ATLANTA — Tommy Nobis, the first player drafted by the expansion Atlanta Falcons and a hard-hitting middle linebacker who was never fully recognized for his talents on a struggling franchise that failed to make the playoffs during his long career, died Wednesday. He was 74.
The team said he died at his suburban Atlanta home after an extended illness with his wife, Lynn, at his side. Nobis was among hundreds of ex-NFL players who struggled with physical and cognitive ailments after their careers ended, having played in an era when no one paid much attention to the long-term impact of concussions nor thought twice about groggily going back on the field after taking a shot to the head.
When the Falcons reached the Super Bowl last season, his wife told the Houston Chronicle that she wasn’t sure if Nobis had any idea what his former team had accomplished.
“We’ve told him the Falcons are in the Super Bowl, and we wear red and black,” Lynn Nobis said. “But it doesn’t seem to click. I don’t know if he understands.”
A native of San Antonio, Nobis starred on both sides of the line at the University of Texas and, despite being slowed by a knee injury during his senior season, he won the Maxwell Award as the best all-around player in college football and the Outland Trophy as the top lineman. He finished seventh in the Heisman Trophy balloting — the top finisher among those who played defense — and appeared on the cover of Life and Sports Illustrated.
“The best defender in college football,” SI declared.
He was drafted first overall by the Falcons and also picked by the Houston Oilers of the American Football League, leading to a spirited bidding war that drew interest as far away as outer space. While orbiting the Earth in his Gemini spacecraft, astronaut Frank Borman — whose two sons were ball boys for the Oilers — urged Nobis to sign with Houston.
“I hope he comes here,” Borman said as his spaceship flew over Houston during its 59th orbit.
Nobis wound up signing with Atlanta, becoming the first player in franchise history and a beloved figure would forever be known as “Mr. Falcon.” He earned NFL rookie of the year honors and the first of five Pro Bowl berths in 1966, and would go on to spend his entire 11-year career with the Falcons. His No. 60 has never been worn by any other Atlanta player, and he was among the initial inductees into the team’s “Ring of Honor” in 2004.
As a rookie, Nobis was credited unofficially with a staggering 296 solo and assisted tackles — an average of more than 21 per game. It remains the franchise record, and he would lead the team in tackles a total of nine times. The only exceptions were the 1969 and ’71 seasons when injuries limited him to a total of nine games.
Nobis also had 12 interceptions in his career, returning two of them for touchdowns.
After his playing days were over, Nobis had a long career in the Falcons front office and also became well known in the Atlanta area for running a charitable organization that provided job training to people with disabilities.
“Tommy’s legacy began as the first Falcons player in team history, was built over 40 years with the organization and will live on for years to come,” team owner Arthur Blank said in a statement. “Mr. Falcon is rightfully beloved by generations of Falcons fans and we will always be grateful for his many contributions to our team and community.”
Nobis’ individual brilliance was often overlooked, however, as the face of a franchise that had only two winning seasons in his long career, posting an overall record of 50-100-4. He retired after a dismal 1976 campaign that infamously ended with Pat Peppler — a front-office type with limited coaching experience — taking the sideline as interim head coach for the last nine games after Marion Campbell was fired.
“We had nine games left in the season, and you at least wanted a fair chance in the fight,” Nobis recalled in a 1998 interview with The Associated Press. “But we went to bat for those last nine games with an unloaded gun. It was a really disastrous time.”
Even though his body was breaking down, Nobis started in all but one of 14 contests his final season, including a 59-0 loss to the Los Angeles Rams in what would be the next-to-last game.
“It’s a stigma,” Nobis told the AP. “When you’re a part of something that’s losing, it’s hard to pull out of it. Very hard.”
Nobis had been in poor health with physical and cognitive ailments that may have been related to his football career. He was among hundreds of ex-players who were part of a plan that reimburses them for expenses related to the treatment of dementia, Parkinson’s, ALS or other neurological disorders. He also was among the plaintiffs who settled a massive concussion lawsuit against with the league.
“It’s sad what football has done to these players,” his wife said in the interview with the Houston newspaper. “But I know he loved it more than anything. He wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
Tommy is survived by his wife and three children, Tommy, Kevin and Devon, as well as eight grandchildren.