Tommy Nobis, the first Falcon, was also champion for the disabled

Tracey Lyons (left) and Christopher Napisa disassemble old Georgia Power electric meters at the Tommy Nobis Center. The vests indicate they are hearing impaired.

Credit: Bob Andres/AJC

Credit: Bob Andres/AJC

Tracey Lyons (left) and Christopher Napisa disassemble old Georgia Power electric meters at the Tommy Nobis Center. The vests indicate they are hearing impaired.

Ray Simms walks half a mile to the first of three buses (and a train) he needs to get to Marietta where he packages medical supplies for Emory and Northside hospitals.

It’s been that way every weekday nearly two decades for the blind man, now 65 years old.

He first heard about the Tommy Nobis Center from a man in a television commercial. The man talked about what the center does: puts a paycheck in the pockets of folks with disabilities.

At the time, Simms was an unemployed 40-something, blinded a decade earlier by a workplace accident he doesn't like to dwell on, so he gave the Nobis Center a call.

READ | Family, friends fondly remember the first Falcon, Tommy Nobis

He ended up meeting that man from the commercial. He learned how much that man liked sweet tea. He befriended that man. Now, he’ll miss him — the first man ever drafted by the Atlanta Falcons.

Nobis died Wednesday at age 74 in his Sandy Springs home after years with dementia.

“The sports world was one thing, but he had an impact on people with disabilities,” Simms said. “And when you’re disabled, it’s easy to give up, feel sorry or yourself and not even try. He was an inspiration and encouragement. Over the years, thousands of people benefited from his encouragement.”

He’s right.

The Nobis center has put more than 25,000 people with physical and developmental disabilities to work since opening 40 years ago, said CEO Dave Ward.

READ | The first Falcon, Tommy Nobis, was epic, and barely made it to Atlanta

Former Falcons linebacker Tommy Nobis is introduced during the game against the  Eagles at the Georgia Dome on Sept. 14, 2015.

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The other two co-founders approached Nobis, who was involved in the Special Olympics, and convinced him of the need that existed, Ward said.

The hard-hitting red-headed middle linebacker has had his number, 60, retired here in Atlanta and at the University of Texas.

“He was a great football player but his impact was greatest in the community,” Ward said.

Peggy Withrow saw that during her 24 years with the Nobis Center.

She said Nobis could often be found out on the floor sitting beside folks helping them with their tasks.

“He gave us an important job to do, and we’ll continue doing it,” she said.

READ | What Tommy Nobis meant to me

Winthrow now manages the center’s 10 federal contracts.

They’ve trained 70 people doing administrative or mailroom work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Justice and many others.

She said their contract with the Department of Housing and Urban Development employs 30 people in 19 states.

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“Many times, people feel that you’re disabled and the quality of the work is going to be inferior, but that’s not true ... if you’re trained and have pride in what you do, you’ll put forward what’s best,” Simms said.

He said he and others work so hard because of the affection and attention Nobis gave them.

“Doors can be cracked, but it’s up to us to keep those doors open. And the only way those doors can stay open is with that encouragement. He instilled that in all of us,” Simms said.

“Those who knew him, we’re not going to give up. His past is going to intensify our willingness to carry on his legacy.”

READ | Tommy Nobis was perhaps greatest linebacker in Texas history 

“Mr. Falcon,” Tommy Nobis, played in Atlanta from 1966-76. Nobis was Atlanta’s No. 1 pick in the NFL draft out of Texas. With the Texas Longhorns (1963–1965), Nobis averaged nearly 20 tackles a game. He won the Outland Trophy for the best lineman in the country as a senior. In Atlanta, Nobis quickly became the face of the franchise. Nobis won Rookie of the Year and made the Pro Bowl in 1966. He averaged close to 18 tackles a game his first year. Nobis made five Pro Bowl teams during an 11-year car