When you hear ‘Mr. Falcon,’ you immediately think of Tommy Nobis. A graduate of the University of Texas, Nobis was named to five Pro Bowls during his career. He is also part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s All-Decade team for the 1960s, a team that includes Hall of Fame linebackers Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke and Dave Robinson.
Nobis was an All-State football player in high school. That continued into his time at the University of Texas, where he played both offensive guard and linebacker. Nobis won All-American honors twice, once as a linebacker and once as an offensive guard. He also won the Outland Trophy (1965, awarded for college football’s best interior lineman) and the Maxwell Award (1965, awarded to the best college football player in the country), and was named All-Southwest Conference three consecutive years. “Linebacker was a little more fun,” recalled Nobis. “Offensive line is very important to what your team was going to do. We had a really good offensive line when I played there, and I was proud of being a part of that. But the excitement for me was stopping a guy for no gain, or knocking a guy to cause a fumble. Playing linebacker, there were opportunities to really help your team and the excitement was there.”
He recalled the defensive schemes employed at Texas; “We shifted around a little bit. It was probably a 5-3, but it could have been a 5-4. The linebackers shifted around pretty good. We would bring in different secondary. At times, you would have five defensive backs. Other times, you might only have three defensive backs. The conference was naturally more running than passing. There were teams that would pass a good bit, but most of it was running.” He continued, “With Texas, I was more of an inside linebacker. We didn’t have what I grew to know as a middle linebacker in pro ball in a 4-3 defense. We didn’t play a lot of that defense at Texas. We geared up toward the run and you put in more linemen.”
Nobis also commented on his coach at Texas; “Coach [Darrell] Royal was real good at talking about priorities and what they need to be. When you are playing a team sport, your number one priority needs to be geared toward the team. We were coached that way and most of us thought that way. That is how we were coached and really, how I was brought up with my dad. He talked a whole lot like Coach Royal. He taught me that if you are going to play a team sport, you need to hold up your end of the deal. That is what I always try to do.”
In 1966, Nobis was drafted by both the Atlanta Falcons of the National Football League and the Houston Oilers of the American Football League. He chose to sign with the Falcons. Nobis recalled, “Back then, the two leagues were still in existence and competing against one another. I always wanted to be in the NFL, because it had a little more prestige when it came to pro football. If I could do it, I wanted to take a shot to make it with the so called ‘better teams.’ That was a dream come true for me when Atlanta chose me and I was able to work that out.”
He was named NFL Rookie of the Year after the 1966 season. It is said that Nobis recorded 294 tackles that season. However, that cannot be confirmed as tackles were not an official statistic.
Nobis entered the league as a middle linebacker during the time of Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke. He commented, “I knew who those guys were and knew that they were good football players. We used to have 16mm film that we would watch on the opposing team coming up from week to week. Our coaches would have film built up on different players, and if I could find film that had a Butkus or a Nitschke, that was a film that I really studied. They were outstanding during that time and they would probably be outstanding any time. If they were playing today, I am sure that they would be dangerous because of their will to be a good player.”
Norb Hecker was the coach with the Atlanta Falcons his rookie season. “I got along with Norb very well,” recalled Nobis. “It was going out and doing your job to the best of your abilities. Coach Hecker was a good coach and he certainly wanted to win, just like any coach. He probably did not have the players. He probably had too many players like myself that had the desire, but maybe didn’t have the top abilities to go all the way and to do something like win a Super Bowl.”
In 1968, after just slightly over two years as head coach of the Falcons, Norb Hecker was replaced by Norm Van Brocklin. Over the 31 games coached by Hecker, he had a record of 4-26-1.
Nobis recalled, “Norm was an old-school guy. You did things his way.” He continued, “You worked hard and you listened to the coaches. You learned and you progressed through the season, then you would be alright with Coach Van Brocklin. If you deserved to be treated like a man, he was going to treat you like a man. If you didn’t, then it was going to be hard to deal with Norm Van Brocklin.”
The team improved under Van Brocklin, posting their first winning record in franchise history, but it faded quickly. The 1973 team went 9-5, but quickly dropped to 3-11 in 1974. He was replaced by defensive coordinator Marion Campbell after eight games through the 1974 season. The team went 4-10 in 1975 and 1976.
Nobis called it a career after the 1976 season. “I had played eleven years,” he said. “The old body had taken a pretty good beating. If you think about major college football, and you think about pro football, and you think about the position I played, which was a contact position, there were not many plays where there was no contact involved. Most guys know when it is time. The smart ones go ahead and close it out and move on to whatever is next in line for them.”
Nobis wanted to get into coaching after he retired as a player. He recalled, “I was a physical education major in college and I always wanted to be a coach. But, if I couldn’t be a coach, then I wanted to work in a professional organization around the coaches, and learning and succeeding in that area.” However, the opportunities did not exist for Nobis. Instead, he joined the front office of the Falcons. “Mr. [Rankin] Smith was the owner of the team. I always had a good relationship with him. He made a statement along the way that when I decided to retire, that he would like to talk to me about staying with the organization. That was something that I really welcomed. It was just a potential opportunity at that time. It worked out well, I would like to think, for the Falcons. It certainly worked out well for the Nobis family.”
He had various roles within the organization. “Over the years, I did all kinds of things,” recalled Nobis. “I never coached. I would help some at practice with holding dummies and things. I did help some with the coaching, but I never really was a coach. I did scout. I was on the road for a period of time. I am talking about several years. I would look at the upcoming graduating classes and write up reports. The travel and writing up reports is certainly very important to the success of any professional team. You need to have a good scouting program. It is something that does not get the credit that it deserves. When I was scouting, we had about five men that did nothing but scout. It was exciting for me at the time, but the thing that I didn’t like about it was the travel. One day you might be at the University of Texas, and the next day at the University of Oklahoma or at the University of Southern California. That travel took a toll on me, so I got out of that after a while. My wife and I were building up a family, and to be on the road for four or five days a week was not the ideal situation. Thank goodness the Falcons went along with my decision.”
