On September 17, 1990, the Denver Broncos hosted the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 2.
During the game between the bitter AFC West Division rivals, Broncos safety Steve Atwater and Chiefs running back Christian Okoye collided for one of the most memorable plays in NFL history.
Built like a tank with legs, Okoye, also known as the “Nigerian Nightmare,” was plowing through the line of scrimmage when Atwater arrived.
The “Smiling Assassin,” who gave up nearly 40 pounds to Okoye, lowered the boom.
With a well placed shoulder to Okoye’s body, the running back thudded to the turf while the sports world looked on in awe.
Atwater played over a decade in the NFL and made such hits his purpose in life.
Steve Atwater representing all the things that make the Broncos great. 🧡💙🥲 pic.twitter.com/r9GDJ27xnk
— Bridget 🏈 (@denbron77) August 7, 2021
He was skilled as a run stopper and a pass defender and gave offensive coordinators migraines in their schemes to neutralize him.
By the time he retired, Atwater was a two-time Super Bowl champion and eight-time Pro Bowler.
Then, in 2020, Atwater’s spectacular career was recognized when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
This is the story of Steve Atwater.
Life in St. Louis
Stephen Dennis Atwater was born on October 28, 1966 in Chicago, Illinois.
Shortly after he was born, the Atwater family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, and young Stephen began playing youth football at the age of eight.
At the time, he played on the offensive line, then took a few steps behind the line to play quarterback when the coaches needed a strong arm for a deep pass.
Atwater then remained at the quarterback position when he was in middle school and looked to continue slinging bombs in high school.
However, the first order of business was finding a school that was safe for Atwater to get to.
He had already grown up seeing the horrors of life in his neighborhood and didn’t want to experience those horrors every time he went to school.
“I remember walking up an alley and seeing a guy with a shotgun in another guy’s mouth and the guy is saying, ‘Please, please, please, don’t shoot!’ and I heard some gunshots down the street (another time) and I ran down there and there was this guy on the ground, shot, before the police got there,” Atwater said. “My experience in St. Louis had been that you had some groups of people who didn’t have everything and I was in that group.”
Atwater’s father, Jeff, once took his son to watch a Lutheran North High School basketball game.
See Steve Atwater (LHSN '84), Super Bowl Champion, speak at Lutheran North at 9:30 a.m. April 12! pic.twitter.com/iQuZIc8jth
— Lutheran North (@lncrusaders) April 7, 2016
During the contest, Jeff asked Steve if he liked the idea of attending Lutheran North instead of the local public school.
Atwater didn’t think twice and agreed to attend Lutheran, located north of downtown St. Louis.
Just to get to the school required some effort, but Atwater was more than willing to make sacrifices.
“It seemed like it was 50 miles back then,” Atwater said. “But it was 6-7 miles.”
Athletic and Academic Leader for the Crusaders
Atwater’s decision to attend school and play for the Lutheran North Crusaders couldn’t have worked out any better.
“The whole experience was just amazing,” he said in 2021. “I would spend time at the houses of friends and think, ‘Man, this is kind of nice, seeing a family together and seeing people able to live comfortably, but not extravagant and not worrying about where the next meal was going to come from.’”
The Crusaders head football coach at the time, Mike Russell, kept Atwater at quarterback where he ran the option offense with aplomb.
Steve Atwater came in today and officially presented his 50th Anniversary Gold Super Bowl Ball to Lutheran North. pic.twitter.com/7YYauIow6K
— Carl Reed Jr. (@CoachReedLive) April 12, 2016
As Russell taught him the finer points of quarterback play, he also taught Atwater how to treat others.
“He was very kind,” Atwater said. “Seeing him interact with all of the athletes and the way he treated me, it reinforced that there are great people no matter their skin color.”
During his junior year, Atwater passed for over 1,000 yards, putting him on the radar of college recruiters.
His senior year brought accolades including All-Conference and the Lutheran High School Association’s MVP award.
Not only was Atwater special on the gridiron, he dominated in track and basketball and had college hoops coaches clamoring for his services.
Additionally, Atwater applied himself in the classroom and was named a Scholar-Athlete while also serving on the executive board of the Lutheran North student council.
