For decades I’ve known Steve Atwater as the “Smiling Assassin.”
If you’re reading this, the 18th story in our series to say the obvious (Atwater deserves to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame yesterday), then you’re old school and probably know Atwater by this nickname too.
But I’ve always wondered how he got it. I’ve Googled it; I’ve looked in my “100 things every Broncos fan should know...” almanac; I’ve asked fellow bloggers and fans.
There was never any story about why he was named the Smiling Assassin; just that he was.
And he definitely was.
No one before or since has hit like Steve Atwater. And no one who came close ever smiled like he did.
And that’s exactly what former Broncos’ defensive backs coach Charlie Waters thought when he gave No. 27 the moniker.
“Every time he would knock the crap out of somebody in practice, he came up smiling,” Waters told The Denver Post. “That’s just who Steve was. He was such a happy player. He was a happy warrior.”
But “happy warrior” isn’t quite as menacing a name. So at a 1989 Broncos training camp practice, Waters called him the ‘Smiling Assassin’ and the greatest nickname in pro football was born.
“I thought it was kind of corny, to tell you the truth,” Atwater said of the name. “But then I kind of embraced it, because at that point in my career I appreciated anything they were going to call me.”
A nine-time Pro Bowler, Atwater started 155 games in 10 seasons for the Broncos, making 1,125 tackles and grabbing 24 interceptions over his career. He helped the Broncos to two Super Bowl victories, turning in one of the most impactful games of any safety with his Super Bowl 32 performance - six tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and two passes defensed.
“He was the enforcer,” Hall-of-Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe said years ago. “He was the intimidator we had that would make sure that receivers and tight ends...he would throw them off line when they came through the middle to make sure he let them know it was unacceptable for them to run through his house.”
And then he would smile.