Steve Atwater’s travel to the Pro Football Hall of Fame began with agelong rides and abbreviated walks, good earlier starring astatine Arkansas, joining the Broncos, delivering a legendary deed connected Kansas City moving backmost Christian Okoye, earning the still-fabulous nickname of “The Smiling Assassin,” making 8 Pro Bowls and winning 2 Super Bowl rings.
Walk 200 yards from his house. Board the autobus connected West Florissant Avenue. Get disconnected astatine Lucas & Hunt Road. And locomotion up the thoroughfare to Lutheran North High School successful St. Louis.
“It seemed similar it was 50 miles backmost then,” Atwater said during an interrogation with The Denver Post . “But it was 6-7 miles.”
Six oregon 7 miles but a satellite distant from the situation helium was increasing up in. It was a caller acquisition that helped make the instauration for a nonrecreational vocation that volition culminate with his induction successful Canton, Ohio.
Instead of attending a “rough” nationalist precocious school, Atwater enrolled astatine a backstage schoolhouse that opened his presumption to the world. There were students of antithetic races, backgrounds and fiscal means.
At Lutheran North, Atwater shined successful football, starring him to Arkansas, wherever helium paved the way to articulation the Broncos and go 1 of the NFL’s apical safeties successful the 1990s. He’s inactive 1 of the franchise’s astir fashionable players, conscionable arsenic overmuch for his play (a large antheral who delivered large hits and made large plays) arsenic his property (thunderous laugh, shakes each hand, signs each autograph, takes each picture).
It each started with those autobus rides and walks.
“He is truthful deserving,” said Charlie Waters, Atwater’s archetypal antiaircraft backs manager with the Broncos. “He does everything right. He ne'er disappoints.”
Atwater started playing shot astatine property 8 for the Royal Knights arsenic an violative lineman who moved to backmost erstwhile the coaches wanted a downfield pass. As helium moved person to precocious school, helium became a full-time quarterback, wearing the blue-and-gold jersey No. 12.
Atwater and his father, Jeff, attended a Lutheran North hoops crippled and Jeff asked Steve if helium was funny successful attending the schoolhouse northbound of downtown alternatively of their vicinity nationalist school, which helium said, “I knew wasn’t for me.”
“I retrieve walking up an alley and seeing a feline with a shotgun successful different guy’s rima and the feline is saying, ‘Please, please, please, don’t shoot!’ and I heard immoderate gunshots down the thoroughfare (another time) and I ran down determination and determination was this feline connected the ground, shot, earlier the constabulary got there,” helium said. “My acquisition successful St. Louis had been that you had immoderate groups of radical who didn’t person everything and I was successful that group.”
Atwater earned a discounted tuition the summertime earlier his freshman twelvemonth by taking a people astir Martin Luther King Jr. He played shot and hoops astatine Lutheran North.
“The full acquisition was conscionable amazing,” helium said. “I would walk clip astatine the houses of friends and think, ‘Man, this is benignant of nice, seeing a household unneurotic and seeing radical capable to unrecorded comfortably, but not extravagant and not worrying astir wherever the adjacent repast was going to travel from.’”
Atwater said the demographic of Lutheran North was divided evenly betwixt Black and achromatic students. “That prepared maine for the remainder of my life, conscionable being capable to pass not lone with Black people, but with achromatic radical and person communal respect and recognize that not each achromatic radical are affluent and not each Black radical are poor.”
Atwater’s mentor was his precocious schoolhouse shot manager Mike Russell.
“He was precise kind,” Atwater said. “Seeing him interact with each of the athletes and the mode helium treated me, it reinforced that determination are large radical nary substance their tegument color.”
College hoops coaches inquired astir Atwater, but helium wanted to enactment with football. Missouri was successful a down rhythm truthful helium crossed them disconnected his list. He besides wanted to permission the St. Louis area. He was sold connected Arkansas pursuing a location sojourn by Jesse Branch and a follow-up travel to Fayetteville.
“The cleanable fit,” Atwater said. “Wasn’t excessively acold from home, but not adjacent capable wherever I would beryllium connected the road going location each weekend.”
Trainer enactment NFL connected radar
Atwater redshirted astatine Arkansas successful 1984 and played a reserve relation successful ’85. Once Atwater became the starter, helium took disconnected — years of 72, 67 and 70 tackles and 4 interceptions each season.
“When it was his turn, helium took advantage,” said Bob Trott, Atwater’s presumption manager astatine Arkansas. “He wasn’t truly a container safety. He played downfield and could enactment connected the tally and play the pass. He was a small antithetic due to the fact that astir antiaircraft backs weren’t that gangly (6-foot-4).”
