According to Paul Brekke-Miesner's Home Field Advantage, Atkins was a skinny kid, so making the pros was something of a surprise to those who knew him in high school. After high school, he joined the Marine Corps, where he grew to 6' 1" and 206 lbs. He did a favor for Bob Gaiters and drove him to New Mexico State University, where Gaiters convinced the coach to give him a tryout, and Atkins made the team.
With the Raiders, Atkins led in kickoff return yardage. After his football career, Atkins did some acting, including football classic The Longest Yard in 1974 with Burt Reynolds. In 2009, he was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame.