Countdown to Canton: Don't blame Tommy Nobis for the teams around him
Tommy Nobis is the only player in NFL history who was once literally out of this world. Or at least his recruitment into the American Football League was.
Had Nobis followed the advice of astronaut Frank Borman, who urged him to sign with the AFL’s Houston Oilers as he orbited the earth in Gemini 7 in the late fall of 1965, perhaps Nobis would have long ago been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
That he did not made him a legend in Atlanta, a 1960s' all-decade selection and one of the fiercest tacklers of his time. What it did not make him was a player discussed by the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame selection committee until now, 43 years after his retirement and, sadly, two years after his death at the age of 74.
Nobis was the first linebacker ever selected No. 1 overall in the then-37-year history of the NFL draft when the expansion Falcons made him their first selection. Forever more he would be known as “Mr. Falcon,’’ but not simply because he was first. He was arguably also their greatest player, one who would become Rookie of the Year in 1966 after he was credited with the most tackles ever by a single player in a single season, 294.
It is an unofficial record that stands to this day and is only the beginning of Nobis’ dominance at middle linebacker.
Nobis made the Pro Bowl each of his first three seasons and was named first-team All-Pro in 1967 ahead of future Hall-of-Famers Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke, Sam Huff, Willie Lanier and Nick Buoniconti. Although football was a struggle for the fledgling Falcons it wasn't for Nobis until the following season.
On his way to a fourth straight Pro Bowl, Nobis blew out his right knee four games into the 1969 season, which in those days meant major surgery and a grueling rehab. Nobis went through it and returned a year later to again be named to the Pro Bowl. Although his sideline-to-sideline speed had slipped he was still a feared tackler in the midst of a less-than-fearsome Falcon defense.
“I’d rather play against Butkus than Nobis,’’ future Hall-of-Fame fullback Larry Csonka said at the time, even though Butkus would become considered to be the greatest middle linebacker in NFL history.
Perhaps the problem for Nobis was stated succinctly by his then-head coach, Norm Van Brocklin, who once pointed to Nobis’ locker and said, “That’s where are team dresses.’’ There was more truth to that than was healthy for either the Falcons or Nobis.
During his 11-year career, Nobis accrued a multitude of individual honors, but his team went 50-100-4. He never once played in a playoff game, a factor that likely contributed mightily to his absence from the Hall-of-Fame debate after his retirement because 68 per cent of Pro Football Hall of Famers played on a championship team.
Poor Nobis never even managed to reach the playoffs.
Nobis’ career turned cold in 1971 when he sustained a serious injury to his left knee, resulting in major surgery and nearly a year of rehab. He returned in 1972 to make his final Pro Bowl appearance, but by then much of his speed and agility were gone. Although he would lead the Falcons in tackles in nine of his 11 seasons and be credited with 183 tackles as late as 1974, his best years were behind him and he retired following the 1976 season.
Despite his team’s failures, Tommy Nobis was among the three or four best linebackers in football for at least half his career and a force so formidable that Oakland Raiders’ Hall-of-Fame center Jim Otto, who made his living trying to block the likes of Nobis and Butkus, once said, “I played against Butkus and Nobis, and I don’t think there was 30 seconds' difference between them. Butkus, Nobis and Willie Lanier were the best.”
Otto should know since he went nose-to-nose will all of them in the prime of their careers. Two of the three are Hall of Famers. This year’s Hall-of-Fame Centennial Committee has the chance to make it a clean sweep and right a nearly 50-year wrong by enshrining Mr. Falcon in Canton. Unless the voters hold the failures of his teammates against him, there’s no good reason not to.