The jump from college football to the National Football League is daunting. Hundreds of of players get drafted every year but only a handful make a significant impact early on. Whether it’s struggling with the mental aspect of the game or falling victim to its physical nature, most prospects never ascend to the heights they have dreamed of their whole lives.
Even those who flash moments of greatness early on usually fade away. Longevity and continued success in professional football is hard to come by. It’s extremely rare for a player to be dominant from day one and continue that trek through the duration of their career. The select few who do cement themselves among the best to ever set foot on the gridiron and become legend. Without question, Steve Atwater was one of the all-time greats.
Atwater is arguably the best player in history for the Arkansas Razorbacks. In his collegiate career he amassed 229 tackles, defended 28 passes and still holds the school’s record with 14 interceptions. His high level of play in college made him the Denver Broncos’ first-round selection in the 1989 NFL Draft. From his first game on the field to his last, Atwater’s ferocious presence was felt.
Under the guidance of Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips, Atwater became an immediate weapon for the franchise’s defense. His on-the-field prowess was a terror for opposing offenses and he quickly became on of the league’s most feared defenders. Phillips’ schematic deployment of him near the line of scrimmage transformed one of the worst-ranking run defenses in the league to one of the best overall units in football in one season. He led the Broncos’ 1989 squad with 129 tackles but the best moments of Atwater’s historic career were still on the horizon.
Over the next four years (1990-93) Atwater averaged over 150 tackles per season. He was a dynamic force who had to be accounted for on ever single play and the unquestioned leader of the Broncos’ defense. He earned seven straight Pro Bowl selections and was a primary force in securing back-to-back Super Bowl victories in his final two years with the Mile High City. When his time with the Broncos game to an end in 1998, Atwater had amassed 1,125 tackles, 24 interceptions, five sacks, along with seven forced fumbles and seven fumble recoveries.
While statistics are only part of the formula for determining who gets enshrined in Canton, Atwater’s eye-popping numbers are among the best in the history of the league for any defensive back. Over eleven unforgettable seasons, Atwater earned eight Pro Bowl selections, three All-Pro accolades and was a member of the NFL 1990s All-Decade Team as well as the Denver Broncos Ring of Honor.
If that track record of greatness doesn’t get someone into the Hall of Fame, I’m not quite sure what would. To me and many across Broncos Country there is little doubt that Atwater deserves such recognition. Anyone who ever watched him knows that and those who played against him feel the same way. It’s time for the Smiling Assassin to be enshrined in Canton.