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Reflections on Tommy Nobis, pioneering First Falcon

Tommy Nobis drags the anchor of 70 years. His knees are shot, but he is too cussedly stubborn to get them replaced. There is a wobble to his walk and a spoonful more molasses in his Texas twang these days. He gets confused too easily, too often.

Yet it doesn’t matter how many years have jumped onto the pile and worked him over good. Take just one glance at the jaw cut as square as a street corner curb. Shake one of those big mitts custom built to latch onto a runner and never let go. Sense his proud air. And anyone just meeting Nobis could see through the battered wrapping and know right away:

This man played football.

Didn’t just play it, he weathered it like a barn stands up to the rain and wind. Loved it. Lived it. Would step out there tomorrow and, if the team needed, throw himself once more into the path of a human landslide on third-and-1. You can just tell.

No. 60 officially turns 70 on Friday. No fuss for the First Falcon on a landmark occasion. The highlight may be sharing some pizza with the staff and clients at the eponymous Cobb County center that trains the disabled for the workplace.

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“It gets to the point that you don’t want to make a big deal of it because you don’t want to admit that, hey, you’re really that old,” Nobis said shortly before entering his eighth decade.

“I know I’m aged and certainly a lot more limited in what I can do — particularly physically — but I don’t feel like I’m that old. I know this old body has been through a lot and there have been a lot of guys younger who already have passed or gotten really serious problems. I’m just grateful with where I’m at with that.”

It is classically Nobis that he does not kick even against the tide of time. He is one of the great quiet, noble sufferers of this city’s sporting past, the patron saint of the lost cause that was the Falcons’ beginnings.

There has come new ownership, a roofed stadium (with another convertible on the drawing board) and a whole different set of expectations since Nobis played middle linebacker for the Falcons from 1966-76. His was not a celebrated age. His was a glory-starved professional career.

Before this season, the NBC Sports Network conducted a project to identify the four most significant faces of each NFL franchise, a sort of “Mount Rushmore” for every team. Those sort of historical surveys tend to skew toward the more recent. The most vintage Falcons player selected by a fan poll and panel vote was linebacker Jessie Tuggle (1987-2000). Also represented was the flashiest Falcon — Deion Sanders. And the motor to the team’s lone Super Bowl season — Jamal Anderson. And the promise of today — Matt Ryan.

What about the player who began it all, the first pick of the expansion Falcons’ first NFL draft? What about the man who carried this franchise on his back, never buckling, in a time when it was almost certain it would lose two of every three games. Humankind would take its first steps on the moon back then. But the Falcons making the postseason? Now, that was impossible.

Someone had to keep the stove lit on the coldest of Falcons winters.

“My dad loved Tommy,” said Taylor Smith, whose late father, Rankin, owned the team from the beginning until Arthur Blank. “He played the role of face of the franchise in every way, on the field and off it.”

“He was absolutely the hardest-hitting Falcon ever. That wasn’t only one play, it was every play,” said Mike Tilleman, a defensive tackle who roomed with Nobis in his final Falcons years.

“He’s the one who started this thing,” said former linebacker Greg Brezina, a longtime teammate.

Surely that is the stuff to carve on a mountainside, whether a hypothetical one or otherwise.

“We had a lot of guys who played hurt and never got a lot of recognition. We all went out and lined up every week, taped up. To me, that was pro football. These other type of things, I laugh at,” said the old player who got out long before there was an Internet and the frivolous polls it spawned.

Becoming a Falcon a tough call

The Sandy Springs home where Nobis and his wife, Lynn, have lived for 19 years is hardly overdone in football chic. The trinkets of his football life are relegated to one corner here and a single shelf there. More prominent are the photos and keepsakes from 46 years of marriage and the three children and eight grandchildren that were a result.

Ask him which single football memento he would save in the event of a fire, and he can’t think of any that means appreciably more than the rest.

If his mind sometimes fails him — Nobis has been diagnosed with the onset of dementia and was part of the recently settled NFL concussion lawsuit — he still remembers vivid details of his playing past. While not big on displaying his treasures, he still is able to contribute much to his personal oral history.

