Steve Atwater on reaching Canton: "A big weight was lifted off my shoulders"
If you didn't listen to your mother when she told you "good things happen to those who wait," I have a suggestion: Listen to Steve Atwater.
The former Denver safety waited 21 years -- five years of retirement and 16 long years of eligibility as a modern-era candidate -- to reach the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And while there were times he wondered if he'd ever cross the finish line, it doesn’t really matter now.
Because he did. He was chosen last weekend to the Hall’s Class of 2020.
“I was extremely surprised,” Atwater told me Friday. “And I was extremely happy at the same time because I was hoping that, at some point, it would happen.
“I had already figured out in my own head what if I didn’t get in this year … I played it out 1,000 times ... and I did worry. I was concerned about maybe not getting in and going over to the senior pool because it’s extremely difficult there.
“But to finally get in felt like a big weight was lifted off my shoulders. Man, I still can’t believe it. It’s surreal.”
Atwater wasn’t an upset choice, but he wasn’t a favorite, either. While he was a Top-10 finisher a year ago, it was only his second time as a finalist in 15 years. He’d been one in 2016, then disappeared for two years, only to resurface in 2019 and make the first cut from 15 to 10.
But that happened in 2016 to Washington tackle Joe Jacoby who, in his first year as a finalist and 18th year of eligibility, made it to the Top 10, too. That was a surprise. So was this: His candidacy didn’t move forward. It moved back, with Jacoby failing to make the Top 10 in his last two years as a finalist.
That wasn’t the case with Atwater, and there are a number of reasons why. First, he was a first-team all-decade safety from the 1990s, and only three first-team position players from the all-decade teams from the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s (Atwater, safety LeRoy Butler and Drew Pearson) hadn’t been inducted in Canton.
Now that list is down to two.
Second, he played the position du jour. Five years ago, I wouldn’t say that. But where voters once paid little or no attention to pure safeties, now they can’t get enough of them. There have been more the past four years (9, including the Centennial Class) than there were the first 54 (7) and as many (7) in the last two.
And, third, the time was right. Where we had six first-ballot choices the past two years and eight in the last three, that wasn’t going to happen this time. Only one (safety Troy Polamalu) was named, which left the ballot wide open. Result: Three of last year’s Top-10 finishers (Steve Hutchinson, Edgerrin James and Atwater) rushed in.
Of course, we know that now. We didn’t know that then. And until we did, Atwater spent last Saturday wondering what would happen next.
After having brunch that day with his wife and Broncos' GM John Elway, Atwater returned to his hotel room to wait. He’d been advised that Hall-of-Fame president and CEO David Baker would be making phone calls or knocking on doors between 2:30 and 3:30 p.m., so Atwater stayed put and tried to prepare himself for the news.
As he tells it, it was 3:12 that afternoon – yes, he remembers the exact time – that his cellphone rang and his heart sank. He didn’t want to reach for the phone because he knew what it meant. So a friend in the room looked at it instead and told him who was calling: It was Broncos’ reporter Mike Klis of Denver’s 9News.
Atwater exhaled. Then he hit “decline.”
“I was so glad it wasn’t (Baker),” he said. “I thought: ‘C’mon, what’s going on right now?’ Then 10-to-15 minutes later there was a knock at the door … like somebody beating down the door. And I knew right then that this is it.’
“It was a beautiful day, a beautiful day. It wasn’t too long. The wait was just right. I’m honored, and I’m humbled. It’s a really great honor to be acknowledged for what I did on the field.”
Since then, life for Steve Atwater has changed. His phone rings off the hook. He’s unable to return all the messages and calls he receives. His next-door neighbors put up streamers congratulating him. And he gets stopped by people who don’t know him … but do now that he’s in the Hall.
Then there’s the local 7-11 near him.
“I’ve been going in there for 2-1/2 years,” he said, “and been saying ‘hello’ to them. Now, they’re asking me for my autograph for the first time. It’s really cool.”
What’s not, of course, is that where Atwater, Hutchinson, Polamalu, James and Isaac Bruce advanced to Canton, 10 other finalists did not – including tackle Tony Boselli, guard Alan Faneca and safety John Lynch. Boselli has been a Top-10 finalist the past four years and Faneca the past three. Lynch has been a Top-10 finalist four times, including this year.
Like Atwater, all are wondering if and when they make it.
“My advice?” said Atwater. “Just stay positive about it. You can’t assume anything. I tried not to. I knew it could go either way. I definitely couldn’t get cocky because I just didn’t know.
“I would tell them to keep a positive attitude about everything and support the guys who’ve gotten in. I think all those guys will get in eventually – John Lynch, Tony and LeRoy (Butler). Because something close to 90 percent of all finalists eventually get in at some point, right?”
Correct. But it’s easier to offer those suggestions from where Atwater sits today than, say, where Boselli and Lynch are. But it’s interesting that Atwater mentioned Butler because the two were the 1990s’ first-team all-decade safeties. Atwater was the big hitter. Butler wasn’t. But he could cover the entire field – the first safety to produce 20 career interceptions and 20 career sacks.
The former Green Bay star this year made the finals for the first time in 14 years of eligibility, and, like Boselli, is racing a clock with six years of modern-era eligibility left. Nevertheless, Atwater is convinced that Butler, like Boselli, will join him in Canton.
“I was surprised he wasn’t getting more attention until now,” he said of Butler. “Because he was such a great player. He was versatile and fit their (the Packers’) defense perfectly. He was a great tackler, a solid tackler, and had really good hands. Plus he was kind of the quarterback of that defense.
“So I was surprised it took him so long to become a finalist. And I thought with John Lynch, being a finalist for seven years straight, he’d be the next (safety) to go in. But with LeRoy, I’m so happy he was finalist. Hopefully, he’ll get some momentum and get in next year. Hopefully, they’ll put in two more safeties next year.”
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