Atwater Becomes a Razorback
Although the idea of playing college basketball was appealing, Atwater had more desire to play football.
He looked through the long list of suitors and decided that he wanted to play for the University of Arkansas.
“The perfect fit,” Atwater said. “Wasn’t too far from home, but not close enough where I would be on the highway going home every weekend.”
In 1985, Atwater joined a Razorbacks squad that had gone 7-4-1 the year before and head coach Ken Hatfield believed his incoming freshman’s talent was best suited on defense.
— allthings18 (@ALLTHINGS18) August 1, 2019
While Arkansas went 10-2 and beat the Arizona State Sun Devils in the Holiday Bowl, Atwater used his skills as a former signal caller to pick apart opposing offenses.
“When it was his turn, he took advantage,” said Bob Trott, Atwater’s position coach at Arkansas. “He wasn’t really a box safety. He played downfield and could support on the run and play the pass. He was a little unusual because most defensive backs weren’t that tall (6-foot-4).”
He picked off two passes that season then four more in 1986 as the Razorbacks went 9-3 and lost to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
Atwater’s play as a sophomore led to a first-team All-Southwest Conference selection.
In 1987, Atwater continued his on-the-job training as a safety by snagging four interceptions, including a pick-six.
#27 Days Away👆🅰️🐗🏈
Razorback Legend & All-Around HOF:
Steve Atwater recorded 4 INTs in 3 Consecutive Seasons for Arkansas from ‘86-88, AND, holds the School Record for INTs with 14
Which current Hog do you believe will lead the team in INTs this season? pic.twitter.com/kHACtkk393
— Rabid Razorback Fans (@Rabid_Razorback) August 6, 2023
His tackling, however, needed a little work.
“I used to get on him because he tackled way too high and he broke his collarbone,” Trott said. “He finally learned to use his shoulder pads. There was one day in practice, he hit a running back on a pitch and the guy must have been in the air for six yards. A guy that big, when he learned to hit with his shoulders, could be pretty devastating.”
With his tackle mechanics now under control, Atwater was named All-SWC again in ‘87 and received an All-American nod.
Arkansas went 9-4 that year and lost to the Georgia Bulldogs in the Liberty Bowl.
Then, as a senior in 1988, Atwater erupted for 70 tackles, four interceptions, and nine passes broken up as the Razorbacks went 10-2.
His play that season helped Arkansas win the SWC championship and meet quarterback Troy Aikman and the UCLA Bruins in the 1989 Cotton Bowl.
Aikman and his teammates got the best of Arkansas, 17-3, but Atwater was named All-SWC for the third time and an All-American for the second year in a row.
Arkansas Madness Final Four
Player Profile: Steve Atwater
🏈 2x Consensus All American
🏈 3x SWC All Conference
🏈 Arkansas career INT leader (14)
🏈 Razorback All Century Team
🏈 Razorback ‘80s All Decade Team
🏈 20th pick 1989 NFL Draft#WPS | #ArkansasMadness pic.twitter.com/4lC7iGkABH
— Brandon Baker (@BBakerHogs) April 5, 2020
He was invited to play in the East-West Shrine Game in early 1989 and cemented his NFL Draft stock by pulling down two interceptions.
During his college career, Atwater had totals of 229 tackles, 28 passes broken up, and 14 interceptions.
His interceptions total still leads the Razorbacks all-time.
Since leaving the school, Atwater has been inducted into Arkansas’ Sports Hall of Honor, selected for the program’s 1980s All-Decade and All-Century Teams, and inducted into the Southwest Conference Hall of Fame.
“The Smiling Assassin”
In 1988, the Denver Broncos went a disappointing 8-8, a far cry from the 1987 season when the team won 10 games and advanced to Super Bowl XXII.
The ‘88 squad also ended the year with an ugly 20th ranked defense (27th overall against the run).
Wanting to add a little more pop to that side of the ball, then-Broncos head coach Dan Reeves took Atwater with the 20th pick in the first round of the 1989 NFL Draft.
As an added bonus, Atwater would learn from fellow safety Dennis Smith, himself a bruising hitter.
