Woody Paige: After long wait, Steve Atwater takes his place in Pro Football Hall of Fame

Aug. 7—Canton, Ohio — For Steve Atwater, induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame was better late than ever.

The Broncos' best safety of all time had to wait his time.

The 54-year-old Atwater, who retired in 1999, was a semifinalist in the balloting by the media selectors for nine years. Last year Steve was voted into the inner sanctum of the Hall of the American game, yet he still had to wait one more year.

The wait finally was over Saturday night on the stage in a stadium with an edifice behind him where Steve's bust will rest for eternity.

"Little bit of a wait," Steve said with a sign to begin his address Saturday soon after sunset.

Great for Steve, even greater for the Gallery in which he belongs.

Atwater spoke for the 100 former and current Hall of Famers surrounding the podium when he said: "I stand here because of all the people who stood beside me."

He said of the Class of 2020 delayed to '21 by the pandemic: "What a squad we've got up here."

Steve, one of the most intense and ferocious players on the field, was one of the classiest and most caring persons in Colorado.

In his eight allotted minutes Steve thanked his immediate and far-reaching family, his late mother, his dad in Missouri, his coaches in high school, college and with the Broncos, presenter and safety mate Dennis Smith and the dozen former Broncos teammates who came to Canton to celebrate Steve.

He thanked the late Pat Bowlen, inducted into the Hall two years ago, and his family. "Mr. B — what a phenomenal leader."

And, finally, he thanked Broncos Country and saluted the Broncos fans in the front section of the crowd.

Remarkably, four of the Broncos' former extraordinary safeties are in Canton this week. Atwater spent his first 10 (of 11) seasons with the Broncos, played for the Jets for a year, then asked Bowlen to sign him to a one-day contract again so he could retire with his team. "I always will bleed orange and blue," he said.

John Lynch played for the Broncos the last four seasons of his 15 in the league. The ex-All-Pro safety and general manager of the 49ers will be praised by the Hall of Fame Saturday night. Brian Dawkins, who joined the Broncos for his final three years after a brilliant career with the Eagles, was a member of the Class of 2018 as a safety. He was among returning Gold Jackets.

Atwater and presenter Smith hugged and together unveiled Steve's bust. Dennis belongs in Canton permanently, too. Smith and Atwater were the Dynamic Duo for six consecutive years of their long professions in the Broncos' defensive backfield. The two played a combined 339 games for The Large Orange.

Steve Foley also deserves mention among the elite.

But, for this night, Steve Atwater was in the forefront, following cornerback Champ Bailey who was inducted two years ago.

Steve is the seventh player who spent a large part of his career in Denver who has been privileged to join the Hall of Fame. And, appropriately, Bowlen, who was the owner of the Broncos when all seven played, received his hallowed spot with Champ in 2019 shortly after he died. The others are Bailey, John Elway, Gary Zimmerman, Terrell Davis, Shannon Sharpe and Floyd Little, who, sadly, died of cancer on the first day of this year.

Overall, 14 players in the Hall of Fame did play for the Broncos, at least briefly, and former Broncos coaches Mac Speedie and Stan Jones and current assistant Mike Munchak also have busts in the building because of their playing prowess.

Peyton Manning and Lynch will become the 15th and 16th players representing Denver on Sunday evening.

Others from the Broncos are worthy. Smith, Randy Gradishar, Louis Wright, Karl Mecklenburg, Tom Nalen, Rod Smith and Rich "Tombstone" Jackson should be considered among the esteemed. Someday coaches Dan Reeves and Mike Shanahan must be inducted.

For too many years, the Hall of Fame ignored the Broncos, except for their original, stupid stripped socks, and voters refused to acknowledge the players who deserved attention. At last, Broncos have earned their just respect and honor.

Steve Atwater, the hardest hitter and the softest man, waits no more. The weight is lifted. He's in.