DENVER • It was 1989 when Steve Atwater met his football hero.
It was Tuesday when I met mine.
Atwater — whose Super 32 performance was the trophy-less equal to Von Miller’s MVP work in Super Bowl 50; the fearless ringleader of twin Super Bowl-winning defenses; one of the 10-best safeties ever to play, per six-decade evaluator Gil Brandt; the smile behind the smash — had scored tickets to the NBA All-Star game in Houston. There, across the way, he spotted his guy.
“Imagine you’re 21, 22 years old — and there’s Ronnie Lott,” Atwater said Tuesday. “I stopped in my tracks. I walked over and met him. And he was the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet.”
Imagine you’re a grown adult — and there’s Steve Atwater. And he’s the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet.
I was never a jersey guy. It seemed silly to wear another man’s name when 12-year-old me knew, someday, obviously, others would wear mine. (The first of many wrong sports predictions.) I owned only one — Atwater’s No. 27. Back then, the reasons Atwater was my guy were football and competitive reasons. He made eight Pro Bowls, 173 tackles in one season and built a career worthy of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But our priorities, and what matters, change. Now the reasons are life reasons.
Steve Atwater is 50, a successful real estate manager, a loving husband and father. As a college freshman, he spotted Letha across the Arkansas campus and told her, “Before we leave here I’ll make you my girlfriend.” They’ll make it 27 years of marriage in December. They have four children — 25-year-old Stephen, who played football at Georgetown and graduated from Stetson Law School with designs on becoming an NFL agent; Di Andre, 23, who played at Princeton; Paris, 21, who played one season at Pomona-Pitzer (Calif.) and is an intern with Altitude 950 AM; Malaysia, 16, the safest daughter and sister in the Denver area. The Atwaters recently moved back to Denver, where you will see Steve often in the coming years. He's starting his third career, this one as a fan liaison and analyst with the Broncos, with whom he played 10 punishing seasons, and as a radio co-host with Brandon Krisztal at "Orange and Blue 760" AM.
Steve Atwater brings a pen and notepad to work. He picks the brains of players and coaches for information on the team he once starred for. Last week, he spent 10 minutes with a tiny Broncos fan he’d never met — and who didn’t know who he was — simply because he can.
All of that is why I bought a No. 27 jersey. I just didn’t know it yet.
“Life is about how you treat people. It’s not about football. This is just a game,” Atwater said in a long chat last week. “When you get done playing football, you’ve still got to deal with people for the rest of your life. You treat people like crap, you’re going to be by yourself. That’s no fun.”
Why does he encourage others to pay it forward?
“Dennis Smith and Mike Harden,” he said, naming two contemporaries at safety. “They did it for me.”
There is a certain anxiety inherent with meeting someone you admired as a kid. If they’re not the person you envisioned, it’s going to tickle. If they are, well, you leave the room with a fist pump.
I left with a fist pump after meeting the man who trounced Christian Okoye on a Monday night, whose Raider hating remains timeless (“Oakland, Vegas, wherever,” he said), who capped Colorado’s first Super Bowl title with a jarring hit on Green Bay's Robert Brooks (and, on the snap before the final snap, also succeeded in knocking out himself and teammate Randy Hilliard).
“What I remember about that play is what my family told me afterward, that they were crying,” Atwater said. “I was down on the field and not moving. But I remember everything after.”
NFL Films ranked Atwater No. 9 among history’s most feared tacklers. That seems low.
Atwater doesn’t know how many concussions he sustained over 11 seasons at safety in the NFL.
“Back in the day, they used to say, ‘You were dinged.’ I didn’t even know what a concussion was,” he said. “They’d say: ‘How many fingers I got up? Three. OK, you’re good. Get in there.’”
And if Atwater knew then what we know now, he still would allow his kids to play football.
“I would probably start them a little later than I did. A lot of times people start their kids at 6, 7, 8 years old. I probably would have waited until 12 or 13, let their brain develop a little more," he said. "But I definitely would still let them do it. I would make sure the program they’re in is following the correct protocol. It’s a risky game, and you have to know that going in.”
I could listen to Atwater tell football tales for hours. Maybe you could, too.
On the Broncos as 11-point underdogs to the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII: “On Friday night we were watching film and it was like, ‘We got it. We got these guys. We don’t need any more film.’ Neil Smith, Alfred Williams, Tyrone Braxton, J-Mob (John Mobley) — we knew if we just do what the coaches told us, we wouldn’t be in trouble. Even against Brett Favre.”
On playing at Mile High in Week 4 of the 1999 season, as a member of the N.Y. Jets: “One of the worst days of my life. I’m used to the national anthem and looking at the south stands. Now I’m all turned around. I was totally uncomfortable. It was like I’m looking across the field at my family. I felt like a traitor. And that was the game when ‘TD’ got hurt (with a knee injury that effectively ended Terrell Davis’ career).”
On his central role in the Broncos-Raiders rivalry: “If the Raiders called today and said, ‘Steve, man, we’re going to give you $2 million to put on this black and gray,’ I wouldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it.”
I told Steve Atwater that I would start a GoFundMe page if it comes to that.
“You won't have to,” he said. “When I see that Raiders (logo) it still does something to me.”
Atwater, in Canton on Saturday to witness TD’s induction, was a finalist last year for the Hall of Fame. He should be a no-brainer — for his merits (first-team All-1990s, as voted on by actual Hall of Fame voters), punishing style of play (Atwater said Ravens great Ed Reed is the safety he’s admired the most since his own playing days) and character (which doesn’t factor, but should).
With my recorder turned off, Atwater added the only credential he needs: “Watch the film.”
We all did, and it gets even better after meeting him.