Editor’s note: Tommy Nobis, the first player drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in their history, passed away Wednesday at the age of 74. We are re-posting his State Your Case from 2015 to honor a great college player who followed that up with a great NFL career.
There has never been a more decorated linebacker in the history of football, college and pro, than Tommy Nobis.
Yet Nobis may be the most under-appreciated linebacker as well.
Despite being selected to the 1960s NFL all-decade team, Nobis has never been discussed as a candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Nobis was among the last of the college game’s two-way players at Texas, lining up at guard on offense and middle linebacker on defense from 1963-65. He became a three-time All-Southwest Conference selection and a two-time All-America at linebacker. He spearheaded defenses that shut down Roger Staubach in a Cotton Bowl and Joe Namath in an Orange Bowl.
Nobis was featured on the covers of Life, Time and Sports Illustrated in his senior season at Texas and won both the Outland Trophy as the best lineman and the Maxwell Trophy as the best player. So he was a football legend ever before the NFL came calling.
Unfortunately, it was the Atlanta Falcons who came a calling.
The expansion Falcons used their inaugural draft in 1966 to make Nobis the first overall selection — the first time in the 37-year history of the draft a linebacker would go No. 1. And it’s only happened twice since then.
Nobis was a walk-in starter for the Falcons and was credited with a franchise-record 294 tackles on his way to NFL Defensive Rookie-of-the-Year honors. If he didn’t make the tackle, no one was going to make the tackle for the woeful 3-11 Falcons. So Nobis roamed sideline-to-sideline, goal line-to-goal line, as a one-man wrecking crew.
Nobis went to the Pro Bowl in each of his first three years. In his second season, the first official year of the AFL-NFL merger in 1967 when the All-Pro team included the talent pool of both leagues, Nobis was voted first-team middle linebacker ahead of Hall-of-Famers Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke, Sam Huff, Willie Lanier and Nick Buoniconti.
But his fourth season in 1969 ended in the fourth game with a knee injury — and so did his string of Pro Bowls. Nobis underwent surgery on his right knee — and back then it was a surgery, not a scope. A grueling rehabilitation program put him back on the field in 1970 when he went to his fourth Pro Bowl.
Then his 1971 season ended after five games with another injury, this time to his left knee. Another offseason of rehabilitation put Nobis back on the field in 1972, and he again returned to the Pro Bowl for the fifth and final time of his career. Even when Nobis made 183 tackles in 1974, it wasn’t good enough to send him back to a sixth Pro Bowl.
But the surgeries took a toll on the speed, mobility and health of Nobis, and he retired following the 1976 season.
Since then Nobis has been selected to the Atlanta, San Antonio, Georgia, Texas and College Football halls of fame, and his jersey number 60 has been retired by the Falcons. But Nobis can’t seem to get the attention of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His 25-year window of eligibility expired in 2006 without him ever reaching the finals. He’s now in his 10th year in the senior pool without any momentum.
For a five-year stretch, Nobis was arguably as good as any middle linebacker that ever played the NFL game. But those knee injuries never allowed him be that same player again. Maybe it was the short window of greatness that has denied him Hall-of-Fame consideration – the same obstacle that stands in the way of Terrell Davis, Kenny Easley and Sterling Sharpe.
Maybe it was the fact Nobis played on such a bad team. The Falcons went 50-100-4 as a start-up franchise during his 11-year career, and Nobis never appeared in a playoff game. Sixty-eight percent of all Hall-of-Fame enshrinees won championships during their careers. Titles are almost a prerequisite for Canton.
Whatever the reason, Nobis has been short-changed.
“I played against Butkus and Nobis, and I don’t think there was 30 seconds difference between them,” said Hall-of-Fame center Jim Otto. “Butkus, Nobis and Willie Lanier were the best.”
But the wait continues for one of the best.