MIAMI — Back in 2005, a decade and a half before Steve Atwater and Troy Polamalu were to be elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the two men met on a football field in Hawaii.
They were playing in a flag-football game, which is more than a little ironic considering the way both Atwater and Polamalu were known for playing the game.
Atwater was several years removed from an 11-year career in which he tallied eight Pro Bowl nods and two first-team All-Pro appearances. Polamalu was just a couple of years into his own career and was on the heels of his first career Pro Bowl nod.
"He came up to me and introduced himself to me and said he really enjoyed my game back then and he really respected my career," Atwater said Saturday in Miami. "I told him he was an amazing player at the time too and wished him well."
Polamalu did just fine from that point forward, as he compiled a career with the Steelers that featured eight Pro Bowl berths and four first-team All-Pro nods.
"What do you know? We ended up going into the Hall of Fame in the same class," Atwater said.
The two safeties joined Edgerrin James, Steve Hutchinson and Isaac Bruce as the newest Modern-Era Hall of Famers.
"It's a dream come true honestly," said Polamalu of going into the Hall with Atwater. "We met in 2005, and I was just talking to him how much I looked up to him. Him, he comes from the same era as Ronnie [Lott] and Dennis Smith and a lot of these other great safeties — Joey Browner, Dave Fulcher. It's just amazing. You look at Steve and it's like, 'Man, he played safety.' And then you look at me and I'm like, 'Yeah, I guess I played safety, too.' He's just a physical specimen. Just to be able to be enshrined with him is a tremendous honor. It's somebody I've looked up to on and off the field, and [I'm] definitely blessed."
That doesn't mean they were the exact same type of player, although Polamalu made plenty of plays against the run during his Steelers career.
"I could never do the things that he did," Polamalu said. "I've tried and usually [got] run over doing stuff like that."
Atwater said he was "honored" to join Polamalu in this year's class — and Atwater certainly paid his dues before being elected.
Twice, Atwater was named a finalist only to get a call from Hall of Fame president David Baker to let him know that he wouldn't yet be enshrined in Canton, Ohio.
A year ago, he thought he'd earned a knock on the door, only to learn an earnest member of the housekeeping staff had come to tidy up the room.
This year, there was no question, as Atwater earned the necessary support from the 48-person voting panel to earn a knock and a gold jacket.
"Well, when David knocked on my door it was pretty obvious that it wasn't the maid this time, [unless] it was a very masculine maid," Atwater said. "When I heard the knock on the door, I knew it was time, and I'm extremely honored to go in with all of these fine gentlemen here. It's truly a blessing to be recognized with some of the greats."
Baker, who said it "should be hard to make it into the Hall of Fame," argued that the knock sometimes means more after a bit of a wait.
"This was the year we could knock on his door and provide the really good news," Baker said. "He was excited, his family was excited, and I'm sure all of Denver's excited."
Though it took more than a decade to elect the first-team member of the NFL's 1990s All-Decade team, it's clear the Smiling Assassin deserved a spot in Canton.
"He was a game-changing player," Baker said. "He's a wonderful, kind-hearted guy — unless he's got pads on."
Atwater showed his off-the-field character Saturday, as even in the wake of his election he deflected the spotlight to his former teammates.
"I'm not just representing myself," Atwater said. "I'm representing all my guys that I played with — [former Broncos] Dennis Smith, Tyrone Braxton, Mike Harden — we didn't play together, but all those guys I'm representing — Alfred Williams, Ray Crockett, my boys. It's going to be a great day for all of us. I'm really honored and appreciative that this is happening."
Alongside Polamalu and the other newest members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Atwater will certainly enjoy the long-awaited chapter to his story career.
"Excitement more than anything else," Atwater said of his feelings. "I guess there is some relief, because although I tried to play it kind of calm and cool, it was kind of stressful situation just wondering if it would be this year or next year or maybe never. … I'm extremely honored. You see I'm repping Mr. B [the late Pat Bowlen] right here. I wish he was here to have this special moment with us — he and my mom. My dad is here, my wife, my kids. My dad's not in town, but he's alive and he's going to enjoy this with me and all of Broncos Country. All of you are my friends in the media here in Denver."
"We're going to do it up. We're going to do it right."