ATLANTA — Tommy Nobis, the first player drafted by the expansion Atlanta Falcons and a hard-hitting middle linebacker who was never fully recognized for his talents on a struggling franchise that failed to make the playoffs during his long career, died Wednesday. He was 74.
The team said he died at his suburban Atlanta home after an extended illness with his wife of more than 50 years, Lynn, at his side. Nobis was among hundreds of ex-NFL players who struggled with physical and cognitive ailments after their careers ended, having played in an era when no one paid much attention to the lingering impact of concussions nor thought twice about groggily going back on the field after a shot to the head.
When the Falcons reached the Super Bowl last season, his wife told the Houston Chronicle she wasn't sure if Nobis had any idea what his former team had accomplished.
"We've told him the Falcons are in the Super Bowl, and we wear red and black," Lynn Nobis said. "But it doesn't seem to click. I don't know if he understands."
A native of San Antonio who sported a red-headed crew cut, Nobis starred on both sides of the line at the University of Texas, where his No. 60 is one of six numbers retired by the school. Despite being slowed by a knee injury during his senior season, he won the Maxwell Award as the nation's best all-around player and the Outland Trophy as top lineman. He also finished seventh in the Heisman Trophy balloting — highest among those who played defense — and appeared on the cover of Life and Sports Illustrated.
He was drafted first overall by the Falcons and also picked by his home-state Houston Oilers of the American Football League, leading to a spirited bidding war that drew interest as far away as outer space. While orbiting the Earth in his Gemini spacecraft, astronaut Frank Borman — whose two sons were ball boys for the Oilers — urged Nobis to sign with Houston .
"I hope he comes here," Borman said as his spaceship flew over Houston during its 59th orbit.
Nobis wound up signing with Atlanta, becoming the first player in franchise history and a beloved figure who would forever be known as "Mr. Falcon." He earned NFL rookie of the year honors and the first of five Pro Bowl berths in 1966, the launch of an 11-year career spent entirely with the Falcons.
No. 60 has never been worn by any other Atlanta player. Nobis was among the initial inductees into the team's "Ring of Honor" in 2004.
Former Falcons coach Dan Reeves, who entered the league a year ahead of Nobis and became good friends, called him "the best middle linebacker I ever played against in my time" — an era that included Hall of Famers such as Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke.
"Tommy could play the run and the pass," Reeves said. "Butkus was really good against the run, but Tommy could do both really good. He never came out of the game. Nitschke was good, but he was with a great team."
Nobis never got the chance to play for a great NFL team, which is likely the main reason he was passed over for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Falcons had only two winning seasons in his career and only came close to making the playoffs in 1973.
"The fact that he's not in is really a tragedy," Reeves said. "But they go so much by the team, by winning. They just didn't have that ability being an expansion team. ... He wasn't surrounded by a lot of great players."
Nobis was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1981. Playing both linebacker and offensive guard, he helped the Longhorns win the national title in 1963 under coach Darrell Royal and is perhaps best remembered for leading a fourth-down stop at the goal line on Joe Namath to preserve a 21-17 victory over top-ranked Alabama in the 1965 Orange Bowl .
"When you're one of the six numbers retired in the long, proud history of Texas football, your legacy is something special," said former Texas coach Mack Brown. "Coach Royal told me many times that Tommy was one of the best players he had ever coached or seen. He was as physically dominant of a linebacker as the game will ever have."
As an NFL rookie, Nobis was credited unofficially with a staggering 296 solo and assisted tackles — an average of more than 21 per game that remains the franchise record. He also had 12 career interceptions, returning two for touchdowns.
After his playing days were over, Nobis spent another three decades in the Falcons front office and became well known in Atlanta for running a charitable organization that provided job training to people with disabilities.
"We will always be grateful for his many contributions to our team and community," Falcons owner Arthur Blank said in a statement.
Nobis' individual brilliance was overshadowed by the Falcons' cumulative record of 50-100-4 during his career. He retired after a dismal 1976 campaign, his next-to-last game a 59-0 rout by the Los Angeles Rams.
"It's a stigma," Nobis told The Associated Press in a 1998 interview. "When you're a part of something that's losing, it's hard to pull out of it. Very hard."
Nobis had been in poor health with physical and cognitive ailments that may have been related to his football career. He was among hundreds of ex-players who were part of a plan that reimburses them for expenses related to the treatment of dementia and other neurological disorders. He also was among the plaintiffs who settled a massive concussion lawsuit against with the league.
"It's sad what football has done to these players," his wife said in the interview with the Houston newspaper. "But I know he loved it more than anything. He wouldn't have had it any other way."
Tommy is survived by his wife and three children, Tommy, Kevin and Devon, as well as eight grandchildren.