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

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“Mr. Falcon,” Tommy Nobis, played in Atlanta from 1966-76.

Tommy Nobis of the Atlanta Falcons died Wednesday, which is especially sad for anyone who met the gentle giant from San Antonio and would like another chance to sit a spell with him and shoot the breeze. One more Alamo moment would benefit everyone.

Can’t do that now. The freckled, red-headed, grinning, aw-shucks man is gone, so, we’re left to wonder or perhaps stand back in amazement in looking at how such a modest man could’ve caused so much mayhem.

He was a linebacker. Man, was he a linebacker. One of the best ever. Look it up. He’d smash you, usually with a bloody nose already going, and then smash you again on the next play. 

And he was a marvelous human being. Look that up, too.

Had Nobis played for more a more prominent team than the Falcons, with whom he spent his entire NFL career (1966-’76), he’d be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame right now. He was every bit the equal of Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke, but they played for banner franchises and Nobis certainly did not.

You can read other stories about that in a lot of places.

Here, adapted from the book,“Tales From the Atlanta Falcons Sideline,” is how Nobis landed with the Falcons in a remarkable sequence in which he blunted an astronaut’s plea from space.

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As the Falcons in 2005 entered their 40th season in the football business, Tommy Nobis was the only person outside of management who had been with the organization for all of its first 39 years, but that was only after he resisted a call from outer space.

Landing the former University of Texas linebacker/offensive guard wasn’t as simple as Falcons owner Rankin Smith making Nobis the first overall pick of the NFL draft, which back in those days was held in November.

Nobis, a giant for a linebacker at 6-feet-2 and 233 pounds, had won nearly every award imaginable for the Longhorns, and shortly after the AFL’s newest team, the Miami Dolphins, drafted Kentucky quarterback Rich Norton and Illinois fullback Jim Grabowski (the first two picks being a reward for being an expansion team), the AFL’s Houston Oilers picked Nobis at No. 5.

Rugged to the bone and honest as daylight, the San Antonio native’s first comments to the Atlanta media were true to his form. “I go where the ball goes,” he said. “A man ought to have enough pride to play every game as hard as he can, wringing every bit of energy he has in him trying to win. That’s the only thing that matters in football.”

But to which team would he go?

For as raw as Nobis sometimes seemed – like when he said, “I hit ‘em right in the goozle, high and hard. That way, they don’t go anywhere but down.” – he was no dummy.

Texas coach Darrel Royal liked to remind people that his prize player was majoring in speech, and when the coach was asked the key to the ‘backer’s success, he said, “He ain’t exactly eat up with a case of the stupid.”

Given that Oilers owner Bud Adams vowed to break the bank in pursuit of Nobis, his future was in doubt.

The Falcons were an NFL expansion team, and the league granted them the first and last picks of each of the draft’s first five rounds, and Atlanta’s second firsts-rounder, quarterback Randy Johnson of Texas A&M, signed a contract the same day he was drafted.

Nobis would take a while.

Unlike today – when drafted players have few options (other than playing for the team that drafts them or not at all) – Nobis and some other drafted players had choices. Adams put on a hard sell, taking a page out of Nobis’ book on how to approach things that matter – all-out.

Once the draft ended, the recruiting began.

“The value of Bud Adams’ package was worth more than what Rankin could afford,” Nobis recalled in 2004. “He had some cattle in the offer, and he was in oil, Phillips Petroleum [which his father ran].”

A call from space

While the Falcons went immediately about signing other draft picks, Nobis scheduled a visit to Atlanta. He and Grabowski, were about the only dual first-round picks who didn’t sign quickly in one league or the other.

There was considerable commotion about the two record-setting players in the drafts, driven in part by the fact that the AFL’s No. 1 pick of the 1964 draft, Alabama quarterback Joe Namath, got a signing bonus of about $400,000, a whopping sum at the time, when the Jets tabbed him before everybody else.

While Nobis was in Atlanta, Adams said, “If he doesn’t sign in Atlanta now, I think the Falcons have lost him. Nobis is at least a $400,000 a year ballplayer. We don’t go by budget out here, so there won’t be any problem in signing him if he wants to play.”

