Like many former NFL players, Steve Atwater bears the burden of his craft. The former all-pro safety with the Denver Broncos and New York Jets deals with the headaches and lingering pain in his shoulders, back and knees, offering minimal complaints.
“Hey, it is what it is, man,” Atwater said. “You can’t go out and run into people for 11 years [in the NFL] plus five years in college and expect to be walking around like nothing’s wrong with you.”
Most never get the chance to stay in the sport that long, and when his own children began the college football recruiting process, Atwater, 45, wanted to make sure they understood that reality.
Atwater’s oldest sons, Stephen and DiAndre, aren’t playing big-time college football like their father did at Arkansas: Stephen is a junior defensive back at Georgetown, while DiAndre is a freshman running back at Princeton. But with those college choices, Atwater believes the boys showed they had received his message. The proud father will be in attendance Friday night when DiAndre’s Tigers (0-1) host Stephen’s Hoyas (2-1) at 7 p.m.
The game will be broadcast on ESPNU and is believed to be the Georgetown football team’s first national television appearance.
“Your football career comes to an end at some point, and you have to have some kind of career in the real world,” said Atwater, who recently moved to Brookeville with his wife, Letha, and two youngest children. “Football is the real world, but the [NFL] salaries aren’t real world. To have opportunities, you need a great education. We didn’t want them to base everything on football.”
Steve Atwater won two Super Bowls in 10 seasons with the Broncos before finishing his career with the Jets in 1999, but Stephen Atwater has few vivid memories of his father on the field. After retiring, Steve Atwater moved his family to Georgia, went into real estate management and was soon coaching his sons’ youth football teams.
Letha, his wife of almost 22 years, wanted her boys to play the sport but only if they could keep up their grades in the classroom, requiring straight A’s to stay on the field.
Stephen said he finished high school with a 3.96 grade-point average, while DiAndre’s was only slightly lower while taking a more rigorous courseload.
“My mom is not big — she’s really small — but from the time I was young, she just instilled fear in my heart,” said Stephen, who is majoring in finance at Georgetown. “I just knew if she said it, she was being serious. I never wanted to mess with her.”
Steve Atwater found the recruiting world to be much different than when he was a top prospect coming out of Lutheran North in St. Louis, but he dutifully took Stephen and then DiAndre on their visits and helped send out tapes to prospective schools.
Stephen passed up a full scholarship offer from Arkansas to come to Georgetown, which does not offer football scholarships. After being recruited as a running back, the 5-foot-11, 190-pounder switched to defense and has played in 21 games for the improving Hoyas over the past three years with 33 tackles and two interceptions.
DiAndre could have accepted a scholarship to stay close to home at Georgia State, but he also had interest from Georgetown and several Ivy League schools. After visiting Princeton last winter, the 5-8, 205-pound back committed to the Tigers, cancelling planned trips to Penn and Cornell.
“My dad told me if you’re going to go to the NFL, you can make it from anywhere,” Stephen said. “But if you don’t, it makes a difference where your degree comes from.”
In January, Steve Atwater sold his company, and the family decided to follow the oldest boys north, relocating to Montgomery County. Atwater’s youngest son, Paris, is a junior linebacker at Sherwood and hopes to play college football. The former safety also has an 11-year-old daughter, Malaysia.
Atwater had a training camp coaching internship with the Redskins two years ago, assisting Mike Shanahan, his former coach with the Broncos. He has aspirations of becoming a pro scout, but for now he’s focusing on being a cheerleader for his children.
“It’s going to be pretty crazy,” Atwater said of Friday’s matchup. “We haven’t decided which side to sit on yet. I told my wife, maybe we’ll each pick a side and then switch at halftime.”