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Steve Atwater in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: The definition of a Hall of Famer

The Smilin’ Assassin is one of the best to ever strap on pads and a helmet.

Green Bay Packers vs. Denver Broncos Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Once upon a time, Denver Broncos legendary safety Steve Atwater was a Pro Football Hall of Fame hopeful. In 2019, the Mile High Report Staff pooled our talents to present 27 arguments to enshrine #27 in the halls of Canton.

On Saturday, August 7, a hopeful no longer, Atwater will find immortality as he’s inducted into football’s ultimate fraternity. As we look forward to him unveiling his bust while wearing his hard-earned gold jacket, we want to take a moment to look back at some of the reasons he is an exemplary hall of famer.

On February 2, 2019 Ian St. Clair wrote Reason #27: Steve Atwater is the definition of a Hall of Famer. Here again, is that article.


Steve Atwater is a Hall of Famer.

Full stop.

If it isn’t clear by now that the Smilin’ Assassin is one of the best to ever strap on pads and a helmet, there is no point to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Even Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed, who [became] a first-ballot inductee, said he would give up his spot if it means Atwater gets in.

Just as I said for Terrell Davis and Pat Bowlen — you cannot write the story of the NFL without Atwater.

Why is this so difficult?

We did our part over the last month to show why Atwater needs to get inducted.

Today. As in, February 2 [2019].

We’ve covered the Denver Broncos legend’s stats, how he compares to the best who have ever played the safety position, his championships, his performance in moments when the lights shined the brightest, and his character.

But the reason that most stands out is what Wade Phillips told me through a friend in September of 2017.

“Steve is the best free safety I ever coached (40 years and counting),” he said.

Jim Saccomano put that quote in perspective.

The head of public relations at the Broncos for 36 years and now a consultant/historian, told me the NFL is about to have its 100th anniversary. For those like me who are terrible at math, that’s 10 decades. Phillips has coached in four of them.

“And I certainly wouldn’t be one to argue with Wade Phillips,” Saccomano said.

“Steve Atwater was a great player,” he continued. “Steve Atwater is a Hall of Famer. It’s tough. Boy, a lot of names come up that are Hall of Famers. The problem is, he’s not the only one. I would like to see a lot more given to the safety position. I believe it’s under-represented in the Hall of Fame. And I think Steve Atwater is one of the guys who is in that under-represented group. You could put in three or four more safeties, Atwater being one of them.”

When you look at the history of the safety position in the NFL, Atwater was a prototype. He helped revolutionize the position. That’s the definition of a Hall of Famer.

“Steve is the best free safety I ever coached (40 years and counting)” — Wade Phillips

“There never is a ‘only guy,’ but Steve Atwater was the top safety on team that won back-to-back Super Bowls, went undefeated for a calendar year, and had one of the best games in a Super Bowl at the safety position that anybody has ever had in Super Bowl XXXII,” Saccomano told me. “Those are all facts, and that’s besides his year in, year out Pro Bowl status. I hope Steve gets in before it gets logjammed at the position.”

Players like Atwater get taken for granted. They’re so good and make it look so easy, we lose sight of just how dominant and elite they truly were. When they do it for an organization like the Broncos, history has repeatedly shown the selection committee often loses them in the shuffle. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen today for Atwater. For those on the committee who make this decision — Atwater is in the same boat as Ronnie Lott.

“Somebody asked Willie Mays once if he could explain how he catches fly balls and how he plays defense,” Saccomano told me. “He said, ‘Oh yeah, they hit ’em and I catch ’em.’ It was that easy for him. I was looking at Atwater and doing some research, just for the fun of it, and one of the things I’ve often read about Joe Dimaggio was nobody ever really saw him run at the last minute to change his coverage. He was just never out of position. He was never caught with his pants down, so to speak. Atwater was just a natural player.”

The biggest reason so many in Broncos Country, the media and former players are fighting for Atwater to get his due is related to the class-act person he is.

“As clean-cut as a guy could be,” Saccomano said. “I’m not sure I’ve ever heard him swear.”

Steve Atwater is a Hall of Famer.

Full stop.

Time to get the Smilin’ Assassin a bust in Canton, Ohio.

A hearty Mile High Salute to you, Steve Atwater, from all of us at Mile High Report. You are truly the definition of a hall of famer and on Saturday it will be official. Congratulations.