AURORA, Colo. — On Thursday morning, Steve Atwater did his best to put to a Hall of Fame career into words that could cross generations.
With dozens of high school students from Overland High School and schools in Arkansas and Ohio listening closely, Atwater participated in the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Heart of a Hall of Famer" interview series. The program aims to shed light on the path of some of the game's best players in history and how those align with the organization's values: commitment, integrity, courage, respect and excellence.
For Atwater, who was one of the games' most dominant and fearsome safeties, what he did off the field mattered more than what he achieved on it, and that's what he hoped to impart on these young adults.
"It really is an honor and a pleasure to be here before you all today," Atwater said. "I remember sitting in those seats — obviously not in those seats — but being in your seats in high school and leading up to high school and just wondering what I would do with my life. … I'm here today to try to inspire you guys to go for your dreams, in whatever area that is. Yeah, it's good to look good and all that good stuff, but it's not about being cool, it's not about wearing the best clothes. It's about being the best person that you can be. Because right now, you're looking up to me and someone's going to be looking up to you. Someone's always going to be looking up to you — your younger brother, your younger sister, your little cousin. Somebody's looking up to you. And how are you going to lead them?
"… We're trying to make this society a better place, and the only way we can do it is with everyone's help. I encourage you guys to be your best. … You guys, I know you want to make a difference. … Hopefully I can leave you with some lessons that will help you in your lives, the way so many people did with me coming up."
Over the next hour, Atwater detailed how he traveled from his childhood in St. Louis to college at the University of Arkansas to the Denver Broncos. He discussed the pain of defeat at the doorstep of a championship and the glory once he and his teammates triumphed when they returned to the Super Bowl.
That path was not always such a clear one, but Atwater said he fully committed once he realized in college that the NFL was truly within reach.
"I don't think it was until one of my buddies from college, he got drafted in the second round to the New York Giants," Atwater said. "… I was like, 'Wow, I think I can play on a similar level as him,' and I got inspired. My wife, she'll tell you, I was going out a little bit, I would drink a little bit here and there. After that, I was like, I'm not drinking anything, I'm not going out on Friday nights. I'm in my dorm room studying and trying to take care of business, because that's the kind of focus I needed, and I was able to make it happen. Some people's journey isn't that drastic. Some people don't have to do all that. Some people can just make it because they have the skills, they have the discipline and everything. But for me, I felt like I needed to really get focused in on what I needed to do in the classroom and get body into the best shape of my life, and my mind, too."
Success came quickly to Atwater once he did make it to the NFL, but so too did adversity. The Broncos made it to the Super Bowl in his rookie season but then suffered a devastating loss to the 49ers. That challenge prompted Atwater to dig deeper to become a leader, even early in his career.
"Overcoming that, it was quite difficult for me, just because I had never gotten beat like that before," Atwater said. "I think that in sports, many times the leadership is expected to come from the players on the team who play well, because unfortunately sometimes when players aren't playing well, sometimes guys don't listen. That's just the way it is in football. … Over the years, I had been one of the leaders on my team in college at Arkansas, and I just felt the need to really just speak up when I felt something wasn't right or someone wasn't necessarily giving all their effort. At the same time, I tried to make sure I gave effort — great effort — all of the time. Mind you, I wasn't yelling at people, because a lot of them were bigger than I am, so I had to approach them with respect. And that's another one of the values of the Hall of Fame. … I think many times when you approach people with respect, even if it's something that you may be a little bit afraid to approach people, but if you approach them with respect, many times they'll listen."
Students were able to ask their own questions, and after the panel concluded, they swarmed Atwater to hear more and take photos with one of the game's greats. The memories surely will last a long time, but the wisdom he shared may stick with them even longer.