MIAMI -- Los Angeles Rams cornerback Robert Bailey ended the strangest of days in the strangest of ways Sunday.
First, he woke up coach Chuck Knox from a sound sleep. Then he thought about renting a helicopter to take him from New Orleans to Miami. Then he played in a game he didn't want to play in -- and produced a 103-yard punt return, the longest in NFL history.
The word for what Bailey did Sunday afternoon is all wrong. Touchdown? Heck, after finding out that his first son had been born and that his wife was fine, the last thing Bailey wanted to do after his bizarre scoring sprint was touch down. If the stadium he was in hadn't been domed, Bailey might have floated right out of it.
"Happiest day of my life," he said yesterday morning, cradling 6-pound, 2-ounce Kharee Bailey in both arms. Bailey, who graduated from the University of Miami, was standing in South Miami Hospital now, surrounded by balloons and flowers. Off in the corner, among the bundle of gifts Bailey had brought for his new boy, was a pacifier shaped like a football.
"He looks just like me, doesn't he?" Bailey asked, gurgling and pressing his face close to his son's.
Seven months ago, Bailey made detailed plans to be holding his wife's hand while she gave birth. Wycidra Bailey has sickle-cell anemia and had been warned that having a baby could be traumatic. Doctors planned to induce labor two weeks early, on a Monday, so Robert could be there after his Sunday football game.
But life isn't as neat as a game plan.
The baby, behaving like his father already, blitzed. Wycidra began feeling serious contractions about 2 a.m. Sunday. Robert was in his New Orleans hotel room when the phone call came.
He decided he was going to skip the game, even if it meant losing the $20,000 he would have earned. Bailey called Knox, waking him up. Bailey says that Knox wanted him to stay for the game but was supportive of
his decision. Bailey then called to make flight arrangements but found out the airport was closed.
"That's when I hit panic mode," Bailey said.
The baby was born at 6:10 a.m. A few minutes later, Bailey got a call telling him everyone was OK.
"You can say the baby came by special delivery," a weary Wycidra said yesterday.
Bailey went to the stadium Sunday, preoccupied.
Then something extraordinary happened. The most mentally exhausted person in the Superdome outsmarted everyone in the place. With New Orleans up 37-27 in the fourth quarter, a punt landed in the middle of the end zone and looked like it would bounce out the back. But it took an odd hop just before getting to the back line, fluttering back toward the goal line.
Players from both teams started walking off the field, thinking the ball was dead. Bailey picked up the ball as it wobbled around. He knew the rules (a punted ball isn't dead until it's touched or motionless) and he knew something else: "All of the Saints had their back to me," Bailey said. "And the closest Saint to me was already taking his helmet off."
Bailey knew he had suckered everyone in the Superdome at about his 20-yard line. That's when he slowed down just a touch, to see if the referee was following him. Sure enough, the ref was -- waving his arm in a circular motion, telling the scoreboard operator to keep the clock running.
Despite Bailey's heroics Sunday, New Orleans won the game, 37-34. His record is not likely to be broken -- punt returners are taught never to field a punt inside their 10-yard line -- but Bailey says he would happily trade the touchdown for a chance to have seen his baby born.
"When I'm long gone, there will still be people scoring touchdowns and people breaking records," he said. "This is so much more personal, witnessing your baby being born. I am disappointed I couldn't be here. She had the baby at the worst possible time but with the best possible consequences. It went from being a nightmare to being a dream come true."