Steve Atwater hit the NFL with a bang. That was how he played and that’s the impact he left on the game from his rookie season in 1989 until his final game in Denver 11 years later, when he showed up at Mile High Stadium wearing the wrong color jersey and felt a sadness like he’d never known before.
In between Atwater became one of the greatest safeties of his era, a 1990s all-decade performer and half of what is considered one of the hardest-hitting safety tandems ever assembled. When he and Dennis Smith joined forces, they brought to Denver a knockout punch that newly-arrived defensive coordinator Wade Phillips used to his — and to the Broncos — greatest advantage.
In the first of the Talk of Fame Network’s “5 Games’’ podcast this week, Atwater recalls that rookie season when he arrived in Denver unsure how Phillips would use him. What the two-time All-America and converted Arkansas quarterback soon learned was that he would, in many ways, become a battering ram who helped transform Denver’s 27th ranked defense into the NFL’s seventh in one year.
“When I got to the NFL I didn’t know what my responsibilities would be,’’ Atwater recalled of that rookie season. “It ended up being a really good fit for me in the box. I was like a linebacker on third down.’’
At 6-3, 218 pounds, Atwater was like few safeties the NFL had ever seen. His size was intimidating and effective, allowing him to lead the team in tackles as a rookie with 129 and helping to transform a team that had gone 3-11 the previous season into the stingiest defensive team in the NFL. Denver finished the 1989 season as the No. 1 ranked scoring defense in football — a defense that powered the Broncos all the way to a surprising appearance in Super Bowl XXIV and a showdown with Joe Montana’s San Francisco 49ers.
But before they got there they had to face the Cleveland Browns in the AFC Championship Game, a team with which they had a long history that Atwater knew little about. He’d heard of John Elway’s “Drive’’ and Earnest Byner’s untouched goal-line fumble as he appeared to be heading for a touchdown with 65 seconds to play in another Cleveland playoff loss of course, but he says “they didn’t have any impact on our game. If we didn’t execute (their remarkable turnaround) would all be for naught.’’
They did, so when they arrived to face the 49ers in the Super Bowl, Atwater was a rookie without a care in the world. He had made an impact all season, finishing second to future Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas in the Rookie of the Year balloting, and was headed to the game every kid who ever played football dreams of. What happened next?
“It was the worst day of my life,’’ Atwater tells our “5 Games’’ podcast listeners.
To hear why and learn what is the lasting impact of losing the biggest game of your life, just click one of the links below to hear the first of five straight Talk of Fame Network’s free podcast with Steve Atwater.
You can hear Steve all week discussing his remarkable career, his three Super Bowl appearances, his sad last game in Denver and the night he put a hit on a guy called “The Nigerian Nightmare’’ that nearly put the latter to sleep, or any of our previous “5 Games’’ podcasts with one click below.