Adams in 1961 lost his No. 1 draft choice, tight end Mike Ditka, to the NFL’s Chicago Bears, and he didn’t want that to happen again. “The only reason we lost Ditka was we were a little lazy in the way we went about it,” the Oilers owner said.

Nobis wasn’t rushing his decision.

He went from Atlanta to Houston, visited with Adams, and then returned to school. At one point, he told The Atlanta Constitution, “I’m so confused I don’t know what I’m doing. I may just have to put aside the offers and decide where the hell I want to play football.”

The Oilers kept recruiting from all angles – including space.

As astronaut Frank Borman orbited the earth in Gemini 7, he made his own sales pitch. Nobis didn’t hear it directly. The message went to mission control at the NASA space center in Houston. But he sure heard of it.

“He radioed back that he certainly hoped that I would sign with the Oilers and not the Falcons,” Nobis said. “Every time I think about that story, one of the neatest things that happened to me . . . as I was walking from one class to another on campus that day, a co-ed came up to me and said, ‘Aren’t you Tommy Nobis?’

“I said yes, and she said, ‘I just saw a thing on the news and Borman said he hopes you’ll play for Houston.’

“I thought she was kidding. I got back to my dorm room, and turned on the radio or TV, I don’t remember which, and it was true. He had to have a lot on his mind, and it was certainly very meaningful.”

Show me the prestige

Nobis took nearly three weeks to make a decision. Adams pushed hard.

“He offered me a couple future [gas station] sites, and I looked at those and I knew nothing about speculating and all that stuff,” Nobis recalled. “Then he offered me, say, 100 head of longhorn cattle.

“I had a friend who was in cattle, and he went and checked them out. They were all scrawny, and one might have a horn up and a horn down.”

It didn’t come down to money.

“I was very conservative and understood better what Mr. Smith had on the table,” Nobis said. “Mr. Smith’s deal was pretty straightforward. He was in insurance, and it did include some life insurance for me. On paper, Mr. Adams’ deal was more valuable.”

So, on December 14, 1965, before the Falcons had their first head coach (Norb Hecker), Nobis signed with Atlanta for a deal reported at the time to be worth $225,000.

“I got in the neighborhood of a couple hundred thousand dollars signing bonus, deferred over a number of years,” Nobis said about eight months after Falcons first rounder DeAngelo Hall received about $12 million in guaranteed money after being made the eighth overall pick of the 2004 draft.

“The contract, salary-wise, was a five-year deal, and the first year it was $25,000. It accelerated every year for the next four years for $5,000 a year. I wanted to be a high school coach, and it if I had done that, I’d have been making $6,000 to $8,000.

“So, it wasn’t the kind of money you could live the rest of your life on . . . but it was good money at the time. I was a big NFL fan, as many young men were. The NFL was the prestige. It had a little more prestige than the AFL, which had just been around a little while. Atlanta was a brand-new franchise, and everything about it was exciting.”

Adams changes his tune

Nobis helped change professional football, without meaning to do anything of the sort. He just wanted to play ball.

The bidding war waged by the AFL and NFL over him prompted a concession of sort from Adams, owner of the AFL’s Oilers, and there was some serious pretext.

Television coverage had come to the NFL six years earlier, and NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle saw gold in that. He strongly encouraged teams in his league to go all out to sign the very best players out of college to better the NFL’s chances for more lucrative television contracts.

It turned out that Adams’ best offer to Nobis was considerably less than he’d suggested to reporters, roughly about $250,000, and even though that was better than what Atlanta had offered Nobis, the young, brawny Texan chose the stability of the NFL and the Falcons, even though a first-year franchise, over the upstart Oilers.

Adams re-oriented in a hurry, and sparked AFL owners to throw down arms.

“This fighting over college talent is not good, not good for the owners or the players . . . Either a [league] merger or common draft is coming. I believe sincerely that within two or three years at the present rate salaries are going up what we’ll have is almost every team [in both leagues] out of the black and into the red.”

A series of secret meetings in the spring of 1966 produced a June 8 announcement that the leagues would merge, although they kept separate schedules through 1969.

Also, after the 1966 season, the AFL champion began annually meeting the NFL champion in a world championship game, which came to be known as the Super Bowl.

In 1967, the leagues began holding a combined mutual draft.

So, Nobis played a part in triggering the AFL-NFL merger, not that he had any interest whatsoever in all of the machinations.