The Falcons clearly were focused on the highly decorated Texas defender (Outland Trophy and Maxwell Award winner) as their first-ever draft pick. So was the rival AFL, with a franchise in Houston just aching to sign a native son.

The tug-of-war reached all the way to outer space. “Tell Nobis to sign with Houston,” was the message Gemini 7’s Frank Borman relayed home in 1965.

“That was kind of unbelievable, the age I was at the time then to have some co-ed come running down the hallway saying, ‘Tommy, you should hear what I just heard on the radio — Borman’s hoping you sign and go to Houston,” Nobis said.

He struggled with the decision. Raised in San Antonio, Nobis liked the idea of playing in his home state. But ultimately, the lure of the more storied NFL — even if it meant playing for a team just planted in the foreign red soil of Georgia — was too much to resist.

The prospect of going to a city that was in the first stages of building its professional sports tradition also appealed to him.

“There were days during that first training camp with the Falcons that I kind of questioned myself whether I had done the right thing. But what it comes down to is that football is football,” Nobis said.

Someone had to be the First Falcon, and it was Nobis’ lot to be born to the role. Taylor Smith remembered those expansion-era teams of the late-’60s as a collection of castoffs and this young firebrand at the middle of the defense and at the center of every big hit.

He was the league’s rookie of the year in ’66, the same season he became the Falcons’ first Pro Bowl player. In his 11 seasons, Nobis made five Pro Bowls on teams that went a combined 50-100 and made zero postseason appearances. He twice underwent knee surgery in the era before the arthroscope, back when they filleted the knee like a flounder. Hence the hinge to his right leg that he couldn’t straighten today with a sledgehammer.

“I never heard him complain one time about anything. Not about the pain. Not about the lack of recognition,” Smith said.

Because Nobis is such a proud man, such a good soldier, it is difficult to get an exact reading on his current well-being.

As one of the hundreds of former players who filed suit against the NFL claiming the league misled them and hid from them the lasting damage of repeated concussions, Nobis is eligible to collect from last month’s $765 million settlement.

According to the 2012 court filing, Nobis “has experienced cognitive and other difficulties including but not limited to headaches, loss of memory, dementia, depression, fatigue, sleep problems, numbness and tingling in his neck and cervical spine.”

Of the suit settlement, he said, “I don’t anticipate getting a whole lot — there are so many people lined up.”

He is drawing from the 88 Plan, named after the late Hall of Famer John Mackey, which helps former players who experience dementia, Alzheimer’s, ALS or Parkinson’s. “It has been a God-send,” Lynn Nobis said. “That takes care of medicines and would cover a person coming in and taking care of him or longer custodial care if he ever needs that.”

Nobis does not make much of an issue at all about any of this. If never asked about it, he would never talk about it. He will be the last person on this earth to lay out any frailties for inspection.

Is he worried about what awaits down an unmarked road? “Not now. I’m not having any kind of episodes,” he said. “I think back to when I was in high school taking tests, world history. I was terrible at it. Why? My memory. I’ve never had a great memory. I’m a tough one to try to (test) as far as the memory thing.”

Still, kids, be warned. Playing with the intensity that Nobis brought to the Sundays of his youth comes with risks. “From what I’ve seen and heard, if I was young enough and could go out play again, it would be dangerous to do what I did then,” he said.

Pride in a hard-knock career

A man turns 70, it is one of those occasions to take inventory.

In Nobis’ case, he will not itemize regrets.

“I feel fortunate to have played 11 years and to have played as hard as I think I did. I did play hard. There were a lot of collisions. I remember a lot of good feelings bringing a guy down with a good hit,” he said.

When Nobis played, he took pride in the scar tissue that built on the bridge of his nose. It was a physical sign that he was sticking that part of his body into places the timid would not go. Each dent and ding became the equivalent of a soldier’s ribbon.

Long-term consequences? Who has time to consider those with a fullback trying to knock you into the next conference? “If you have fear of getting a concussion or having trouble with your head you shouldn’t play. Let’s face it,” Nobis said.

What may have taken just as much a toll was the constant losing.

