During 10 years with the Denver Broncos, Steve Atwater made his mark on the franchise and the NFL as one of the hardest-hitting safeties ever. In recognition of his exceptional talent, Atwater became a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2020, which is the third time he's been a finalist. As the final vote approaches, DenverBroncos.com will speak with a number of people who experienced Atwater's impact on the game firsthand.
We continue the series with Hall of Fame wide receiver James Lofton. Lofton, an eight-time Pro Bowler, was the NFL's all-time leader in receiving yards when he retired after the 1993 season and is a member of the NFL 1980s All-Decade Team. From 1989 to 1992, Lofton was a member of the Bills and faced off against Atwater and the Broncos three times in that span, including in the 1991 AFC Championship Game. In part because of that experience, Lofton believes Atwater should be inducted in 2020.
Now, in his own words, here is why Lofton believes Atwater deserves to hit it big and be elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"In the AFC Championship Game, in Buffalo, it was a game we ended up winning 10-7. I caught a little hitch on the sideline and whoever the corner was kind of spun me around, and Steve came and hit me flush in my face. Didn't knock me over and the next guy tackled me. We're running the no-huddle offense, so I get up. And I'm lined up right near our sideline, and everybody's yelling at me. I just run the play, [and then] line up for the next play, and I hear, 'Loft, stop!' I go, 'What are they talking about?' Then I felt something, and blood was just dripping down my nose onto my shoes. He had broken my nose. ... This little hump right here, the reason I can't smell is because of Steve Atwater. ...
"[My admiration for Steve] was already there. It's funny how you are drawn to players you are competing against because of a kind of a quirk. My wife is from Arkansas. Where'd he play? University of Arkansas. So when he comes into the league, I'm not playing the Broncos every year, but I watch him play and I watch how physical he is. I had a coach in Green Bay that when we played against somebody like a Steve Atwater — we played against Doug Plank with the Bears and a couple other big hitters — Lew Carpenter would say, 'You better get one of those chin straps and double up with the double straps on it.' That's the type of player that Steve Atwater was. You knew when you got off the bus that he was going to be coming after you. And I just thought — and I've been a Hall of Fame selector, this will be my third year. He's just one of the guys that is always high on my list. I think hopefully this year he has another shot at it. I just have a lot of admiration for him as a player. He was big, he was fast, he was strong. He could do everything that today's outside linebackers do, and he did it when he was playing safety. ...
"[Back then, safeties] were enforcers. Steve, now, with the way he played the game probably would not earn any money every week because he'd have to dole it out in fines. ... But he was just a tremendous player. He had great speed, great tackling ability, great ball skills. He was everything that you wanted. ...
"When I look at guys [for Hall of Fame induction], I look at three loose criteria:
"Did he have a 10- or 12-year career?
"Check that off, yes.
"For four or five of those years, did you consider him one of the two or three best at his position in the league?
"Check that one off again, yes.
"Did he give his team a chance to play for championships — not necessarily did they win championships, but did he give his team the chance to play for championships?
"You check that one off again.
"So, in my mind, he checks off all those first three boxes. Now you start to compare him against not just his positional group, but the rest of the Hall of Famers who are in there. When he's down to those last 15, that's who he's now being compared against. ... And Steve is one of those humble players. He's not out there pounding his chest talking about how great he was, but he really was great."
Photos from Broncos legend Steve Atwater's Ring of Fame career with the Broncos.