Originally created 01/26/99

Atwater may call it quits after 10 years as a hit man



MIAMI -- His chronically sore shoulders are a testament to the intimidating hits he has delivered to wide receivers and running backs for the past 10 seasons.

More than 1,300 total tackles, 12 forced fumbles, 24 interceptions, 89 passes defensed and countless warnings: pain zone ahead.

Since entering the league, Denver Broncos safety Steve Atwater has started 155 games in the regular season and 13 in the postseason, missing only five games.

But last season and again this season, he failed to post 100 tackles for the only times in his career, a sure sign that his body finally is beginning to wear down.

Although he has been selected to his eighth Pro Bowl and his third as a starter, Atwater has given increasing thought to his future and might opt to retire, producing a leadership void in the Broncos' defense similar to the effect of John Elway's expected retirement on the offense.

"It's going to end sometime, but whether or not it's this year, I haven't decided," Atwater said. "It would take away from my preparation to think about it right now."

In his healthier moments, the Broncos' hit man doesn't believe he is ready to leave the game. This could be his last season with the Broncos, however. Or it might be his last season as a full-time starter, because young safeties Eric Brown and George Coghill already have seen increased playing time.

"Anything's possible," he said. "I hope it's not my last year with the Broncos."

A first-round draft choice from Arkansas in 1989, Atwater was selected to the Pro Bowl his second season, beginning a string of seven straight Pro Bowl appearances that set a franchise record.

Dubbed the "smiling assassin" by former assistant coach Charlie Waters because of his sunny off-field disposition and his bone-jarring tackling, Atwater established his reputation in his second season. That's when he stopped Kansas City's mammoth running back, Christian Okoye, with a thunderous collision in a memorable Monday night game.

Although the 6-foot-3, 217-pound Atwater has endured his second straight sub-par regular season, he has continued to excel in the postseason. To many NFL observers, Atwater's play in last January's Super Bowl victory over Green Bay set a standard for free safeties.

He had six tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and two passes defensed.

His sack of Brett Favre caused a fumble that was recovered by Neil Smith, setting up a field goal for a 17-7 lead in the second quarter.

Later, he had one of the game's biggest pass breakups on a third-and-8 from the Broncos' 39-yard line early in the fourth quarter, knocking away a pass intended for Robert Brooks that would have given Green Bay a first down inside the Broncos' 25-yard line with the score tied 24-24.

"I was able to get around the ball and make some plays," he said. "That's all any player wants, an opportunity to make some plays. I'm hoping I can get the opportunity to get around the ball again this year.

"There's not much difference in preparing for regular-season games and playoff games, except, you know, it's do-or-die. You either win or you go home. I'm not ready to go home."