Of course it ate at Nobis. Here was one of the most decorated of collegiate players. When ABC conducted a poll in 1970 to pick the best athlete of the 1960s, O.J. Simpson finished first. Nobis was right behind him. Then he settled into Atlanta and a scene of unrelenting defeat.

Former long-time Falcons trainer Jerry Rhea remembered trips back from some road loss, the staff off-loading equipment and supplies late at night back at the team training camp, and Nobis staying behind to help unpack. Still fussing over the game, their company helped him unwind.

“He’d tell people, ‘It’s not like we try to lose,’” Rhea said. “He hated it and he stayed mad about it. But he never gave up on it.”

“I played on some teams that just didn’t have a chance to win,” Nobis said. “I never would admit that, even after a season was over, that our (expletive) was beat before we ever lined up against this team or that team.”

One of the sustaining constants in his life was the work with the non-profit that bears his name — it is now called Nobis Works. Over the years it has grown and evolved, born in a school basement, headquartered for years in its own digs in Marietta. At its heart the mission of providing employment training to those with mental and physical challenges never changed. And it was always a place Nobis could go to feel like he was really making a difference.

Pushed aside as reminder of past

His relationship with the team is more distant than one might expect, especially for a player who, as old teammate Tilleman said, “was always proud to be a Falcon, on the field or off it.”

When Nobis retired as a player in 1976, he stayed on with the team in a variety of positions, marketing, scouting, even overseeing a large health club the Falcons launched. “He was told, ‘We want you to be a Falcon for life; we always want you to be a part of this,” Taylor Smith said.

Blank’s purchase of the team in 2002 voided all guarantees. Nobis’ role with the Falcons faded until there was nothing left to do. While his name and number remained on the facade of the Georgia Dome as a member of the team’s Ring of Honor, he did not have the kind of daily connection with the organization that always kept him at least somewhat in the fans’ line of sight.

But the Falcons and their fans always have had an uneasy rapport with the past. More than any other early-era Falcon, Nobis was identified with the old regime and the culture of failure that was being swept out by the new owner. For his part, Nobis never expressed any disappointment with his diminished role. He continued to watch the team with the emotional attachment of an alumnus, more from afar than on site. He would still make a surprise appearance now and then, as he did one day a month ago at the Falcons’ Flowery Branch training camp.

A wife’s scorn is more difficult to contain. “Mr. Blank wanted nothing to do with the Smiths. Tommy was part of the Smiths, so that was that. It hurt him,” Lynn Nobis said.

Where Nobis fits into the larger mural of pro football is another issue. Efforts to get the First Falcon into the Pro Football Hall of Fame have always been compromised by the woeful record his teams compiled. Atlanta and those early Falcons cast such a small shadow nationally that it has always proved difficult to get any broad-based Nobis campaign rolling.

It baffles his old teammates, and old opponents as well, that Nobis has not been handed a bright yellow jacket and some shelf space in Canton. Especially since the player to whom Nobis is most often compared — Chicago’s Dick Butkus — has been in the Hall for 34 years.

“I would take Tommy over Butkus any time,” Tilleman said.

“Tommy was every bit the player (Butkus) was,” said former San Francisco fullback Ken Willard, who often ran into them both.

“At one time I was a little upset about things like that,” Nobis said, “but I’m old enough now I know that, hey, there are a lot of good ones out there who have come and gone since I’ve played.

“I know that there have been so many good players play this game that probably deserve more recognition then they’ve received at this point.”

He even can manage a joke when sizing up the Hall of Fame competition: “Some were naturally faster than I was, some of them naturally bigger and some were uglier, like Butkus. That might come into play a little bit, too.”

The years, they do slide by. Generations of Falcons fans have turned over since 1966. Hall of Fame voters have changed, too. Their bridge to the past doesn’t reach all the way to an old player’s heyday.

And as those years pass — 70 of them since a certain foundation athlete was born in San Antonio, 37 since the First Falcon made his last tackle — it is not Nobis’ own memory that comes into question. It is ours.

“Because of all of the things that have gone on since, fans of today vaguely remember No. 60 for the Falcons,” Nobis said.

“Even the ones who saw you play. You just lose your fans.”

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