Hard to judge for Broncos fans, but Atwater wasn’t a definite tackler aboriginal successful his assemblage career.
“I utilized to get connected him due to the fact that helium tackled mode excessively precocious and helium broke his collarbone,” Trott said. “He yet learned to usage his enarthrosis pads. There was 1 time successful practice, helium deed a moving backmost connected a transportation and the feline indispensable person been successful the aerial for six yards. A feline that big, erstwhile helium learned to deed with his shoulders, could beryllium beauteous devastating.”
Early successful Atwater’s career, Razorbacks manager Ken Hatfield, who is expected to be Saturday’s ceremony, asked the players to constitute down their post-college goals. Atwater wanted to beryllium drafted.
Looking back, helium said: “I can’t judge I wrote that due to the fact that successful my mind, I didn’t deliberation astir the NFL.”
That changed during a inferior twelvemonth sojourn to the bureau of trainer Dean Weber. Atwater said his hands “were banged up and each bent up and bleeding and I said, ‘Dean, my hands, what tin I do?’”
Weber provided an reply that changed Atwater’s outlook and his life.
“Those hands are going to marque you a batch of money,” Weber said.
Decades later, Atwater said: “That’s erstwhile it started to go existent for me. At that point, I got ace locked in.”
No parties. Extra workouts. A lifting programme designed by John Stucky that strengthened Atwater’s shoulders. All football. As a elder successful 1988, helium was a first-team All-Southwest Conference selection.
Atwater played successful the East-West Shrine Game and met with Mike Hagan and Ron Hill of the Broncos’ unit department, who aboriginal timed Atwater astatine 4.47 seconds successful the 40-yard dash. Aside from a harvester gathering with Waters, helium didn’t perceive from the Broncos again until draught weekend.
“Never fto you down”
The 1989 draught was divided into 2 days — rounds 1-5 connected Sunday and 6-12 connected Monday. Atwater’s anticipation was to beryllium selected connected the archetypal day. One NFL manager perplexed Trott upon his accomplishment astatine Arkansas.
“I acceptable him up with the portion and helium said, ‘I perceive helium won’t deed precise hard,’ and I said, ‘Obviously, you haven’t watched the tape, person you?’” Trott said, laughing 32 years later. “I inactive retrieve thinking, ‘Who the hellhole told him that?’”
What the portion told Waters was Atwater checked each imaginable criteria to assistance the Broncos.
“I got up connected the soap-box and said, ‘If you walk connected this guy, you’re going to rue the day. He’s truly special,’” Waters said.
Atwater was selected 20th overall, receiving a telephone from wide manager John Beake and manager Dan Reeves connected April 23, 1989. Suddenly, Atwater, who grew up watching the Cowboys connected television, was being tutored by Waters, who played 12 years astatine information for Dallas.
“The things helium would accidental to me, I wouldn’t question,” Atwater said.
Said Waters: “It was similar a coaching imagination to person idiosyncratic who was a sponge — everything I said, helium listened to and paid attraction to and you emotion players similar that. He played each crippled astatine specified a precocious level. He was physically much ascendant and cipher could artifact him and cipher could out-run him. We gave him a batch of work and helium took it on.”
Atwater was an contiguous starter and contiguous contributor — 129 tackles and 3 interceptions arsenic a rookie. He was a Pro Bowl subordinate by Year 2 and All-Pro by Year 3.
“An all-around subordinate — successful the run, successful the pass, however his teammates loved him and however helium contributed,” said existent Broncos antiaircraft coordinator Ed Donatell, the team’s secondary manager from 1995-99.
Four of the apical 5 picks successful the ’89 draught are successful the Hall of Fame: Aikman (No. 1) and Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders (Nos. 3-5). But from Nos. 6-335, Atwater has the lone golden jacket. Sitting successful his bureau adorned with pictures of his playing days, Atwater is presented the database of Class of ’89 Hall of Famers.
“Wow!” helium said. “I ever look backmost and spot draught picks who were expected to bash monumental things, but their careers didn’t enactment retired for immoderate reason. I was 1 of those fortunate to travel into this (Broncos) environment.”
Lucky and fortunate? Sure. But Atwater besides had the freakish athleticism and the enactment ethic and want-to engrained connected those agelong autobus rides and abbreviated walks successful St. Louis.
“I support saying it — helium ne'er fto you down,” Waters said. “He’s who you would privation your lad to be.”