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'It's a small way for me to say "thank you"': Steve Atwater asks Dennis Smith to present him for enshrinement in Hall of Fame

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Nearly two decades after Steve Atwater and Dennis Smith manned the Broncos' defensive backfield, the two men will be reunited on a stage in Canton, Ohio this August.

Atwater announced Thursday that when he's enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame later this year, Smith will present him for induction.

"It is a big honor," Atwater said in Denver. "I hope it is. I hope he looks at it like that. But for me, he was the guy I had in mind all along, just because when I came in the league, he really spent a lot of time getting me up to speed and sharing things with me as a player that I never would've known how to go about the game [and] the right mindset to have."

Atwater and Smith started alongside each other for six seasons and made the Pro Bowl together in 1990, 1991 and 1993.

"Just watching him play, seeing how fast he played, how fearless he was when he went in to make tackles or make an interception when he covered one-on-one [was impressive]," Atwater said. "He was great in man coverage, too. He played some slot corner for a while as a 6-[foot]-3, 205[-pound] safety. That takes some skills to do that."

Smith, now a Broncos Ring of Famer, was entering the ninth year of his career when the Broncos drafted Atwater in the first round of the 1989 NFL Draft. He proved invaluable to Atwater as the Arkansas product acclimated himself to the league.

"I just learned so much from him," Atwater said. "It's a small way for me to say 'thank you' for how much time he spent getting me up to speed and inspiring me. Just watching him play, it was inspiring."

Atwater said he hopes Smith, Randy Gradishar, Karl Mecklenburg, John Lynch, Peyton Manning and Rod Smith will someday join him in the Hall of Fame.

"This franchise unfortunately has been overlooked for many years and fortunately we've gotten some players in over the last several years," Atwater said. "We've got to keep it going, because we still are very much underrepresented in the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the history that we've had here with the organization [and] with the winning ways we've had with the Orange Crush defense. How could they have not one person in the Pro Football [Hall of Fame]? To this day, I don't understand that. Hopefully in the coming years that will be taken care of and we'll get some guys in."

This year, at least, Smith's trip to the Hall of Fame will be to help Atwater unveil his bronze bust during the enshrinement ceremony.

Atwater had the initial measurements taken for his bust on Monday, and he joked that he made at least one request to the sculptor.

"The back of my head has a little slope off the back," Atwater said laughing. "I asked them if they could smooth it out for me so it doesn't look so crazy."

Once completed and unveiled, Atwater's bust will sit in the Hall of Fame with the rest of the Class of 2020. Should the Hall continue its previous structure for organizing the busts, the Class of 2020 will reside next to the Class of 2019's busts. That class, of course, includes Pat Bowlen and Champ Bailey.

"It really means a lot," said Atwater when asked about his bust residing near Bowlen's. "Mr. Bowlen was a great man. I learned a lot from him, just from watching how he interacted with people, how he never wanted the limelight. … When he got in last year, I was hoping he would make it to the ceremony, but obviously he didn't. But I was just thinking about how nice it would've been to be able to hoist him on our shoulders, be able to carry him into the Hall of Fame on our shoulders. And he would be [like], 'No, put me down, put me down. I don't want any of this attention.' [And I'd say,] 'Nope, it's your day. It's your day, Mr. B.'

"It's definitely going to be special to have a bust in there next to Mr. Bowlen. He's, again, a great man who I try to live by some of his principles. I learned a lot from him. He was not just the owner of the team, he was a friend. He was like a mentor, like a father figure — everything wrapped up in one. He was a great guy. It'll be an honor."

Regardless of where Atwater's bust is placed, it will serve as a reminder of one of the great defensive players in NFL history.

"I was very happy for him," Head Coach Vic Fangio said. "It's nice to get a guy that was known for hitting the hell out of people in the Hall of Fame. That's who should be in the Hall of Fame. I didn't get to see Steve play a lot, although I was in the league his entire career. But I was in the NFC and obviously he was in the AFC. So I didn't see him a whole lot, but when I did, you'd notice it. He'd make those hits and lead the team with his enthusiasm and effort and was obviously a great player."

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