A little more than two years ago, back when Steve Atwater was just a Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist, he hoped for his moment of triumph from a hotel room in Atlanta.
But instead of getting that with a booming knock from the Hall's president and CEO, David Baker, he got the disappointing phone call that he'd received once before. It was not to be his year.
As he got on the bus to leave the hotel with other finalists who had not gotten the good news, he noticed that his friend John Lynch, another former safety and former Bronco, was not there. His heart leapt.
"I didn't see John on the bus, so I assumed he got in," Atwater recalled Friday, "and I was like, Yes! Finally, John got in!"
Though Lynch hadn't actually gotten the knock either, that moment sums up Atwater well. Even at a personally discouraging moment, the thought of someone else being on the other end of that spectrum could still put a smile on his face.
Joy is a fundamental element of who Atwater is — and whether it comes from himself or someone else is practically irrelevant.
After making a legacy in pro football as the "Smiling Assassin" because of his incredible hitting prowess, Atwater has always kept the "Smiling" part. In his role with the Broncos as Fan Development Manager, he could very well be called the "Smiling Associate."
And in about two weeks, Atwater will be the "Smiling Enshrinee" as a member of the Class of 2020.
"I like being happy and I like being around happy people, and I like making people happy," Atwater said.
It's been a long time coming for Atwater: 22 years since his career ended, five years since he first became a finalist and more than a year since he was elected to be a Hall of Famer. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the Hall of Fame had to postpone its 2020 enshrinement festivities until 2021.
Atwater said he's not been bothered by the wait. He's become accustomed to Murphy's Law — "whatever can go wrong will go wrong" — and so he's taken the delay in stride.
"It really hasn't taken anything away from this experience, and actually we've gotten more time to, I think, get more enthusiasm for it," Atwater said. "Although my father won't be there with us, I got a chance to visit him last week and he's in a good place, so I'm happy — and I think I would have been happy regardless."
In the meantime, Atwater's had plenty of time to think about the fun to come: the enshrinement speech he'll give, the ride through downtown Canton, Ohio in the Hall of Fame's parade and, of course, the Gold Jacket Ceremony.
"I've witnessed a couple of them, attended a couple of them in the past, and that just seems like kind of the initiation where the players themselves, the coaches, all the Hall of Famers, are welcoming you into the club," Atwater said. "… [T]hat seems like it was absolutely the coolest thing, to be welcomed into the fraternity that way — and I say fraternity, but welcomed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame team that way."
That event will be followed by a party in Atwater's honor — something he's also looking forward to, though he demurs at calling it his party.
"I don't like saying 'my party,'" Atwater said. "It's our party. We're all going to have a good time. … We're going to have a good time and it's just kind of a celebration for all of us. Although I'm getting the award, it represents — I think this is representative of much more than me."
That one of the people Atwater will be celebrating with over that weekend will be Lynch — someone who can understand the pain of waiting so long for this honor and the joy of finally receiving it — is poetic justice.
Early in Lynch's career, he received a VHS tape with highlights of Atwater from Herm Edwards, then Tampa Bay's defensive backs coach. Edwards told him to study the film on the Broncos' star safety because of some skills he felt they shared.
As Lynch began to emerge as a great safety in his own right, he too shaped a Hall of Fame path. His wait was excruciating, too. He was a finalist eight times before finally getting the knock on his door signifying his election to the Hall of Fame. So that they will be in Canton together, though in different classes, will carry a lot of meaning for the two former Broncos safeties.
"I feel like I have a lot in common with him because he was fierce and physical on the field and not someone you wanted to mess with — someone I admired greatly," Lynch said last week. "But he's one of the sweetest, kindest people you'll meet off the field. I haven't known Steve for a long, long time, but I think our friendship has gotten closer and closer of late. I was pulling for him, he was pulling for me, and I mean that in the most genuine sense. We knew that. So I'm thrilled for him, I'm thrilled for his family.
"And he's in the class of '20, I'm in '21, but I guess I'll get to experience moving forward here with Canton — once you're in that club, you're in that club. It's pretty special. I mean that. I'm getting chills right now thinking about Steve Atwater."
Of course, Lynch couldn't help but say that with a smile.