One of the greatest defensive stars in Denver Broncos history, and hopefully a future Pro Football Hall of Famer, joined the team when it was pretty clear we would take a safety in the draft.
The year was 1989 and Ring of Famer Dan Reeves was the head coach.
We were coming off an 8-8 season and Dan wanted to give his defense a boost.
Wade Phillips was the defensive coordinator and Charlie Waters was the defensive backs coach.
There was much debate about two players, Atwater from Arkansas and another safety, Louis Oliver from Florida, and it finally came down to a draft-day discussion.
I remember the conversations in the draft room, as both guys had terrific college resumes.
Dan Reeves said he was happy with either player and turned to floor over to Phillips and Waters.
Eventually Wade turned to his defensive backs coach and asked Waters, “Which would you rather have?”
Charlie Waters said, “They are both great players. I want Atwater.”
And so Dan placed a call to Steve Atwater and set in motion a path for one of our all-time great first-round draft picks to have a Ring of Fame career.
Waters later said, “There was just something about the presence of Steve Atwater that made him special, the greatest among greats. He had great physical skills combined with a perfect work ethic, along with great maturity and leadership abilities.”
Atwater plied his many skills as a Pro Bowl and All-Pro safety for three head coaches — Reeves, Phillips and eventually Mike Shanahan — for whom he was a vital cog in our teams that won consecutive Super Bowls in 1997 and 1998.
But his maturity, leadership and on-the-field greatness were apparent from the moment he arrived in the Mile High City.
Atwater had a great training camp in 1989 (he always had a great training camp) and on the day of the final cuts, the Broncos made the shocking move of waiving starting safety and team captain Mike Harden so that Atwater could start.
Reeves said, “This was a tough move to make, but Atwater simply has to start and be on the field for every play.”
Atwater was a consensus All-Rookie selection and was named Defensive Rookie of the Year by Football Digest.
That decision to start him immediately reaped dividends as the Broncos won the AFC Championship and went to Super Bowl XXIV in Atwater’s rookie season, a precursor to the kind of career he was to have.
Atwater had a brilliant 10-year career with the Broncos and eventually was inducted as the 20th member of the Ring of Fame.
He is regarded as one of the toughest safeties in the NFL while being voted to a franchise record-tying seven consecutive Pro Bowls from 1990-96, and his eight total Pro Bowl selections are tied for the second-most by a player in Broncos history.
He started all 155 regular season games he played with the Broncos and had 24 interceptions.
Only John Elway had more postseason starts.
Atwater started 14 playoff games for Denver, including three Super Bowls and four AFC title games.
Those draft day decisions are very difficult to make in the first round.
Teams discuss a bevy of college greats. Sometimes the decisions work out better than others.
There is no question Dan Reeves, Wade Phillips and Charlie Waters made a great one for Denver when they selected Steve Atwater with the Broncos’ first-round pick back in 1989.