With family, friends and former teammates proudly looking on from the crowd at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium, Steve Atwater stood onstage to give his enshrinement speech and chose to share the spotlight with all of them.
He did not detail the path that made him a Hall of Famer per se, but instead told us by thanking those who made it all possible, and with that, he made it a memorable one for Broncos Country.
Without further ado, read on for some of the highlights from Atwater's words from Saturday evening.
Though Atwater crescendoed to reach this point in his speech, I'll choose to lead with it, because he delivered such a powerful moment, thanking "the people whose love means, man, more than I can ever say," as he put it.
First off, he thanked his mother and father, highlighting the sacrifices they made to support him and the lessons they taught him.
"To my mom, Jessie Atwater, who I know is looking down on us and is very happy for this very moment: I want to say to you, mom, thank you for the sacrifices that you made, for always loving me and showing me how to never give up on those you love," Atwater said. "I love you and I miss you, mom. …
"Dad, I always knew that you loved me unconditionally, and I know how much you sacrificed to send me to Lutheran North High School, and that laid the foundation for everything that followed. Thank you for believing in me and for always being there for me."
He also expressed his gratitude with kind words for his siblings, extended relatives and his children — which can be read in full here — followed by a memorable part of his speech for his wife of 30 years:
"The first time I saw you walking across the campus, I knew we'd be together," Atwater said. "When I finally got the courage to tell you, you looked at me like you had a whole lot of brothers who told you to stay away from those athletes. But we became friends first, and our relationship blossomed into something that I cherish dearly. Letha, you are strong, loving and giving, and I thank you for being by my side throughout this journey. I love you, sweetheart."
Former Broncos safety Steve Atwater unveils his Pro Football Hall of Fame bust and gives his speech as he is enshrined in the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio on August 7, 2021.
Atwater also dedicated a significant portion of his speech to the Broncos as an organization, beginning with late team owner Pat Bowlen, whom Atwater joins as a member of the Hall of Fame.
"I would like to express my gratitude to the Denver Broncos organization, Mr. Bowlen and to the Bowlen family," Atwater said. "Mr. B was a kind and generous man who knew how to make people feel special. I appreciate all that he did for our team. What a phenomenal leader he was.
"Mac Freeman, Joe Ellis — man, what can I say? When my wife and I wanted to move back to Denver, you made a place for me in the Broncos organization. And Mac, you must have some kind of crystal ball because you predicted that one day I'd be standing on this stage. Thank you both, from the bottom of my heart."
Atwater also later thanked the Broncos coaches and other staff members who helped him along the way, giving a special shoutout to Steve "Greek" Antonopulos, congratulating him on his recent retirement after 45 years with the Broncos.
But what says it all is how Atwater chose to end his speech:
"And finally, thank you, Broncos Country!" Atwater said. "I love you all. God bless!"
TEAMMATES & COACHES
For Broncos fans, the moment that may have been the most moving was when Atwater asked for all his former teammates to stand up to be recognized. He started naming players he saw, and NFL Network cameras bounced throughout the crowd to put the spotlight on them.
"For all of my teammates who I played with over the years, will all of you please stand up?" Atwater asked. "John Elway, Terrell Davis, Dennis Smith, Rod Smith, Ray Crockett, Alfred Williams, Karl Mecklenburg, Mark Schlereth, Neil Smith, 'Romo', Habib, Keith, Rondell, Wyman, House, Randy — all of you guys! Stand up! It was truly and honor to play with each and every one of you. You all have touched my life in one way or another, both on and off the field, and I appreciate you all."
He also expressed special recognition for the former teammate he chose to be his presenter, Dennis Smith.
"Dennis, my appreciation and respect for you cannot be overstated, man," Atwater said. "I learned so much from you. Thank you for inspiring me to be fearless, my brother."
And beyond the players, Atwater made sure the coaches who helped him become a Hall of Famer received their recognition — high school coaches, college coaches and those with the Broncos.
"A lot of coaches contributed to my development, both on and off the field," Atwater said. "Dan Reeves, Wade Phillips, Charlie Waters — thank you. Rich Smith, Alvin Reynolds, Greg Robinson and my lifetime friend, Ed Donatell, and of course Mike Shanahan, the most-organized and disciplined person I have ever met in my life, and obviously the coach who led us to those back-to-back Super Bowl victories — thank you for being amazing coaches, for believing in me and for your guidance over the years."