DENVER — The juxtaposition remains striking.
Steve Atwater the person might be the nicest, most humble athlete I have covered in 30 years. He puts everyone at ease with a kind word and an easy smile. Steve Atwater the player made me cringe from the violence of his hits. There were times when I chronicled his games that he collided with opponents so hard I figured they would exchange insurance forms. He was dangerous for any receiver — a playmaker with a linebacker's size and a safety's speed.
He was unique in every way. On Saturday, he learns if he becomes a football immortal.
The pro football Hall of Fame selection committee will choose up to five players from the 15 modern era candidates. Atwater is a finalist for the third time. Former Broncos safety John Lynch is a seven-time finalist. Both are worthy. More than any other time, this feels like it could be Atwater's year. In a one-on-one interview, Atwater told Denver7 he remains cautiously optimistic that he will receive a knock on his Miami hotel room door from Hall of Fame president David Baker.
"I am extremely hopeful. I think I am a little bit more hopeful this year," said Atwater, a two-time first-team All-Pro, who starred in a weekly "Broncos Minute" segment for Denver7 this past season. "Voters have a tough task. I will keep my fingers crossed."
One statistic works heavily in Atwater's favor, and would be foolish for voters not to consider. Only 24 players in NFL history have started three Super Bowls and been selected to eight Pro Bowls. Of those 24, 20 are in the Hall of Fame. Two will be first ballot locks: Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. The remaining two are Atwater and first-time Hall of Fame finalist Troy Polamalu.
The one problem? Polamalu's bid could hurt Atwater and Lynch since the Hall has been particularly stingy in electing safeties. So the idea of multiple going in becomes an issue. For Atwater, it remains out of his control. His resumé speaks for itself. One of the things I broached with Atwater is that his breathtaking hit on Christian Okoye on Monday night, Sept. 17. 1990, was a double-edged sword. It was a defining moment — he talked with teammate Dennis Smith about lighting up Okoye like the Las Vegas strip in the days leading up to the game. And he sought him out. Truth is, the impact was so seismic the tremors can be felt in Broncos Country 30 years later.
But, there was more to Atwater than a single play. He was a force, a star player for a decade on great teams, including a pair of world champions in 1997 and 1998.
"A lot of people see that hit on Christian Okoye. They know about it, and that was absolutely the highlight of my career. A lot of times I don't think people remember that I was in the right place where I needed to be. I played good zone coverage, played good man-to-man coverage. I do think some of those receivers thought twice about coming across the middle," Atwater said with a smirk. "I have talked to some guys from other teams who said they kept their heads on a swivel when they played against us. We won back-to-back Super Bowls. People can judge, but I think I played well in both those games."
Atwater insists he should have more interceptions. He had 24 picks, and forced six fumbles. He explained that he made an Incredible Hulk transformation on the field, admitting, "I played with so many great players like Dennis Smith, Karl Mecklenburg, Tyrone Braxton, Ray Crockett...for me to hold up my end of the deal, I had to play angry. After the game I would watch the tape, and I wanted to see some excitement, I wanted to see guys flying into the frame and people going, 'Wow!'"
Atwater changed how many viewed the position given his size — 6-foot-3, 220 pounds and style. Baltimore Ravens legendary safety Ed Reed took notice. Before he gained entrance into Canton last summer, he told Bleacher Report, “I pray to God that Steve Atwater gets in,” the nine-time Pro Bowler said. “If I get in and he don’t get in, I’d rather give my space to him.”
A year later, Atwater remains appreciative. It shouldn't matter, but it does. It shows how Atwater's talent resonates. Saturday, his life could change forever, though it won't change his perspective.
"I saw Ed (Reed) last year and I told him thank you. I think it may have raised some eyebrows from the voters. Maybe we should play Ed saying that again," Atwater said with a laugh. "I think I am deserving. But I can't make it magically happen. If it's meant to be, it will happen. So many are deserving. I am honored to be in this conversation again. It will be great if I get in, and if I don't, we will keep rolling and do it next year."