Tommy Nobis was Mr. Falcon. You may not remember him. I understand. He played a long time ago. But I sure do. Before Super Bowls and Dirty Birds and Prime Time and the Grits Blitz, Nobis was the Atlanta Falcons.
Nobis, who passed away Wednesday at age 74, was the first player picked by the expansion franchise in 1965 and he was the Falcons' only star player in the first three tough seasons of 1966, 1967 and 1968 when the team won only six times in 42 games.
Nobis even chose to play in Atlanta instead of his home state of Texas when he was drafted by the NFL Falcons and AFL Houston Oilers at the same time. He wanted to be here with us.
Nobis led the Falcons in tackles year after year, in nine of the 11 years of his career. He had 294 in 1966, averaging an astounding 21 a game. Nowadays, if a player gets 10 in a game, it means he had a strong game. Admittedly, back when Nobis played, defensive stats were kept by the teams and the numbers were probably padded a bit. But if anyone ever deserved a break it was him.
Tommy Nobis was as tough as nails. He was John Wayne in a football helmet. When he walked, he waddled like a gunslinger due his chronically bad knees. He often had a bloody nose behind his face mask and he was always covered in dirt from the baseball infield portion of the football field at Atlanta Stadium.
If you were a child of the 60s and 70s in Atlanta like me, when you turned the knob on your TV to the correct channel on Sunday and adjusted the antenna to get a good picture you would see Nobis all over the field making tackles. And he never slowed down or quit, no matter how far behind the Falcons fell. He would make tackles at the line of scrimmage, sideline to sideline, in the backfield, and 25 yards downfield if he had to.
You knew the Falcons were likely going to lose, but you knew Nobis would be there playing hard on every down. And since it was your team, it felt like he was doing it for you too.
If you are younger and don't understand what the fuss is about, click here to watch a video of Nobis on Youtube, or here, and see for yourself.
Nobis never made the Pro Football Hall of Fame but he would have if he'd been healthier and played longer or played for a better team. AJC columnist Furman Bisher once wrote that Nobis should be in the Hall and Furman was not easily impressed. So if he thought Nobis deserved to be enshrined, that's good enough for me.
One of my favorite memories of Nobis came in 1972 when he intercepted a pass against the Rams and returned it for a touchdown. As he ran through the end zone, the usually stoic and always professional Nobis heaved the football into the stands, as if years of Falcons frustration were relieved for him. I hope that’s true.
Due to his bad knees, Nobis retired after the 1976 season. But he didn’t spend the rest of his life padding his bank account at autograph shows. He founded the Tommy Nobis Center to develop and provide job training, employment, and vocational support for people with disabilities and he also worked with the Georgia Special Olympics. That’s a wonderful legacy to have.
As a society we idolize athletes when instead we probably should look up to teachers and firemen and nurses and others that unselfishly make the world better. And often the athletes eventually let us down. After all, they are human just like us, with good qualities and bad, just like us.
But Nobis never let any of us down.
If you were a kid and watched Tommy Nobis play, you learned more than how to make a textbook tackle. You learned to go hard or go home. And you learned that when you are down, you get up again and again and again. That’s who Tommy Nobis was to me.
Rest in peace Tommy.
Credit: AJC file photo
Credit: AJC file photo