Steve Atwater came to Arkansas in the fall of 1984 as one of four freshmen quarterbacks and it lasted for three days before he got moved to the secondary.
Apparently Ken Hatfield and his staff saw what got Atwater to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in an official announcement made Saturday by the NFL.
“We knew he was destined for greatness early on,” said former Razorback quarterback Greg Thomas, who was the only one of the four freshmen that stayed under center. “As soon as the upperclassmen came in after the third day, he was moved to safety.”
The fact of the matter is Atwater probably should have been in a few years ago. The combination of the political selection nature and lack of safeties in Canton kept him out a few years.
“It had been tough on him not getting in,” Thomas said Saturday night after the official announcement. “I love him to death. He’s one of the coolest cats ever.”
In Hatfield’s system, the defense actually played with two safeties unlike today’s game which has more cornerbacks on the field. He was an All-American selection his final year, 1988.
Atwater was a first-round draft choice of the Denver Broncos and proceeded to make the All-Rookie team in 1989 and have eight Pro Bowl appearances and three Super Bowl appearances, winning two of them.
He had over 1,000 tackles and most of them were remembered by the guy getting tackled.
Thomas said they noticed that in Fayetteville, too.
Especially because he had to go against him live in practices and that was in the days of Hatfield’s Flexbone offense where the quarterback did a lot of running.
“He never blew me up, though,” Thomas said. “I wasn’t going to let him hit me. He came inside out at you, so you either had to make him miss or out-run him. He tackled me a lot, though.
Maybe no play symbolized his career more than a hit he made on Kansas City’s Christian Okoye, who was known as the “Nigerian Nightmare” because he simply ran over people.
On a Monday night in Denver in 1990 he tried to run over Atwater, but it didn’t work. Atwater, who spent five years hitting people with the Razorbacks, knocked Oyoye backwards with a tackle that didn’t involve his helmet.
At Arkansas, though, Atwater delivered big hits and could also play pass defense.
“When we played Baylor in 1985 when they had Cody Carlson at quarterback was when you knew Atwater could really play,” Thomas said, recalling how the then-redshirt freshman played in that game.
The Bears came into the matchup at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock ranked No. 11 and the 12-ranked Hogs knocked them off, 20-14.
“In 1986 against Texas A&M, he almost killed Rod Bernstine,” Thomas said. “But we knew in the ’87 season he was playing like an All-American and he made that in 1988.”
In Atwater’s four seasons with the Razorbacks (1985-88), the team went 38-11. It was a period of time that was about as good as it’s ever been, finishing three of those years ranked in the Top 20 with appearances in the Cotton, Orange, Liberty and Holiday Bowl games.
Atwater is a member of the UA Sports Hall of Honor as well as the school’s All-Century and All-Decade teams. He was named to three All-America teams as a senior in 1988 (Associated Press and Sporting News second team, Football News third team).
Atwater was a three-time All-Southwest Conference performer (1986, 1988 first team, 1987 second team). The St. Louis native still holds the school record of 14 career interceptions.
He also recorded 229 career tackles and 28 pass deflections in his Razorback career.
Atwater becomes the third Razorback selected to the Hall of Fame for his playing days. Lance Alworth and Dan Hampton were selected previously.
Jerry Jones was selected for his contributions as owner of the Dallas Cowboys in 2017 and Jimmy Johnson will join Atwater going in this year for his time as a coach with the Cowboys and Dolphins.
Former Cowboys free safety Cliff Harris, a native of Hot Springs who played at Ouachita Baptist, is the third Arkansas connection that will be inducted this summer in Canton.
But Atwater’s selection is something his former teammates will be celebrating along with the fans.
“Now I can tell everybody I’ve got a teammate in the Hall of Fame,” Thomas said. “I can say I hung out in college for four years with a Hall of Famer.
“Man, I’m loving this.”