They’re revered in Broncos Country for ferocious hits and game-changing picks, but what bonds Hall of Famer Steve Atwater and Pro Bowl safety Justin Simmons is the unseen hand of late Aunt Gertha.
“Aunt Gertha was my favorite. She did so much for me when I was a kid,” Atwater told me. “Aunt Gertha taught me: ‘Do what you can do, wherever you’re at. If you can make an impact, big or small, on somebody’s life, do it.’”
So what on earth does Aunt Gertha have to do with football?
In this painful season for the Broncos, you can feel the generosity of Gertha’s heart in every smile of Atwater as he regularly mingles with current players at team headquarters, sometimes offering tips to Simmons, taken under his wing as a protégé.
“Calming my eyes down,” said Simmons, revealing a secret to being a great safety that he learned under the tutelage of Atwater.
As a young NFL player, Simmons would stand in the secondary and be overwhelmed by all the data his hyperactive eyes were trying to process prior to the snap that he missed small, essential keys that could allow him to become one of the league’s ball-hawking safeties.
Recognizing undeniable talent, Atwater humbly approached Simmons and offered suggestions that always began with these words: “Not that I know everything, but here’s what I did …”
Simmons did more than take copious notes. He engraved the advice from Atwater in his brain. “Not that a Hall of Famer knows football, or anything like that,” joked Simmons, one of the few truly bright stars amid these dark days for the franchise.
What should not be lost amid the angst of Denver’s 3-9 record is the sense of urgency Simmons and Atwater feel to make things right again in Broncos Country. They’re not only two of the best players ever to wear a Denver uniform, but two of the kindest, big-hearted men.
“As a safety, you’re the last line of defense,” said Atwater, whose current role with the Broncos has far more positive impact than his formal duties as a fan development manager. “Knowing that if the offense gets past you, it’s over, and making sure that doesn’t happen too frequently, is what makes playing safety so rewarding.”
The job of a safety is more than the last line of defense in Broncos Country. It’s a legacy, fostered and upheld by the excellence of men who have played the position in Denver, from Goose Gonsoulin to Billy Thompson to Dennis Smith, who passed the torch to Atwater, John Lynch, Brian Dawkins, T.J. Ward and Simmons.
Long before being drafted by the Broncos in the third round of the 2016 NFL draft, Simmons heard tales from his father, Victor, about Atwater being the Smiling Assassin. With two interceptions against the Ravens during a 10-9 loss in Baltimore, Simmons tied one of dad’s favorite players with 24 career picks.
“Anytime you’re in the same sentence as a Hall of Famer like Steve, there is obviously high praise there. That’s really cool,” said Simmons, who never needs prompting to give thanks for Atwater’s mentorship.
“He’s meant so much to me and my growth. Not only as a player, but just as a man, as a professional, as a husband. Just the little tidbits he gives me every time we’re walking off the field or after I see him after a game, after a win or even after a loss. He’s been such a pillar in my life since I’ve stepped in here and got drafted. I can’t be more thankful for him.”
Atwater is forever grateful for all the little nuances of pro football learned from Smith upon joining the Broncos as a first-round draft choice out of Arkansas in 1989. Long before winning two Super Bowl rings in Denver, Atwater learned the art of paying it forward as a child wrapped in the warmth of Aunt Gertha’s hugs. As a three-time nominee for the Walter Payton award in recognition of his community work, Simmons makes Atwater proud in ways far beyond feats on the football field.
“If you have something valuable to give and you don’t share it,” Atwater said, “you’re the one who’s really missing out on what matters in life.”
Here’s betting Gertha would see more than a little of her nephew in Simmons. Broncos Country basks in the warmth of the light shared by two good men who happen to play football for a living.