Before the last Super Bowl, Tommy Nobis’ family tried to tell him that his old team, Atlanta, was in the game. The organization that called him Mr. Falcon. The franchise he gave 11 outstanding seasons, and received less in the exchange.
The team right there, in red and black.
“It’s sad what football has done to these players,” Nobis’ wife, Lynn, told the Houston Chronicle. “But I know he loved it more than anything.
“He wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
Growing up in San Antonio, Nobis so loved football, he bused across town to Jefferson to play there. He was all-state at offensive end and linebacker, and he played both ways at Texas, leading the Longhorns to a national title in ’63 and winning the Outland Trophy and Maxwell Award as a senior.
His red crew cut, freckles and good nature belied an almost feral ferocity on a football field, where, in scrimmages, even teammates feared him. Darrell Royal once said he’d like to have seven just like him, “but that wouldn’t be fair.”
Nobis was so good that the expansion Falcons chose him with the first pick of the ’66 draft, and the AFL’s Oilers took him fifth. Frank Borman made a recruiting pitch for Houston from Gemini 7, but Nobis’ father made the call.
His rookie season, Nobis set a franchise standard yet to be surpassed: 296 total tackles, an average of 21 per game. He was Rookie of the Year and a Pro Bowler and a reason for the greatest era of middle linebackers in NFL history.
Ray Nitschke and Dick Butkus came first, and Willie Lanier followed. Lanier and Butkus piled up more awards, and Nitschke played on better teams. If Nobis’ stats didn’t quite match, Dan Reeves said he was the best middle linebacker he ever played against.
The former Cowboy once called it a “tragedy” that Nobis isn’t in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Might have been the company he kept, both as a middle linebacker and Falcon. They didn’t win much.
But when he looked back after the ’76 season, he didn’t see another bad Atlanta team. Only a bad Tommy Nobis. So he quit.
“I couldn’t accept that caliber of play,” he said.
The toll required was devastating. Besides the knee injuries, Nobis would be diagnosed with dementia. A beneficiary of the lawsuit against the NFL, he lived out his days outside Atlanta, where he died last week at 74.
He was named to the NFL’s ’60s team, and his iconic 60 is one of only six numbers retired by Texas. And if that wasn’t enough, well, he had no complaints.
“Those are just the breaks,” he once said, before his wife had to speak for him.