He also had a knowledgeable position coach in Charlie Waters who had played safety in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys.
“It was like a coaching dream to have somebody who was a sponge — everything I said, he listened to and paid attention to and you love players like that,” said Waters in 2021. “He played every game at such a high level. He was physically more dominant and nobody could block him and nobody could out-run him. We gave him a lot of responsibility and he took it on.”
Waters would be the one responsible for giving Atwater his memorable nickname.
During Atwater’s first NFL training camp, the coach noticed something peculiar about his new safety.
“Every time he would knock the crap out of somebody in practice, he came up smiling,” Waters said. “That’s just who Steve was. He was such a happy player. He was a happy warrior.”
A moniker like “Happy Warrior” just wouldn’t work in the macho world of pro football.
— Mad Bear ™ (@MadBear11) January 23, 2019
So, “The Smiling Assassin” was born.
“I thought it was kind of corny, to tell you the truth,” Atwater said of the name. “But then I kind of embraced it, because at that point in my career I appreciated anything they were going to call me.”
Waters wasn’t the only coach impressed by Atwater’s versatility.
Denver’s defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, liked the idea of the 6’3”, 220-pound Atwater playing close to the line of scrimmage.
The notion worked as Atwater exited training camp as a starter and proceeded to lead the team in 1989 with 129 tackles.
— Ken Gelman (@kengfunk) March 25, 2017
He also had three picks and a fumble recovery and was the runner up to Kansas City’s Derrick Thomas in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting.
With Atwater and Smith scaring the daylights out of opposing ball carriers, the Broncos defense improved to seventh overall against the run.
The rookie was named to the PFWA All-Rookie Team as Denver rebounded to an 11-5 record and victories against Pittsburgh and Cleveland in the playoffs.
That set up a date with San Francisco in Super Bowl XXIV.
The 49ers Wax Denver
Broncos fans were overjoyed that their team was in the NFL’s biggest game for the second time in three years.
Denver had lost Super Bowl XXII to the Washington Redskins, 42-10, but this was a different team.
Surely the Broncos would give quarterback Joe Montana and San Francisco a challenge.
Steve Atwater Super Bowl XXIV. The "H20" is for water, one of his nicknames, and "RWA" is for a family member. pic.twitter.com/GlsopUx2AQ
— FB_Helmet_Guy (@FB_Helmet_Guy) February 9, 2023
The Niners were installed as 12 point favorites to begin the contest and quickly showed why they were favored.
By the end of the first quarter, San Fran was ahead by 10 points.
At halftime, their lead increased to 27-3.
Broncos quarterback John Elway scored on a three-yard run in the third quarter, but the Niners continued their scoring assault until the final whistle signaled their decisive 55-10 win.
The Okoye Hit
In 1990, Denver regressed significantly from Super Bowl contender to also-ran by posting a 5-11 record.
However, in the second game of the season against AFC West rival Kansas City, Atwater thrilled Broncos fans with one of the most memorable hits in NFL history.
— allthings18 (@ALLTHINGS18) October 20, 2019
A few days before the Monday Night Football contest, the Broncos asked Atwater if they could put a mic on him for the game.
“Against Christian Okoye?” answered an incredulous Atwater. “Why would you want to mic me up for this, of all games?”
The answer was simple.
Kansas City’s Okoye was a very large man who also played running back.
Standing at 6’1 and 255 pounds, Okoye was a human battering ram who delighted in running over opponents.
He was nicknamed “The Nigerian Nightmare” due to his country of birth and the fact that Okoye was a nightmare to tackle.
Basically, the idea of “The Nigerian Nightmare” versus “The Smiling Assassin” was too good to pass up and Denver knew it.
Atwater believed he’d be in for a long night against Okoye, but he agreed to wear the microphone.
“I definitely was hesitant,” Atwater recounted recently. “I wasn’t just like, ‘Yeah, put it on me! I’m confident I’m going to go out there and make something happen!’”
As it happened, he would do exactly that.
During the game, the stars aligned and fate brought the two players together.
After taking a handoff from Chiefs quarterback Steve DeBerg, Okoye went rumbling through a hole in the Broncos defense.
