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Hitting It Big: John Elway explains how Steve Atwater changed the game


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, will speak with a number of people who experienced Atwater's impact on the game firsthand.

We start off with his former teammate John Elway, who hardly needs any introduction. Elway, of course, was a nine-time Pro Bowler, a two-time Super Bowl champion and the 1987 NFL MVP. He was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004 and was recently named one of the NFL 100 All-Time Team's 10 quarterbacks.

Elway describes, in his own words, why Atwater deserves to hit it big and be elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"What made him is he could play in the passing game and also come up and support in the run game and be punishing in the run game. The mentality that he brought when people played us, the physicality that he brought, was intimidating for other teams. Plus, you look at his size and how big he was, he was an intimidator. He was 'The Silent Assassin' because he was such a nice guy, as you know. But when you got him on the football field, he was very physical. Him and Dennis Smith at safety were a great tandem.

"There were not many safeties better than Steve Atwater when he was playing. The intimidation and the size … [he was] the total package, a 225-pound safety, where back in those days, were the size of a linebacker.

"He was a guy that revolutionized the safety position. He was a guy that was big, physical, could run and cover the pass but who also, in run support, was intimidating. He could do it all. Obviously, I'm biased because I played with him, but he had all the tools. He revolutionized that position because of the physicality that he brought to it.

"I remember him getting knocked out before the fourth-down play [in Super Bowl XXXII]. He ran into Ray Crockett or Randy Hilliard, or whoever he ran into. I remember laying there and going, 'He knocked himself out.' He wasn't in there for the fourth-down play, but fortunately it worked out.

"Exactly, [it was like the Helicopter play]. And every game he went out there, that's how he approached it. Not only that, but he was a tremendous guy — a great leader. His goal was to win football games and to win championships.

"He was a great contributor that got us to those Super Bowls — because, really, defense is what got us there. We played so well on the defensive side and he was a huge part of that."

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