Just within the past few days, former Denver Broncos safety and current team marketing ambassador Steve Atwater made the cut of modern-era nominees for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2020.
But Atwater, much to the chagrin of many in Broncos Country, has only been a two-time finalist despite being one of the most prolific safeties in NFL history.
Last week, 104.3 The Fan caught up with Atwater — whose Arkansas Razorbacks hosted the Colorado State Rams on Saturday — to chop it up about his short tenure under center, his NFL career and the difference between his time in the league and now.
Sports Radio 104.3 The Fan digital producer Johnny Hart: You are around the facility and have good insight into the locker room and the league in general. What’s the biggest similarity to your playing days and the biggest difference?
Denver Broncos Ring of Fame safety Steve Atwater: Well, the biggest similarities, especially being in our Broncos locker room, is the layout is pretty much the same as it was back when I played. There’s a lot of familiarity with it. The training room is where it was. And it’s a place where guys can kind of get refuge from everything. You come down, have 10 minutes or so. You come in and kind of relax at your locker and talk with your teammates some. That hasn’t changed.
I think what has changed, though, with all of the cellphones, sometimes guys don’t get a chance to communicate as much as we did back in the day and build those great friendships. Although I’m sure it does happen. But I think, with the distractions, it’s a little bit less now than it was back when I played.
Hart: I see a lot of the Broncos safeties come up to you off to the side after practice — Will Parks, Justin Simmons, etc. Without going into specifics, what are they picking your brain about?
Atwater: Well, they’re not necessarily picking my brain. We say hello. We have a mutual respect for one another. If I see stuff on film, I may bring it up to them. But I don’t get into specific defenses and plays. I just try to comment on technique sometimes. Any way I can help out, I’ll just try to help them.
I tell them things that I think I would have wanted to know as a player from someone who had kind of been there and done it.
Hart: You’re a Ring of Fame, some would argue Hall of Fame, level safety, but you played quarterback in high school. How good was your game under center?
Atwater: You know what? I thought I was pretty good back then. But once I got into the NFL, went back and kind of looked at my stats, I was like, “Man, I only had like 800 yards passing, maybe 600-700 yards rushing.” I wasn’t that good.
My college coach was a genius because a lot of schools, I was telling them, “Hey, I want to play quarterback when I go to college.” And the Arkansas coach said, “OK, yeah, sure. We’ve got you.” A lot of coaches said, “No, no, no, you’re not going to play quarterback here.” So, I was like, “Alright, well I don’t want to talk to you.” Ken Hatfield, he told me, “Yeah, yeah, you can play quarterback for sure.” And once I got up there, I had a couple of practices at quarterback, and it didn’t go so great. It normally doesn’t go so great for the first couple of days anyway. And coach Hatfield called me to his office and said, “Hey, Steve, I’ve got to be honest. If you play quarterback here, it’s probably going to be a while before you see the field. What I can do, though, is I’d like to redshirt you and I’d like to have you come along and travel with the team and kind of see what it’s like in the locker room as a redshirt freshman. But I want to move you to safety.” And I was like, “Alright, good.” I didn’t even think about it. I was like, “Perfect. Let’s do it.”
So, I got a chance to travel with the team my first year, my redshirt year. I got a chance to see what the locker room was like. And the next year I got a chance to play quite a bit and learn the defense.
But yeah, I wasn’t a great quarterback. And our coach realized that when I threw interceptions, I went down and I made the tackle. And I was a pretty forceful tackler. He was like, “This guy can’t throw, but he can tackle.”
Hart: Everyone knows the hit you laid on Christian Okoye. Who delivered you the hardest hit of your career?
Atwater: That’s a good question. I don’t remember the running back. I don’t even remember who we were playing. There’s a highlight out there somewhere where this guy is running along the sidelines and I’m running over to make a tackle. And I go and I’m thinking I’m going to blow him up. And he sends me flying out of bounds on my butt. So, that was one.
And then, also, we played the Steelers back, I want to say, ’98 or ’99. We played them in the playoffs in Pittsburgh. I was blitzing, and one of the … I think it was a tackle, a tackle or a guard. I don’t know if I hit the A-, the B-gap or the C-gap. But, yeah, he caught me kind of in mid-step. And yeah, he sent me flying and I landed on my butt. I wasn’t injured, but it was a little bit embarrassing. But that’s how it goes sometimes.
Hart: Many in Broncos Country consider your lack of presence in Canton, Ohio, a travesty. Whether it’s yourself or a Broncos peer, who do you believe might be the biggest snub by the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
Atwater: Well, I would say me! (laughing). I mean, I’m not a cocky guy, but I would say me. Also, there are quite a few guys, especially here in Broncos Country, who should be in the Hall of Fame. How could you have that great defense, that Orange Crush defense, and not have one representative in the Pro Football Hall of Fame? That just blows my mind.
And then, looking at our team in the ’90s. What other team in the NFL has won back-to-back Super Bowls and doesn’t have any representation in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the defensive side of the ball? None. We’re the only team, the Broncos ’97-’98 team.
Trust me, there are a ton of guys I played with. Karl Mecklenberg, I know he’s deserving. I don’t think Dennis Smith gets the amount of recognition, overall, that he deserves. I got a chance to see him, got a chance to play with him. I know the difference that he made on the football field. Of course Randy Gradishar. I didn’t get a chance to play with Randy, but I’ve seen his tape and his statistics, his passion. (He’s an) Ohio State guy. Man, a guy from Ohio State and you’re not giving him love? How can you not do that?
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