Nobis: the Man, the Legend

Nobis at last season's alumni day. 2010/AtlantaFalcons.com

The sandy red crewcut is mostly gone, replaced by the flossy platinum-tinged and much-thinned debonair cropped do one would associate with an accomplished businessman. The massive build has softened, widened. The height has stayed through the years, though some stoop has crept in. An inviting, warming pair of creases now tug at the outside corners of eyes that once started steely and determinedly across the ethereal line that separates two opposing forces in football. When he speaks, you hear not the harsh growl of a seasoned, scarred warrior but the charming, measured tones of a grandfather sitting on his porch telling stories. He speaks in colloquialisms and anecdotes and metaphors, jumping from one subject to the next without so much as a prompt or goad. The words he lets loose come from the side of his lips, not the front, and they're wrapped in small southern-accented care packages. Business becomes "bidness" and Greenville, South Carolina becomes "Greenvull Sowth Cayrohlina." He could do dubbing work for any small-town Georgia grocery store owner or used-car lot sweet-talker. 

Tommy Nobis is, however, neither a small town Georgia businessman nor a car salesman. He is instead "Mr. Falcon," a former linebacker. He was likely one of the, if not the best linebackers the Falcons, if not the NFL, have ever seen. You just wouldn't be able to tell that from this clip. While it may be unfair to compare our ideas of Nobis the Linebacker to the more tangible (at least to those of us too young to have seen him in action) Nobis the Grandpa on display in the previously linked clip, the facts help clear up our picture of what was a more than Hall of Fame-worthy career.

The trouble with researching a football player whose rookie year was in 1966 is the lack of decent record keeping. The NFL of 1966 rarely kept proper offensive stats, let alone decent defensive stats. Most teams, fans, and executives were worried with final scores, scoring stats, and winning percentages. Because of this, defensive stars like Nobis really didn't have the numbers to back up all the hype they were receiving. People just tuned in; and, let's face it, the Falcons of the 60's weren't exactly fun to watch, unless you enjoyed watching the living embodiment of ineptitude.

Take that into account as we venture forth: I'm piecing most of this together from what's available at hand. Most of you will already know all of this by now. For those of you who don't, here's your primer on the ultimate Falcon.

The Man

Tommy Nobis was born (1943) and raised in the football hot bed of San Antonio, Texas and likely played football through his formative years in the early 1950's. At the tender, malleable age of 16, Nobis was a non-lettered 150 pound quarterback on the football squad of San Antonio's Jefferson High School. Though it's not clear what happened between his sophomore year and junior year in high school, Nobis began his junior year thirty-five pounds heavier and taking over the middle linebacker spot (while moonlighting as an offensive end when the defense was on the sideline). Nobis ended up lettering that year and even managed to earn the attention of of state award committees, garnering "All State" status going into his senior year.

By the time this defensive wunderkind suited up as a Texas Longhorn in 1962, had ballooned to a brick-like 225 pounds. Nobis saw his first start a year later, with the Longhorns riding a perfect season and eventually, with Nobis' help, beating Navy (and its Heisman winning QB Roger Staubach) in a contest for the national championship. He was the only sophomore starting on that year's squad.

Texas' winning trend continued in '64 and '65 and Nobis followed right with them, winning the Knute Rockne award (best lineman), the Outland Trophy (best interior lineman) and the Maxwell Award (best player in college ball) in 1965, his last year at Texas.

Of course, all of this winning and outstanding play made Tommy Nobis a highly sought after player as the two professional football drafts neared in late 1965. Two drafts, you ask? Many of you know that before 1970, the NFL was competing with the AFL, which housed such awesome teams as the Jets, the Bengals, and the (Houston) Oilers. In 1970, these two entities merged to create the AFC/NFC aligned NFL we all know and love today. However, back in 1965, there were two professional football associations and thus, two drafts. The Oilers had second pick in the AFL draft and a newly chartered expansion NFL team, the Atlanta Falcons, had first grab in the NFL draft. College players in these golden times of pro ball had a choice: the AFL or NFL. For some, it was easier, as they'd be picked at different intervals in each draft and would have an easier time choosing due to possible monetary gain. Not Tommy Nobis.

Both the Falcons and Oilers picked Tommy Nobis in their association's respective first draft round, almost guaranteeing him big buckaroos from either club. Despite many people clamoring for the Texas standout to land in Houston, Nobis picked the upstart Falcons and then had one of the best defensive rookie years ever.

