
Starting was no small accomplishment. Drafted as a linebacker after playing nose tackle at North Carolina, Bailey was a long shot to make the team in 1988. Once he did, he figured there was more in store for him in Buffalo than chasing down kick returners.
"The No. 1 thing in my life is my faith, my belief in God," said Bailey, a Christian. "I didn't believe he'd bring me this far just to be a special teams player, through all the obstacles I faced. I thought he had a bigger plan for me."
Bailey says he struggled with his grades at North Carolina. Yet he earned a degree in sociology and has plans to go back to Chapel Hill this winter to work on his master's.
His indoctrination with the Bills wasn't an overnight success, either. At first, all he tried to do was run around hitting people.
"Because I had never played linebacker, I was sort of in awe of the rest of the guys," Bailey said. "That was a big obstacle."
There was a low point in his rookie training camp when Bailey called his mother, Thelma Smith, and asked that she "straighten up my room, [because] I might be on my way home."
"She gave me the support I needed to hang in there," he said.
In three starts this season, Bailey has 16 tackles, including 11 solos. He had five in the 30-6 rout of the Jets Monday.
"Being from Baltimore and being so close to home [at the Meadowlands], it was nice that everyone back there and at my church could see me," he said. "I wanted it to be a typical role model thing.
"I feel like I represent my hometown, my high school and my university as well as myself. In the past years Woodlawn football has gone down, but I'm proud to be a player from there."
Bailey dismisses the notion that his team is the "Bickering Bills," but admits it had some inner turmoil a year ago, when name-calling and finger-pointing almost seemed part of the game plan.
"I think we definitely learned from the experience," he said. "We all realized that if we have any problems, we'll bring them to each other's attention in a team meeting and that's where we'll resolve them. In the playoff game against Cleveland [a narrow 34-30 loss], we were holding hands to show the closeness we had.
"After our loss to Miami [in Week 2], people starting to count us out, and it was still early in the season. But we believe in ourselves, mo matter whether anyone else believes in us. Monday night, it was fun to prove that 'Bickering Bills' is just a slogan."