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Hall of fame safeties LeRoy Butler, Steve Atwater can see Vikings’ Harrison Smith joining them in Canton

In his 10 seasons, Smith has made six Pro Bowls and had one first-team All-Pro selection. He has 29 career interceptions and 16½ sacks.

SPORTS-HALL-FAME-SAFETIES- Harrison Smith
Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith (22) during the team's first day of training camp on Wednesday, July 26, 2022, at TCO Performance Center in Eagan.
John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press
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ST. PAUL — On Saturday, former Green Bay Packers safety LeRoy Butler will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He hopes the Minnesota Vikings safety, Harrison Smith, will join him one day in the Canton, Ohio, shrine.

In an interview this week, Butler said he long has admired Smith. With a few more good seasons he believes Smith, entering his 11th year, would have solid hall of fame credentials.

“I love the way that he comes up to the line of scrimmage and he can play away from it,” said Butler, who played for Green Bay from 1990-2001. “He’s a smart guy. I’m a big fan of his. I’m a huge fan.”

FOOTBALL PROFESSIONAL ATHLETE NFL LeRoy Butler
Carolina Panther wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad (87) rushes upfield as Green Bay Packer LeRoy Butler (36) goes for the tackle in Green Bay, Wisconsin on December 12, 1999. Panthers defeated the Packers 33-31.
Jeff Siner / Charlotte Observer / KRT / TNS

Butler wasn’t the only hall of fame safety to sing Smith’s praises this week. Steve Atwater, a member of the class of 2020, said he has followed Smith’s career closely and also hopes he one day has a bust in Canton. Atwater, who was known for his hard hits, likes that Smith plays a similar style.

“He’s fearless,” said Atwater, who played for Denver from 1989-98 before finishing his career with the New York Jets in 1999. “I think safeties who are physical safeties, that’s a very good trait. And he’s very smart. He’s not a highly penalized guy, he plays within the rules. Most definitely, I’m a fan of his.”

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“That’s a huge compliment,” Smith said. “I grew up watching (Atwater) and LeRoy, so those were some of the first guys I watched. I loved watching them play. … Those were guys who paved the way, changed the game, and they could do it all.”

As for Smith’s hall of fame chances, he didn’t want to discuss that. He did offer congratulations to Butler, whom he has spoken to on a few occasions, for making the hall.

Butler and Atwater both weighed in on what it might take for Smith to one day get a hall call. In his 10 seasons, Smith has made six Pro Bowls and had one first-team All-Pro selection. He has 29 career interceptions and 16½ sacks.

Butler was named to four Pro Bowls, had four first-team All-Pro selections, 38 interceptions and 20½ sacks. Atwater played in eight Pro Bowls, had two first-team All-Pro selections, 24 interceptions and five sacks. Atwater was helped by being on two Super Bowl championship teams, and Butler was on one.

SPORTS FOOTBALL NFL DENVER BRONCOS GREEN BAY PACKERS AFC SUPER BOWL XXXII GAME ATHLETE NFC    Steve Atwater
Denver safety Steve Atwater (27) hits Green Bay quarterback Brett Farve (4) causing a fumble early in the second quarter. Bronco defensive end Neil Smith recovered the ball on Green Bay's 33-yard line during Super Bowl XXXII on Sunday, Jan. 25, 1998, in San Diego, California.
Jay Janner / Colorado Springs Gazette / KRT / TNS

“Fortunately here lately, safeties have been getting shown a little bit more love with the hall of fame, and hopefully by the time that Harrison finishes up it’ll just be a natural thing that safety is considered just as important as the other players on the field,” said Atwater, who is now the Broncos’ manager of fan development and never has talked to Smith. “I mean, Harrison’s a baller.”

Since 2017, nine safeties have made the hall of fame, excluding Charles Woodson, a 2021 inductee who played cornerback for 14 seasons and safety for his final four. In each class since 2017, at least one safety has been inducted.

Atwater said Smith needs to “keep doing what he’s doing” to make it to Canton. Butler said it bodes well that Smith is likely to finish his career in the “30-20 club” in interceptions and sacks. He said Smith might need to add at least one more first-team All-Pro selection and a few more Pro Bowl appearances to boost his resume.

“That’s how you’re going to be judged,” Butler said of postseason honors.

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Despite their credentials, Atwater and Butler both did not make the hall until their 16th year of eligibility.

“Every day I wake up, it still feels like a dream,” Butler said of what it’s been like since learning of his selection in February. “But now it is real.”

Butler was a second-round draft pick in 1990 who did not start a single game as a rookie. But he did recall this week that he had his first two career interceptions against Minnesota’s Rich Gannon in an Oct. 28, 1990 game at Milwaukee County Stadium.

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“I remember keeping the balls, and I still have them,” said Butler, who returned the two interceptions for 28 yards in a 24-10 victory. “On the first one, I got all excited and I didn’t even know I should keep the ball so I gave it back to the ref. But Bob Noel, our equipment manager, went and got it, and said, ‘You need to keep this. This is your first pick.’ ”

Butler had another two-interception game against the Vikings — at Lambeau Field in 1997. Both came on passes from Brad Johnson, who was his teammate back at Florida State.

Smith has had his share of success against the Packers, including a two-interception game in 2017. Coming up big against Green Bay is about the only thing Butler doesn’t want to see from Smith in the future.

“I want the best from him, but not in the two games (each season) he plays the Packers,” Butler said with a laugh. “Every other time, I pull for him.”

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