Sports Round Table

Tommy Nobis, first Falcon, dies at 74

Tommy Nobis, an all-time great linebacker who was the first draft pick in the history of the Atlanta Falcons franchise, has died at the age of 74.

Nobis, who was chosen with the first overall pick in the 1966 NFL draft, given to the Falcons as an expansion team, earned the nickname “Mr. Falcon” for being the team’s first player and, for many years, its best player.

A two-way star who played both guard on offense and linebacker on defense during his college career at Texas, Nobis appeared on a Sports Illustrated cover in 1965 and was described by writer Dan Jenkins as having “a bulging physique that gives him the appearance of a man who has swallowed a dozen bowling balls.”

Nobis made one of the most famous tackles in college football history in the 1965 Orange Bowl, when he nailed Alabama quarterback Joe Namath at the goal line on a fourth down rush late in the fourth quarter, with Texas leading Alabama 21-17. Namath and his Alabama teammates insisted that he got the ball across the goal line, but the officials ruled that Nobis had made the game-saving tackle. Nobis won the Maxwell Award as college football’s best player, a rare case of a non-quarterback, non-running back to win that award.

Then came pro football. 1966 was the last year when the NFL and AFL had separate drafts, and Nobis was chosen both first overall by the Falcons and fifth overall by the AFL’s Houston Oilers. So popular was Nobis that the question of where he would play reached outer space, with astronauts Frank Borman and James Lovell saying while aboard Gemini 7 that they hoped he would sign “here,” meaning Houston.

At a time before free agency, when owners held all the leverage, Nobis was able to use his position as a high pick in two leagues’ drafts to create a bidding war, which the Falcons won. Oilers owner Bud Adams said he was ready to make Nobis football’s highest-paid player, but the Falcons offered him even more.

“I feel sure Nobis signed for in excess of $700,000,” Adams said, “because the offer we had agreed on was $650,000. It was all cash, payable in three years. And I would have raised the ante, but I didn’t get the chance.”

Signing with Atlanta disappointed Adams, NASA and Nobis’s fans in his home state of Texas, but he quickly became a beloved figure in his new home of Atlanta. Nobis was named Rookie of the Year and a Pro Bowler in his first season, and he would go on to make four more Pro Bowl appearances in his 11 NFL seasons, all with the Falcons. In 1969 Sports Illustrated, marking the first 100 years of college football, named Nobis to the All-Century Team, and in 1970, an Associated Press poll asking respondents to name the greatest athletes of the 1960s finished with O.J. Simpson ranked first and Nobis ranked second. Nobis is a member of the Texas Longhorns Hall of Honor and was an inaugural member of the Falcons Ring of Honor.

Such a ferocious player was Nobis that even in those days when the culture of football celebrated hits that would now draw ejections and suspensions, Nobis was a different animal altogether. Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton once ducked out of bounds instead of fighting for an extra yard for a first down on a key play, then justified it after the game by saying no one would be able to fight through Nobis for that last yard.

“It was either dive for the sidelines or try Nobis head on,” Tarkenton said. “Which would you have done?”

Anyone who saw Nobis play understood why Tarkenton felt that way. Nobody wanted to take on Tommy Nobis.

Credit NBC Sports

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