After scouting for the Falcons, Nobis moved into the marketing department. “There is a real marketing effort that each team does in selling their logo and their identity. Teams that win, obviously, have an easier time with selling that relationship. At the time, going out and selling the Falcons was tough. But, it was the NFL and it was a way for the businesses in the Atlanta area to become associated with the team. There were some people, win or lose, that were true Falcons fans. A lot of those fans were business people. Thank goodness, because it made my job a lot easier.”
After marketing, Nobis moved into the pro scouting department. He recalled, “That was where we were dedicated to scouting players on the other NFL teams. There would be time when teams would cut a player or teams would try to trade a player, and you would need information if your team was going to get involved. I was one of the people in our organization and did that for a couple of years. That was a real good challenge.”
Currently, Nobis has no official role with the organization. “I have been a season ticket holder, and certainly a Falcon fan. There are times that I will do something for the franchise and there are times that the franchise will do something for me. We still have a relationship, but it is more like a friendship. I am still a big Falcon fan.”
Nobis had always been active in the community, including during his playing days with the Falcons. In the mid-1970s, he started the Tommy Nobis Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing job training, as well as vocational and employment support for people with disabilities. The Center is now called Nobis Works. According to Nobis, “Nobis Works is strictly non-profit. I never took a salary from them. I was a volunteer and worked in a non-profit, but it was a real profit for me by helping people who needed help. Most of these people were young, and in a lot of cases school-aged.” He continued, “The big thing with a non-profit is to have a need that is truly there and is really a need. The need was that there are people that wanted to work, but they couldn’t get a job unless they had some kind of training. It just all made sense. You take a young man or young lady out of high school, and they are not quite ready on their own to go out and get a job or hold a job without some additional employment-type training. That is what the center was. We were that step that they could take that would help them go out and get a job and keep a job.”
He was also heavily involved with the Georgia Special Olympics. “For years, I was on the board and had the title of State Coach. The Special Olympics is what got me involved with young people that needed help in some way. The Special Olympics is a recreational organization for people with disabilities, and I can certainly relate to that because recreation was a big part of my life with sports. I saw what it could do for me, and here you had people who needed opportunities to have recreation and in a lot of cases, were not getting it. That is why I got involved and I saw the good things that could come out of it. The principles of having a good team. If you follow those principles and are a good team player, then more than likely, you will be able to go out in your own life and take care of things that are required of you to be successful.” His work with the organization earned him the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Award.
When asked if he thought that he would ever be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he joked, “If you have got a vote, I would appreciate it.” He continued, “That is not a mystery to me. I see people that are inducted annually. In most cases, I feel that it is well deserved. You think about the number of men that played the game, and the number of men that had outstanding careers, and the number of men that really deserve that kind of recognition and haven’t received it, there are a lot of guys out there. I may be one of them, depending on what you think of my abilities and what I did. I may not be one of those. The fact that you asked that question, it is important to me and the NFL was a big part of my life. If somebody wants to recognize me for having that type of commitment, it would certainly make me feel good. You don’t always have to receive a paycheck or receive a gift, but recognition of some sort is very meaningful. I find that to be more meaningful to me than putting a dollar in the bank or whatever.”
In 2005, Nobis was inducted into the Professional Football Researchers Association’s (PFRA) Hall of Very Good. The Hall of Very Good is the PFRA’s way of honoring players who have had excellent careers, but are not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. When the topic of the Hall of Very Good came up and this author mentioned that the Professional Football Researchers Association felt that his career was worthy of recognition, Nobis responded, “That type of statement is certainly very, very meaningful to me.” He continued, ‘To hear that the people of the organization think enough about me to voice the opinion that you voiced, I feel very good about that. That is what keeps me ticking. I know where I have been and I know what I have done. If other people want to recognize me for that, then I am very grateful and thankful.”
When asked what he is doing now, he joked, “Talking to you on the phone.” He continued, “It is interesting that you ask that. From time to time, I have different projects that I get involved with. Most of them are non-profit. I have friends that have different things that they are involved in. Most of my friends have helped me over the years, so I try to help them. But, I do not have to look too far to get involved with things.”
Nobis currently enjoys retirement in Georgia with his wife Lynn.
- Atlanta Falcons (1966-76)
- NFL Rookie of the Year (1966)
- Named to the Pro Bowl (1966, 1967, 1968, 1970, 1972)
- Inducted into the Texas Longhorn Hall of Honor (1976)
- Named to Sports Illustrated’s All-Century Team (1869-1969)
- Named to the Football News’ All-Time All-America Team
- Named to the Walter Camp Football Foundation All-Century Team
- Inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame (1981)
- Inducted into the State of Texas Sports Hall of Fame
- Inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame (1983)
- Inducted into the San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame (1995)
- Inducted into the Atlanta Sports Hall of Fame
- Inducted into the Atlanta Falcons Ring of Honor (2004)
- Inducted into the Professional Football Researchers Association’s Hall of Very Good (2005)
- Inducted into the Thomas Jefferson High School Alumni Hall of Fame (2007)
- Named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s All-Decade Team of the 1960s
Ken Crippen is the former executive director of the Professional Football Researchers Association. He has researched and written about pro football history for over two decades. He won the Pro Football Writers of America’s Dick Connor Writing Award for Feature Writing and was named the Ralph Hay Award winner by the Professional Football Researchers Association for lifetime achievement on pro football history.
Follow Ken on Twitter @KenCrippen