CANTON, Ohio — As the guest honor, Steve Atwater was fashionably late for his own party here at the Brookside Country Club.
Fashionably late and fashionably dressed in his Pro Football Hall of Fame Gold Jacket that he had worn since his former safety partner and presenter Dennis Smith slipped on him 90 minutes earlier during a ceremony at the Canton Civic Center. The No. 327 was etched on the patch inside his coat. Which makes Atwater the 327th member of football’s Hall of Fame. Let that sink in for a minute.
"It’s sinking in," said Atwater, the former safety great who is joining Peyton Manning and John Lynch as former Broncos players who are becoming formally inducted in the HOF this weekend.
"We had a meeting today with just the Hall of Famers, the (Ray) Nitschke luncheon. It was kind of emotional just hearing some of the guys talk. We’re realizing we’re all getting a little bit older. We got to make sure we stick together and make sure we stay in communication with one another. Just a whole new brotherhood I’ve been welcomed into and it’s definitely an honor."
Atwater had a long wait after his final playing season of 1999 to get into the voters room as a top 15 finalist. But once he got there, he made it on his third try. Lynch had to wait 8 times as a top 15 finalist before he got the knock on his home door from Hall of Fame president David Baker.
"First of all, every time I was notified I was a finalist, I was nothing but humbled," Lynch told the audience during an on-stage interview. "Sure, there was disappointment. But nobody summed it up better than (former Carolina receiver) Steve Smith Jr. who I competed against a lot. He wrote me a text when I made it and it said, ‘God does things with perfect timing.’ And I’ve always believed that. I knew at some point it would come and I think it came at just the right time and I couldn’t be happier."
Manning, of course, didn’t have to wait one minute past the mandatory five-year retirement period. He sailed in on the first ballot. Doesn’t mean he’s any less honored. In fact, given his knowledge of all the players represented in the Hall of Fame museum’s bronze bust room, he might pinch himself harder than most.
"I have a great appreciation for the game because of my dad. I remember him talking about Johnny Unitas, Charlie Conerly, Sammy Baugh, these great quarterbacks that he watched growing up," Manning said on stage. "And to play against Dan Marino and Troy Aikman, guys that I admired growing up, it was a real thrill. And now to kind of be on the same team as those guys, this special fraternity, I’m very honored and humbled."
Atwater had to wait a year after his election to go through his formal induction ceremony as the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled last year’s festivities. Atwater, Manning and Lynch all got their Gold Jackets on Friday. Atwater will receive his bronze bust and make his speech here Saturday at Tom Benson Stadium. Manning and Lynch will take their turns Sunday.
Was the wait worth it?
"Oh, 100 percent, absolutely," Atwater said. "Even your call that I was happy to receive because obviously you weren’t David Baker and that all played a part of it. It was definitely worth the wait."
For the 15 finalists each year, Baker calls those who didn’t make the votes for election, and personally knocks on the door for those who do. A call from an anxious and inquisitive 9NEWS reporter to Atwater’s cell phone came before Baker called or knocked, sending a brief moment of disappointment to those who were nervously waiting with him in his hotel room last room.
"I was never more excited to get a call from you," Atwater said.
Oh, and since Atwater was here at his own party, who does he think should win the Broncos’ quarterback competition, Drew Lock or Teddy Bridgewater?
"I got to see more," Atwater said. "From my point of view, Drew Lock is the incumbent. I think he should get the first shot at it and then if he loses it, he loses it. That’s me, though. I’m not an offensive coordinator, I‘m not a quarterbacks coach. And I’m not trying to be. But I just feel like he’s had the experience with the offense line and these receivers that it’s his job to lose. But hey, we’ll see."
And with that, it was time for Atwater to shake hands, say thanks to all the congratulators, listen to music, eat some delicious food, some of which were served on trays with toothpicks, and raise a glass to his Gold Jacket.
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