Atlanta — Tommy Nobis, the first player drafted by the expansion 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, 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 long-term impact of concussions nor thought twice about groggily going back on the field after taking a shot to the head.
When the Falcons reached the Super Bowl last season, his wife told the Houston Chronicle that 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, Nobis starred on both sides of the line at the University of Texas and, despite being slowed by a knee injury during his senior season, he won the Maxwell Award as the best all-around player in college football and the Outland Trophy as the top lineman. He finished seventh in the Heisman Trophy balloting — the top finisher among those who played defense — and appeared on the cover of Life and Sports Illustrated.
“The best defender in college football,” SI declared.
He was drafted first overall by the Falcons and also picked by his home-state Houston Oilers of the American Football League.
Nobis wound up signing with Atlanta, becoming the first player in franchise history and a beloved figure 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, and would go on to spend his entire 11-year career with the Falcons. His No. 60 has never been worn by any other Atlanta player, and he was among the initial inductees into the team’s “Ring of Honor” in 2004.
After his playing days were over, Nobis had a long career in the Falcons front office and also became well known in the Atlanta area for running a charitable organization that provided job training to people with disabilities.
“Tommy’s legacy began as the first Falcons player in team history, was built over 40 years with the organization and will live on for years to come,” team owner Arthur Blank said in a statement.
“Mr. Falcon is rightfully beloved by generations of Falcons fans and we will always be grateful for his many contributions to our team and community.”
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, Parkinson’s, ALS or other neurological disorders.
He also was among the plaintiffs who settled a massive concussion lawsuit against with the league.
Three Ferris State players are members of the Associated Press Little All-America team, for players from Division II and Division III schools.
Senior cormerback Tavierre Thomas of Detroit (Allen Academy) made the first team. Thomas had four interceptions and was named GLIAC defensive back of the year.
Junior defensive end Zach Seiler (Pinckney) and senior center Jake Daugherty were second-team choices.
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