DENVER (BVM) – Steve Atwater was one of the hardest-hitting safeties the NFL has ever seen. He became a leader of the Denver Broncos’ secondary throughout the 1990s, and propelled the team’s defense to back-to-back Super Bowl titles.
Since retiring, Atwater has had his career recognized with an induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Meanwhile, he has continued a very close relationship with the franchise that he spent 10 seasons with.
Steve Atwater’s high school, college career
While he was born in Chicago, Atwater played his high school football at Lutheran North High School in St. Louis. Also a basketball player and track athlete, Atwater was an all-conference quarterback at Lutheran North.
The next step in Atwater’s football journey led him to the University of Arkansas where he made the transition to defense. In 11 games as a freshman, Atwater immediately made an impact by grabbing two interceptions. He would finish his career at Arkansas with a program-record 14 picks in total.
A multi-time All-Southwest Conference and All-American player, Atwater further improved his draft stock coming out of Arkansas with two interceptions in the East-West Shrine Game in 1989.
Steve Atwater’s NFL career
Atwater was selected 20th overall by the Denver Broncos in the first round of the 1989 NFL Draft. As a rookie, the safety became a key contributor for the Broncos right away with nearly 130 tackles and three interceptions. Playing under famed defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, Atwater and the Denver defense allowed the fewest points in the league, helping lead the Broncos to an appearance in Super Bowl XXIV.
In 1990, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Atwater made a career-high 173 tackles, earning the first of what would be seven consecutive Pro Bowl selections with the Broncos. It was during an early-season contest against rival Kansas City that Atwater made one of his hardest and most memorable hits while in the league on Chiefs’ running back Christian Okoye.
Forming a dynamic duo with fellow Denver secondary member Dennis Smith, Atwater grabbed a career-high five interceptions in 1991, putting together 150-tackle seasons in both 1991 and 1992 as a first-team All-Pro.
The “Smiling Assassin” again put up strong numbers throughout the next few seasons, but what continued to elude the Broncos legend was a Super Bowl ring. The Broncos got close in 1991 with a tight loss to the Bills in the AFC Championship game. They also made the playoffs in 1993 and 1996, but suffered early exits in both years.
However, the Broncos’ fortunes changed in 1997. In a season in which Atwater racked up 83 tackles and two picks, Denver would make it all the way to Super Bowl XXXII and upset the Green Bay Packers, in part thanks to Atwater’s six tackles and strip sack of Brett Favre.
Denver came back strong the following year as Atwater earned his eighth Pro Bowl selection despite seeing his playing time scaled back. Again, the Broncos would be dominant throughout the season, putting together a 14-2 record and earning a win over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII – a game in which Atwater recorded four tackles.
The championship game would be Atwater’s last in a Broncos uniform, as he signed with the New York Jets ahead of the 1999 season. Following his brief stint in New York, Atwater returned to Denver to sign a one-day contract so he could retire as a Bronco.
Atwater finished a truly impressive career with 1,188 tackles, 24 interceptions and eight forced fumbles. The feared hitter earned eight Pro Bowl nods, three All-Pro honors and became a two-time world champion in Denver.
.@SteveAtwater27 left it all on the field 💥
— NFL Legacy (@NFLLegacy) July 30, 2021
Steve Atwater’s personal life, achievements
The former Broncos star is the son of Jessie and Jeff Atwater, and has five siblings: Stephanie, Michelle, Sabrina, Rick and Ronnie. He has been married to his wife, Letha, for over 30 years, and the couple has four kids together: sons Stephen, Di Andre and Paris, and daughter Malaysia. Both Stephen and Di Andre went on to follow in their father’s footsteps, playing college football at Georgetown and Princeton, respectively.
In 1994, Steve was named a member of the Razorback All-Century and All-Decade teams. He was inducted into the University of Arkansas Sports Hall of Honor a few years later. The legendary safety is also a member of the NFL’s 1990s All-Decade team.
However, Steve’s greatest achievement to this point was finally earning a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2020, over 20 years after his playing career had ended. He was officially inducted in 2021 alongside some other former Broncos in John Lynch and Peyton Manning who were members of the 2021 class.
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) August 8, 2021
Steve Atwater’s post-playing life
The 55-year-old has stayed busy since his retirement from football, and has also remained very close with the Broncos organization, as well as his alma mater, Arkansas.
🗣 WE WIN! WE WIN!
Coming soon to this week’s episode of The Follow… only on Hogs+ ⤵️ pic.twitter.com/btB1NRq2lt
— Hogs Plus (@HogsPlus) November 11, 2021
In addition to speaking at various events and making appearances to talk about the Broncos on Denver’s local ABC affiliate, Steve returned to the Broncos in 2017 as a fan ambassador.
This will make you smile.
Steve Atwater is joining us as Fan Development Manager and Broncos Insider.
— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) July 22, 2017
One of the biggest parts of his role is producing content for the Broncos’ team website and YouTube channel. Steve has been plenty active in doing so recently, sitting down with former teammates and Denver players Karl Mecklenburg, Mark Schlereth, Orlando Franklin and Derek Wolfe among others to discuss all things Broncos during the team’s 2022 training camp.
🎟 Now playing on the #Broncos YouTube channel 🎟
— Broncos TV (@BroncosTV) September 3, 2022
A true legend on and off the field in Denver, Steve continues to shine no matter his role. The Hall of Famer being back with the Broncos only seems right, and he will continue entertaining fans just as he did with his hard-nosed play on the field many years ago.