In 1966, less than a year removed from his last college season of football, Tommy Nobis compiled a staggering (and still Atlanta Falcons season record) 294 combined tackles, a mark that has yet to be bested by any NFL player to date. This earned him the title of Defensive Rookie of the Year as well as a trip to the Pro Bowl.

Thanks to the NFL's poor defensive record keeping, the only real stats we have for him are 11 career interceptions (two of which were returned for touchdowns) and the (unofficial) 294 tackle mark for his rookie year. Still, Nobis made the Pro Bowl three years in a row (66, 67, 68) and again in 70 and 72. He's a member of four hall of fames (just not Canton, sigh): Georgia, San Antonio, College, and Texas University. His number is retired at the University of Texas and his number is "rested" with the Falcons. The organization claims that it can't retire any number, but no Falcons player has ever worn #60 since Nobis hung up his cleats in 1976.

The Legend

Now that you know more about the man, I can safely say you're ready for the seasoning on his life/career. There are things that, once known, will amplify your view of Mr. Falcon beyond supernova status. I've decided to add them here in bullets, since they're easier to digest than a narrative. Suffice to say, there's a lot to bullet here.

  • I mentioned that in his last year of college, Nobis won the Rockne, Outland, and Maxwell awards. Well, he did all of that despite playing with an injured knee... on both sides of the ball. Nobis was a "iron man" player, one who played both offense and defense. Him playing to the caliber required to win these trophies while injured? Makes you feel kinda guilty about crying out when you stub your toe, huh?
  • Remember when I mentioned that many were clamoring for Nobis to pick Houston over Atlanta in late '65? One of them happened to voice his opinion from space. Gemini Mission 7 astronaut Frank Borman included in one of his transmissions back to earth the following quote: "Tell Nobis to sign with Houston."
  • Nobis was featured on not one, not two, but three major magazine covers in 1965: Time, Life, and Sports Illustrated.
  • Coach Norm Van Brocklin once famously pointed Nobis' locker out to press members and proclaimed, "That's where our football team dresses."
  • Known tough man and prolific Miami Dolphins running back Larry Csonka once admitted "I'd rather play against Dick Butkus than Nobis."
  • Those two interception touchdown returns? Tommy celebrated by throwing the ball to fans in the stands, incurring a $100 fine each time. Chad Ochocinco eat your heart out.
  • He made the '72 Pro Bowl after having knee surgery on both knees
  • Mike Ditka on what made Nobis great: "It was not one thing he did, it was everything he did. It was an old fashioned linebacker. He didn't call attention to himself. He went out and played it."
  • Tom Landry's opinion on Mr. Falcon: "Nobis was as fast as most [running] backs. In my mind he was a super player."
  • Nobis is still a Falcon, at least in a way. Since his retirement, he's been a member of the Falcons board of directors, currently holding the title of "Vice President of Corporate Development."
  • He founded the Tommy Nobis Center, an organization dedicated to helping disabled people find jobs. 
  • He won the Joe Kennedy, Jr award for helping the Georgia Special Olympics.
The Shame
  • This man is still not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Here's what Dan Reeves and Furman Bisher have to say about that.
Reeves:

As a running back for eight seasons in the NFL, I certainly took my share of hits. Unfortunately I remember some of them, particularly the ones from Falcons linebacker Tommy Nobis. "Mr. Falcon," as he is known in this part of the country, should be considered a worthy candidate for the Hall of Fame. I played and coached on some great teams while I was with Dallas. Those teams consisted of Hall of Fame members like Bob Lilly, Roger Staubach and Tom Landry. I feel that Nobis' contributions on the field merit those of the Cowboys Hall of Fame players. Before the days of mass media and cable television, the play of Nobis stood a good chance of being missed due to the Falcons lack of success during his tenure. I think we need to count on the members of the media to help keep his legacy alive and teach our younger fans of his playing days. If you talk to the players of his era, they will certainly name Nobis as one of the game's most fierce competitors.

Bisher:
There isn't much more one can say about Tommy Nobis. In the glow of a winning team, where he would have been a star on the isolated camera, he would already have been residing in Canton. It's not a Falcons thing, it's a Nobis thing, and here is a man who lives up to all the ideals I would establish for admission to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Pro Football Hall of Fame or not, Nobis is in the Falcons fans' Hall of Fame and that's all that really matters. As long as we honor and remember the star linebacker that helped pave the way for our Dirty Birds, his greatness will never be forgotten. Go forth and spread the facts and spread the legend. Nobis is and will always be Mr. Falcon to us.

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