Steve Atwater, “The Smiling Assassin,” was selected with the 20th pick of the first round of the 1989 NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos. The Broncos already had hard hitting safety Dennis Smith, but figured Atwater would team with him to provide perhaps the most feared safety tandem in the NFL. The Broncos passed on Louis Oliver, whom many believed was the best safety in the draft to select Atwater, mainly because of his leadership and toughness. “I want to be similar to (San Francisco all-pro) Ronnie Lott, but I just want to be the next Steve Atwater. I want to make a name on my own,” said Atwater, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.44 seconds for Denver scouts. “I'm used to being a leader. I've been a team captain all my life.” (6)
Steve Atwater Hit on Christian Okoye
After a fine season in 1989 when Steve Atwater finished second to Derrick Thomas for Defensive Rookie of the Year, and a Super Bowl appearance, Atwater would make a name for himself on Monday Night Football. It was a September 18, 1990 showdown at Mile High Stadium against the arch rival Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs had an outstanding running game featuring “The Nigerian Nightmare” Christian Okoye, a 253 pound running back that made a living running over defenders. It was a typical Kansas City running play, but the results were nothing typical. Steve Atwater burst towards the line of scrimmage and hit Okoye full speed, knocking him on his back.It was one of the greatest hits in NFL history and is still played on NFL Films to this day. This thunderous hit put Steve Atwater on the NFL map as it was seen by a national audience and is the most famous hit in Denver Broncos history. Before the game, Atwater was fitted with a wireless microphone to capture the sound of the shot. “That's the hit people will remember him for,” Shanahan said. “Steve was a pro's pro and we'll always remember him for the kind of person he is and the kind of leader he was.” (1)
“Steve’s play was outstanding,” said Broncos head coach Dan Reeves. “Eleven solo tackles is an incredible number for a safety. He’s played extremely well since he came here, but last night had to be his best game, in my opinion, because it was so crucial.” (3)
During this contest, Atwater knocked an opposing player out of the game for the second consecutive week. The previous week he knocked future Hall of Fame running back Marcus Allen out of the game with 10 stitches.
Steve Atwater Video
Atwater's Amazing Play
It was a September 24, 1989 game against the Raiders. There were less than 4 minutes left to play and the Raiders had the football. Quarterback Jay Schroeder dropped back and was looking about 40 yards down the field where he spotted a target. He fired a bullet to that receiver, but to everyone’s amazement, it was picked off by Steve Atwater who stood only about 5 feet from the quarterback when he made the throw. After the game in the locker room Steve said, “Schroeder definitely didn’t throw his change- up. That baby was humming.” It was Atwater’s second interception of the game and prevented the Raiders from achieving the upset. (4)
Steve Atwater Hits on Super Sunday
Super Bowl XXXII was one of the most exciting Super Bowl’s that has ever been played. Steve Atwater was a major reason why. After being disappointed during his rookie season in a 55-10 defeat to the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl, Atwater wanted to make sure he left everything on the field Sunday against the Green Bay Packers. During the second quarter, Atwater blitzed from the safety position, hitting Brett Favre and forcing a fumble which was recovered by teammate Neil Smith. The turnover would set up a Denver field goal, giving them a 17-7 lead. With the game tied 24-24, Atwater knocked away a Favre pass forcing the Packers to punt. Then on the Packers last drive of the game, Brett Favre on a third and 8 play fired the ball down the field. Atwater sprinted to break up the play and blasted into the receiver and the corner on the play, knocking all three of them, himself included out of the game. This set up the Packers final play where Mobley would break up the Favre pass to win it. As the final seconds were ticking off the clock of the Broncos 31-24 Super Bowl victory Atwater ran onto the field and embraced John Elway, celebrating the victory. After the game Atwater said “I just came out today and said I’m going to leave it on the field. I knew if I did that I wouldn’t be disappointed again.” (5)
Atwater Run Defender
Steve Atwater owned the middle of the football field. Not only would receivers going over the middle pay a price, but ball carriers did as well. Steve Atwater played much of his NFL career in the box as an eighth defender stopping the run. He was essentially a fourth linebacker on the field for the Denver Broncos. His impact on opposing offense’s run games can best be described by the following statistic: prior to his arrival in 1988, Denver’s defense was ranked next to last in rushing defense in surrendering 2538 yards that year and a league worst 4.6 yard average. In 1989, Steve’s first year, Denver’s defense jumped 20 places to tie for 7th against the run by surrendering a mere 1580 yards (almost 1000 yards better) and also tied for 3rd best with a 3.7 yard average. “I don’t have a preference - run or pass,” Atwater said. “But when the running back gets the ball, all bets are off. I play in an aggressive manner.” (7)
Steve Atwater - Ring of Fame
After Atwater’s 1999 season with the New York Jets, his only season in New York, Atwater wanted to retire as a Bronco. He signed a 1 day contract and when practice concluded, Atwater announced his retirement from the NFL and the Denver Broncos. “This is the way I wanted to go out,” said Atwater, “I bleed orange and will always bleed orange and blue.” (1)
Five years after his retirement, Steve Atwater was inducted into the Denver Broncos Ring of Fame. “Just one of the hardest-hitting safeties I ever saw,” former Broncos defensive coordinator Joe Collier said. “And one of the brightest guys I ever saw. It was a slam dunk to put his name up there.” (2) Steve Atwater was the best safety in Denver Broncos History!
When asking owner Pat Bowlen about voting Atwater into the Ring of Fame, here is what he said. “Let’s just say it was a short discussion . . . ,” Bowlen said. “We all know he was a big fan favorite in Denver. As I look back on my 22 years, he’s certainly one of the top players to have played with any of the teams that I’ve been involved with. I would obviously love to see the day that he was elected to the (Pro Football) Hall of Fame. He’s very deserving . . . obviously, he is one of my favorite players.” (2)
Steve Atwater Hall of Fame ?
Steve Atwater made the 1990’s NFL All Decade Team and should be considered for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Atwater was a great player and a great leader. He was a part of three Super Bowl teams and has two Super Bowl rings. The only other safety that played during his time at such a high level, Ronnie Lott, is already in the Hall of Fame. He was an eight time Pro Bowl player and was All-Pro 6 times in his brilliant 11 year career. I believe with his great play and his Super Bowl victories, Atwater will one day have his bust in Canton, Ohio.
By A. Goodin, 20Yardline.com
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(1) Steve Atwater Retires as a Bronco (2000, August 18) AP Online