He jumped over the outstretched leg of a Denver player and landed, just as Atwater arrived to plant him on his backside.
The sound of the collision sent shockwaves through Mile High Stadium and neither team could believe what they saw.
Atwater gave up nearly 40 pounds to the brutish Okoye, but his timing was perfect.
“Yeah, you tried, baby!” Atwater bellowed as he hovered over Okoye.
“We could hear the hit from the sideline,” Elway marveled. “I think it stopped everything.”
Years later, Atwater believes he was lucky to come out of the play alive.
“I was just fortunate to come out on the right side of that one,” Atwater said, “because that guy had trucked so many people and I’m lucky I wasn’t one of them.”
Nearly lost in the hubbub of the moment was the fact that Denver would win the game, 24-23.
Pro Bowls Aplenty
Atwater’s pancake of Okoye put the NFL world on notice that he was not to be taken lightly.
After a career-high 173 tackles, one sack, two forced fumbles, and two interceptions in ‘90, Atwater was selected to the first of seven consecutive Pro Bowls.
In 1991, the Broncos righted the ship and won 12 games before losing to Buffalo by three in the AFC Championship game.
One of the tone setters that season was Atwater who bagged 150 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, and a career-high five picks for 104 return yards.
In addition to another Pro Bowl nod, he was also chosen as a first-team All-Pro.
Between 1992 and 1995, Denver hovered around mediocre, appearing in the postseason just once after the 1993 season.
.@SteveAtwater27 left it all on the field 💥
— NFL Legacy (@NFLLegacy) July 30, 2021
Atwater, however, remained steady with a plethora of tackles, forced fumbles, and interceptions each year.
“If you were drawing up a safety in a lab, it would be easy to say, ‘He’s got this height, this weight, this amount of drive, this amount of speed; he’s got the physique and can deliver the hits.’ That’s easy,” remarked Mile High Sports Magazine editor Doug Ottewill. “But, the hard part of it is what kind of guy is he? What kind of a leader is he? How is he with younger players in the locker room? He [Atwater] was top of the line. Not second. Top of the line.”
Atwater’s ability to strike fear into the hearts of opponents became legendary.
Whenever they faced the Broncos, receivers and running backs knew to keep their heads on a swivel.
“He was the enforcer,” Hall-of-Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe said. “He was the intimidator we had that would make sure that receivers and tight ends…he would throw them off line when they came through the middle to make sure he let them know it was unacceptable for them to run through his house.”
“He put fear into any wide receiver coming across the middle,” said Elway.
Super Bowl XXXII
Denver finally got back on track in 1996 when the team went 13-3 but lost to Jacksonville in the divisional round.
Then, in 1997, the Broncos were easily one of the best teams in the NFL.
While Elway and third-year running back Terrell Davis were keeping defenses honest, Atwater made 68 tackles, one sack, and two picks, including his only career pick six.
Denver won 12 games, then beat the Jaguars, Chiefs, and Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs.
Next stop was a date with quarterback Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII.
By the late 1990s, the NFC was on a long streak of Super Bowl wins and not many people gave the Broncos a chance.
That was especially true given Elway’s inability to emerge victorious after three previous Super Bowl attempts.
Green Bay was installed as 11 point favorites and the Packers looked the part especially after the team scored first in the contest.
This is a classic photo. This sack/fumble of Favre set the tone for Super Bowl XXXII, that the mighty Packers weren’t going to just steamroll the wild card Broncos, as all the “experts” had said.
Congrats to the Smiling Assasin Steve Atwater. #PFHOF20 #PFHOF #BroncosCountry pic.twitter.com/K9hsgTSXAH
— Craig (@5againstOne) February 1, 2020
Despite being down, Denver wasn’t intimidated and answered with three straight scores.
The Packers scored again just before halftime and the teams came out of the tunnel for the second half with the Broncos ahead, 17-14.
As the second half unfolded, both teams locked horns and traded points until a desperate Favre pass intended for tight end Mark Chmura on fourth down was knocked down by Broncos linebacker John Mobley.
At long last, and after four previous tries, the Denver Broncos were finally Super Bowl champions after pulling out a 31-24 win.
