Before Kam Chancellor patrolled around the Seattle Seahawks secondary looking huge and unleashing pain on wide receivers and running backs trying to advance the football down the field, there was another big safety that wrecked guys who liked the carry the football. His name was Steve Atwater.
How big was Atwater? He was 6’3″ 220 lbs. of all muscle and I promise you he looked much bigger. Maybe it was because I was a youngster watching him play or maybe it was because football players wore bigger pads then but Atwater looked like a monster sitting in the defensive backfield for the Denver Broncos. His claim to fame was a hit he unleashed on a running back known as the “Nigerian Nightmare” Christian Okoye on a Monday Night football game in front of a national audience. Okoye was a huge 260 lb. running back for the Kansas City Chiefs that destroyed defenders on a regular basis. Every week was full of highlights of him pounding defenders who dared to come before him. That all ended on that Monday Night (see video below).
As usual, the Kansas City Chiefs relied on Okoye to get them the tough yards and quiet the crowd. This Monday Night football game was at Mile High Stadium in Denver. Mile High was a tough place to play and it made sense for the Chiefs to try to take the crowd out of the game. The opposite happened. Okoye found an open hole on one play and proceeded through it with his 4.4 speed. Everyone watching expected what they always saw in this situation and that was a big gain with Okoye pounding defenders and dragging them downfield with him. All of sudden, Atwater, all 220 lbs. of him, flashed into the screen and dropped the hammer on The Nightmare. Right where Atwater hit him is where Okoye laid. It was a Monday Night football memory for the ages. Okoye would never be the same after that. The fear factor was gone and Atwater took it.
Atwater was much more than just that big hit though. He went to Lutheran High School North in Missouri where he was an option quarterback. Many of the NFL’s top defensive backs back in the day began their careers as quarterbacks. Atwater was one of those. He was the top athlete in his school and fielded many scholarship offers. Ultimately he decided to attend the University of Arkansas. Quickly, Atwater was switched from quarterback to defensive back. It turned out to be a great move. He would be named All American twice and finished as the Razorbacks all time leader in interceptions with 14.
In one of the deepest and most historic drafts ever in 1989, Atwater became the 20th overall pick of the Denver Broncos. Atwater had an immediate impact, tallying up 129 tackles and 3 interceptions as a rookie. He finished 2nd to Derrick Thomas for NFL rookie of the year. Many will look at Atwater’s stats (only 24 career interceptions) and wonder how he was elected to the Hall of Fame. However, much of that had to do with how he was used by defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Phillips saw in Atwater the size and aggressiveness that could helps their team playing near the line of scrimmage. In college, Atwater proved that he could play centerfield and force turnovers. However in Denver, he also showed that he could be an extra linebacker against run heavy teams too and force teams to pass. In his first five seasons, Atwater finished in triple figures in tackles including his second season in which he had 173. Atwater’s versatility forced teams to throw into a Denver secondary that was up for the task.
Towards the end of his career, Atwater was rewarded by becoming a two time Super Bowl champion. His performance in Super Bowl XXXII was noteworthy as he had six tackles, two pass break-ups and a forced fumble. The Broncos ended a history of Super Bowl heartbreak by getting back to back championships and Atwater was a big part of that.
Atwater would be elected to the Pro Bowl eight times in his career and twice he would be named All Pro. He was named to the NFL’s All Decade Team (1990’s) and finished his career with over 1,100 tackles. On February 1, 2020, the former option QB from Missouri was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as one of the games greatest defensive backs.