ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Steve Atwater made the perfect choice.
As Broncos safeties in the six seasons from 1989-1994, it was difficult to differentiate between Atwater and Dennis Smith. Both were large by safety standards. Both were big hitters by football standards.
In the book, “50 Greatest Players in Denver Broncos History,” the author (cough! cough!) couldn’t put one ahead of the other. Atwater and Smith tied for 12th best Broncos player. (Had the author known three years ago Atwater was going to make it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he would have made him a top 10 selection).
So when Atwater was elected Saturday into the Hall of Fame he picked – who else? – Dennis Smith to be his presenter for pro football immortality.
“I had always had in the back of my mind that if I got in that Dennis was going to be the guy that I asked to do it,’’ Atwater said in a sit-down interview Thursday with 9News. Smith accepted Atwater’s invitation Wednesday night. “For one, I don’t think Dennis Smith gets the recognition that he deserves as a safety and as an NFL player – as a dominant NFL player.
“He’s just an awesome teammate, a great person to learn from as a rookie. Tremendous athlete. He could do everything -- run, jump. Had great hands.
“And fearless? When I say fearless, if he thought he could make a tackle by running through that wall, he would run through that wall full speed and try to knock the wall down.’’
Atwater, a rookie in 1989, credits Smith, whose NFL career began eight years earlier in 1981, for setting him up for what became his iconic blast on Chiefs running back Christian “The Nigerian Nightmare” Okoye during a Monday night game in 1990.
“Oh yeah, we looked at film and he said, ‘We’ve got to tackle him up high. We’re not going down low,’’’ Atwater said. “That was my second year and I was like, ‘OK, whatever you say.”
From that point on, Atwater was universally known as the Smilin’ Assassin. As such, Atwater’s bronze bust will flash an eternal smile, won’t it?
“It’s going to have a smile but we had a choice from a super smile where you’re showing the teeth like this,’’ Atwater said while flashing his pearly whites from ear to ear. “Or just a smile, or a serious look. So I decided to go with the one in the middle. I didn’t want to be too happy on there. As a football player you don’t want (to be too happy.)”
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