During the game, Atwater was a nuisance to Green Bay while collecting six tackles, a forced fumble, two passes broken up, and a sack.
His play led to a number of media members picking Atwater to be the game’s MVP.
Instead, that honor went to Davis, who rushed for 157 yards and three touchdowns.
Super Bowl XXXIII
In 1998, Atwater was still a force to be reckoned with, although the Broncos usually took him off the field for third downs.
”Basically,” Atwater said in 1999, ”they asked me in two or three games for four or five series to sit down on third-down plays, and I didn’t understand why. I kept asking and they finally told me it was to increase my efficiency. I really didn’t buy into that.”
Denver won 14 games (still the most in franchise history) and Atwater returned to the Pro Bowl after a year’s absence by posting 55 tackles and an interception.
His selection for the all-star contest was dismissed by some talking heads as a tribute to Atwater’s play in Super Bowl XXXII, noting that it looked like the safety had actually lost a step.
Regardless, the Broncos and Atwater rolled through the playoffs by crushing Miami, 38-3, in the divisional round and dispatching the Jets in the AFC Championship game.
Good Morning Broncos Country. Today is #27 Steve Atwater days til Kickoff. Go Broncos 🏈🏈🏈🏈 pic.twitter.com/JrYQL5qYlE
— BRONCO JEFF 26 (@jeff92809796) August 16, 2022
For the second year in a row, Denver was Super Bowl bound and would face their former coach, Dan Reeves, and the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII.
Unlike the previous year, it was all Denver all the time.
A 17-6 Broncos halftime lead became an eventual 34-19 victory as Elway took home MVP honors in what would be his final game as an NFL player.
Little did anyone know that Atwater, who contributed four tackles, three assists, and two passes broken up in the game, had also played his final game as a Bronco.
Atwater Becomes a Jet
With the Super Bowl behind him, Atwater knew it was only a matter of weeks before he would be released by Denver.
He was used less and less by the team, and by the end of the 1998 season, Atwater was ready to leave Colorado.
”Now, how can you complain? It was working,” said Atwater. “We won two Super Bowls. So, unselfishly, for the team, it was great and we were champions. But selfishly, it was a system where I felt I was going to waste. I was very unhappy. Really, if the Broncos had asked me back, I’m not sure I would have wanted to come back to that. I really might have been ready to retire.”
There were a number of NFL teams that wanted Atwater to backstop their secondary.
He found out where he was headed to next the night before his grandmother’s funeral.
Steve Atwater (1999)
Jets/Broncos Week – version 1 pic.twitter.com/rkS0wcfspI
— Timeless Jets (@TimelessJets) September 29, 2020
”After 10 years in Denver, I will miss my friends, my teammates and some of my coaches,” Atwater said. ”But I’m going to a place where they are going to use me in the role of a traditional safety and where Coach Bill Parcells and the Jets are known for being rough and expecting a lot. That kind of stuff fires me up — as long as you tell it like it is.”
In one season with New York, Atwater would start 11 times and collect 63 tackles, one forced fumble, and one pass broken up.
After the Jets’ 8-8 finish in 1999, he retired.
Atwater returned to the Broncos and signed a one-day contract to officially retire as a member of the Denver organization.
During his career, Atwater had 1,188 combined tackles, five sacks, six forced fumbles, eight fumble recoveries, and 24 interceptions for 408 return yards and one touchdown.
He was a PFWA All-Rookie Team member, two-time Super Bowl winner, three-time All-Pro, and an eight-time Pro Bowler.
Atwater was later added to the NFL’s 1990s All-Decade Team and the Broncos Ring of Fame.
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) August 8, 2021
In 2020, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Life After Football
Since retiring from football, Atwater has spent his days as a public speaker and worked in television.
In 2017, he was hired by the Broncos to be their Fan Development Manager and contribute as a “Broncos Insider.”
This will make you smile.
Steve Atwater is joining us as Fan Development Manager and Broncos Insider.
— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) July 22, 2017
His work as an insider has Atwater making content for the team’s website and YouTube channel.
Atwater and his wife, Letha, have four kids including sons Stephen and DiAndre, who played football collegiately.