Ed. Note: This column is adapted from one that originally appeared in December 2013, but feels relevant again given the passing this week of Nobis.
Hearing the news that Tommy Nobis had passed away reminded me of something that’s stuck in my craw for many years. It reminded me of an accolade that the greatest Atlanta Falcon still deserves. Tommy Nobis belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
For those that don’t know, Tommy Nobis is (and probably always will be) the greatest Atlanta Falcon ever. He was the first player the expansion Falcons drafted and he was immediately one of the best players in the league. He was the NFL Rookie of the Year and a Pro Bowler to go along with a still-standing team record 294 tackles in year one. He quickly earned the well-deserved nickname of Mr. Falcon.
Nobis went on to have a stellar career. In 11 seasons he led the team in tackles nine times. He went to five Pro Bowls and was an All-Pro twice. He was selected for the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 1960s.
Nobis ranks as one of the best linebackers of all time, but he’s never gotten his just desserts. Ask a lot of his contemporaries and they’ll tell you how much they hated playing against him. Larry Csonka, the Hall of Fame running back from the Miami Dolphins, once said “I’d rather play against Dick Butkus than Nobis.”
As the first Falcon, the team hit a home run. He was always a great representative of the team. After his playing days ended, he worked for the team until he was edged out the door by current management. He will always be Mr. Falcon. His number 60 hangs in the rafters. Fans that never saw him play, myself included, still know he is the best we’ve ever had.
So why isn’t Tommy Nobis in the Hall of Fame already? There are plenty of less deserving players enshrined in Canton already. Some made the argument that it’s because he was on such bad teams (and the Falcons were bad for a while after they started), but that doesn’t hold water. Maybe the lack of a playoff trip is supposed to reflect on his abilities? No one doubts that Dick Butkus is an all-time legend and deserves his spot in Canton. But do you know how many times a Butkus team went to the playoffs? Zero. And his Bears had been around a lot longer than the fresh Falcon organization. Why is the winning argument valid for some players and not for others? A linebacker can’t do a lot if his offense is putrid.
As great as he was in the NFL, Nobis is an even bigger legend at the collegiate level. Nobis is one of the most revered players in the history of the University of Texas. His number 60 was retired there. He’s in their Hall of Honor. He was an All-American on both offense and defense. He appeared on the cover of LIFE, Sports Illustrated, and TIME magazines. He was named to Sports Illustrated’s All-Century Team.
He was even such a star that his name was mentioned in space. Back when Nobis was coming out of college, pro football was split into two leagues, the NFL and the AFL. Before they merged a few years later, the leagues held separate drafts and competed for the same players. Nobis was such a talent that he was drafted number one by the NFL’s Falcons and the AFL’s Houston Oilers, setting off a tremendous battle for his services. An astronaut aboard Gemini 7, Oiler fan Frank Borman, messaged back to earth “tell Nobis to sign with Houston.” Luckily for Atlanta he went another direction.
As much as he was a Hall of Fame-caliber player, Nobis was also an all-time classic person. I had the tremendous pleasure to interact with Tommy on many occasions. You could never meet a more down to earth person. In fact, you’d never know what a legend he is because he was so modest.
One of my favorite stories about him involves a young kid who reasoned that Tommy must be someone important because of all the people buzzing about him. The kid asked Tommy if he played football. Tommy simply replied, “Oh, just a little bit.” Tommy Nobis played just a little bit of football in the same way that Albert Eistein did just a little bit of physics work.
Tommy was always more interested in helping others. Thankfully he received recognition for that. He was the founder and a Board of Directors member of the Tommy Nobis Center that started in 1975. It’s aim is to provide people with disabilities job training and employment services. He earned the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. award for his work with the Georgia Special Olympics. He was the NFL Man of the Year.
Tommy Nobis racked up the accolades over his lifetime. He earned every one of them. When I first tackled this column for years ago, I said my fear was that he won’t get that one real special accolade he deserved on his mantel until it was too late. Unfortunately, I was right. He passed away this week at 74 years old. It’s too late for Tommy to get to be there for his enshrinement, but voters can still do the right thing. It’s time for Mr. Falcon to get his spot in Canton.