Atlanta Falcons great Tommy Nobis belongs in Pro Football Hall of Fame

(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

The Atlanta Falcons first ever draft pick, linebacker Tommy Nobis, died at the age of 74 this week, and his call to the Pro Football Hall of Fame is long overdue.

Tommy Nobis is a name who may not be familiar to some, but which will curl a smile over the lips of longtime Atlanta Falcons fans and NFL historians who truly appreciate what it took to play in the league as the Super Bowl era was just beginning.

The linebacker out of Texas was the number one overall pick in 1966, and was the very first draft pick the expansion Atlanta Falcons made in their inaugural season, choosing Atlanta over the Houston Oilers who had also picked him in the AFL draft.

As first reported by Jeff Hullinger, an anchor for the Atlanta NBC affiliate WXIA, Nobis passed away at the age of 74 on December 13.

Nobis was a true throwback player, all the way down to his crewcut and square linebacker jaw, and was as ferocious and fierce a competitor on the field as you’d find, but equally as caring and gentle a human being away from the gridiron.

My first encounter with Nobis was in 1973 at the age of 6. My father was a scoutmaster for our local Boy Scout troop, and had arranged for Nobis to speak to the boys about citizenship, loyalty, discipline and hard work in whatever you do. After the speaking engagement, my dad invited Nobis to our home, which he gladly accepted.

I was upstairs in bed and I heard the sound of my father’s voice calling me to the den. As I skulked down the hallway to the top of the stairs, I saw my dad in his Scout uniform standing next to an unassuming looking fellow in a flannel shirt and jeans.

I had no idea who it was, but my dad beckoned me to come say hi. He introduced me with a big dad-like grin, saying, “Mike, this is Tommy Nobis”.  He could have said any anonymous name and gotten the same stoic reaction out of me, but I reached my hand out and gave a polite (but sleepy) hello.

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My dad then explained to me that Nobis played football for the Atlanta Falcons. This upped my excitement a slight amount, but being a 6-year-old, I probably was hoping more for Batman than an NFL player.

The 1-3 Falcons had just come off a home loss to San Francisco, and were preparing for the Chicago Bears to come to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, but Nobis sat there on a Monday night, the day after being physically pounded for the better part of three hours, and chatted with a little kid who hardly even knew what a football was, less yet a linebacker.

As our brief conversation came to a close, I told him I hoped the Falcons won a lot of games this year because it would make my dad happy. He nodded, chuckled, and gave me a firm handshake. As it turned out, the Falcons went on a seven-game winning streak after that, on the way to a 9-5 season – their first winning record in franchise history.

I, of course, take full credit for that.

I started watching games with my dad after that night (well, the games we were able to see in limited television viewership at that time) and I always kept my eye on number 60. This polite, quiet, average looking fellow was an absolute beast on the football field.

I watched Nobis decleat opposing players, and then walk away like a gunfighter who had just put a bullet through his enemy’s heart in a duel. His tackles were often violent and jarring, but there was no celebration following one of his patented slobberknockers. He simply collected himself, and walked back to the huddle.

That was Nobis. Unrelenting, and feared throughout the league.

I was able to speak to Nobis a few times over the years, and he never changed. He also never forgot speaking for my dad’s Boy Scout troop or meeting a weary-eyed youngster who would grow up to be quite a football fan.

During his 11-year career with the Falcons, Nobis put up some nice statistics, some which compare to other players of that era who already have a bust in Canton, Ohio. The fact that Nobis played for an expansion franchise mired in mediocrity for most of this time with the team didn’t help. He was a Falcon, and most voters and national media members payed little attention to the Falcons.

A Rookie of the Year in 1966, a 5-time Pro Bowl player, a member of the NFL 1960s All-Decade team, and a still standing Falcons record of 296 combined tackles in a season say a lot. But what you saw on the field from Nobis said a lot more.

Had Nobis worn purple, or yellow, or silver and white, he’d probably be enshrined in Canton already.

It would have been a cherished moment for me to see Tommy Nobis presented with a gold jacket and giving what would probably have been a brief, but memorable Hall of Fame acceptance speech. Now the best we’ll ever see is a family member accepting the posthumous honor for Nobis.

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The time for “Mr. Falcon” to be honored by the Pro Football Hall of Fame is long overdue. It’s sad that it may have taken his death and another look back at his career as compared to his contemporaries who are already in Canton’s hallowed halls to get it done.