Doug Ottewill, Editor Mile High Sports Magazine
How might one describe the perfect safety in the game of football?
“If you were drawing up a safety in a lab, it would be easy to say, ‘He’s got this height, this weight, this amount of drive, this amount of speed; he’s got the physique and can deliver the hits.’ That’s easy. But, the hard part of it is what kind of guy is he? What kind of a leader is he? How is he with younger players in the locker room?
“He was top of the line. Not second. Top of the line.”
That’s how Jim Saccomano begins his personal recollection of former Broncos safety Steve Atwater.
Of all people, Saccomano would know. During his 35 years with the Broncos, Saccomano, who’s now the team’s Vice President of Corporate Communications, witnessed every one of Atwater’s 155 games in Denver.
Indeed, Atwater was the perfect player in every way.
At 6-foot-3 and 217 pounds, blessed with speed and agility, Atwater possessed all the tangibles.
Denver’s iconic quarterback John Elway, a teammate for 10 seasons, says Atwater’s combination of speed, strength and athleticism revolutionized the safety position.
“He put fear into any wide receiver coming across the middle,” says Elway.
Atwater’s résumé speaks for itself. Of his 155 games as a Bronco, he started in every one. His eight Pro Bowl selections rank second in franchise history, and twice (1993 and 1995) he led the Broncos in tackles. Second only to Elway, Atwater started in 14 playoff appearances. From the beginning, when Atwater was named the Football Digest NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, to the end, when No. 27 captained the Broncos defense to back-to-back Super Bowl titles, Atwater was the ultimate professional.
In Super Bowl XXXII, Atwater turned in arguably the greatest performance by a safety in Super Bowl history. Against the Packers that day, his six tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and two pass breakups – one of which left three players (including himself) unconscious on the game’s most pivotal play – were vital in securing the Broncos first-ever Lombardi Trophy.
But it was on a Monday night in 1990, when Atwater made a play that will forever define his career. As Kansas City’s Christian Okoye, a 260-pound running back, broke past the line of scrimmage, he met Atwater in a collision that has since been dubbed, “The Hit Heard ‘Round the World.” Despite their difference in size, Okoye was driven backwards, landing flat on his back. The impact could be heard in the upper levels at Mile High Stadium.
Interestingly enough, the Monday Night Football crew had attached a microphone to Atwater that night, so the sound of the hit has become the stuff of legend.
According to Saccomano, however, Atwater was initially reluctant to wear the mic.
That’s just not the type of player he was,” recalls Saccomano. “He never wanted to draw attention to himself. He was all about the team first.”
Your football career comes to an end at some point, and you have to have some kind of career in the real world.