Before starring at Texas as an All-American linebacker and going on to a stellar 11-year career in the NFL, Tommy Nobis was a San Antonio high school football legend.
A standout at Jefferson in the early 1960s, Nobis was a ferocious hitter who struck fear in the toughest of opponents at every level of the game.
Taken by Atlanta with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1966 NFL draft, Nobis played 11 seasons with the Falcons before retiring in 1977. He worked with the Falcons’ front office after his retirement and continued living in the Atlanta area until his death on Wednesday.
Nobis, 74, died at his suburban Atlanta home after an extended illness. He had suffered from dementia in recent years. He was among scores of former NFL and college players whose physical and cognitive problems after their careers have been linked to football.
“You knew it was coming, but it’s still a jolt,” said Phil Harris, who played with Nobis at Jefferson and UT. “He was such a neat guy and that is such a nasty, nasty disease. What he went through, it hurt your heart as he was going through it. To see him going down was sad to see.”
Harris and Nobis both graduated from Jefferson in 1962 and played together on the UT squad that won the 1963 national championship under Darrell Royal. Nobis’s jersey number (60) was retired at Texas in 2008.
Several players have been honored by being allowed to wear No. 60 for one game, including Derrick Johnson, who wore Nobis’s number in his final home game in 2004.
Nobis’s legend as one of the best linebackers of his day grew in the NFL. He made the league’s 1960’s All-Decade Team, but the call from the Pro Football Hall of Fame never came during his lifetime.
Harris remembered Nobis as a loyal friend and teammate whose humility endeared him to everyone who knew him.
“As everyone knows, he was just the best,” Harris said. “He’s the best player I’ve ever seen. He worked the hardest of anybody I’ve ever seen. He loved the game and studied the game. On top of that, he was just a great guy, a lot of fun to be around. He was a jokester.”
David Sims, another 1962 Jefferson graduate who played high school football with Nobis and Harris, said that Nobis hadn’t visited to San Antonio since 2013. Nobis' wife, Lynn, an Alamo Heights High School graduate, still has family in the city.
“Tommy was very dedicated to San Antonio,” Sims said. “He had another home up in the mountains somewhere out of Atlanta. He always told me he was going to sell that place and buy a condo in San Antonio. He never got to do it.”
Nobis remained with the Falcons as a consultant after his retirement and was co-founder of the Nobis Center, a nonprofit that has provided job training for youth and adults with disabilities.
“I think he would have liked to have come back to San Antonio, but he was still too involved with the Falcons before he got sick, and he had that foundation in Atlanta that he was very involved in,” Harris said. “That’s what probably kept him there.”
For Nobis, no visit to his hometown was complete without a stop at Alamo Stadium, where he played most of his games in high school.
“Even if it’s locked, I’ll stand at one of the entrances and just look through the wire gate,” Nobis said a few years ago. “All the great memories come back.”
To many in San Antonio, Nobis always be will be the redheaded Jefferson kid with the crew cut who struck fear in opponents with his bone-jarring tackles.
“He loved San Antonio and San Antonio loved him,” Harris said. “He loved the city, he loved the people. He was such a loyal guy. Loyal friend, loyal to the schools that he went to, and I think he was he very loyal to San Antonio also.”
Nobis grew up on the east side of San Antonio near Freeman Coliseum and rode the bus to Jefferson on schooldays. His emotional ties to his hometown remained so strong through the years that he sometimes got choked up talking about it.
“San Antonio has a special quality about it,” Nobis said. “Your roots are where your roots are, and I’m proud to say that mine are in San Antonio. Those feelings will never change.”
Sims chuckled when he recalled that Nobis was shy by nature off the field.
“He was such a nice guy,” Sims said. “The thing that always tickled me was when a girl would go up and say hello to him, he’d just kind of shake all over, put his face down and turn pink. In a way, he was kind of shy. But something happened when he put that helmet on and clicked that chinstrap. He was a completely different individual. That’s what was so surprising.”
Nobis doubled as a starting guard at UT, but was also a standout tight end at Jefferson under coach Pat Shannon.
“I’ve always said I was glad he played end in high school and not guard like me, or I never would have gotten to play,” Sims said. “The man was vicious.”
Harris said Nobis’ demeanor as a football player was nothing like his off-the-field personality.
“It was night and day,” Harris said. “When we were at UT, the spring game was not like it is now, first team against second team. They just divided it up. They’d have several [starters] on one side and several on the other team.
“We didn’t know who would play on what team until we went in that day and saw the rosters on the [bulletin] board. You could just hear the groans from the offensive backs when they saw that Nobis was on the other team. And I was one of them. There were several times I was not on his team. He showed no mercy, even if you were his teammate.”
Every city has its sports icons, athletes whose feats and popularity span generations. Thomas Henry Nobis Jr. was such a person.
The first player ever selected in a draft by Atlanta, an expansion team in 1966, Nobis became “Mr. Falcon” after a career that included five appearances in the Pro Bowl.
But Thomas Henry Nobis Jr. always was a San Antonian at heart.