Nobis shared special bond with former Jefferson teammate

Football legend Tommy Nobis, who died Wednesday, and Bill Goss were teammates at Jefferson High School and were both drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in 1966.

It’s not often that two players from the same high school, much less the same class, get selected by the same team in the same NFL draft.

But that’s what happened in 1966 when the Atlanta Falcons, then an expansion franchise, took 1962 Jefferson graduates Tommy Nobis and Bill Goss, both linebackers, in their first draft.

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The Falcons selected Nobis, a bona fide legend at Texas, with the No. 1 overall pick and Goss, who played at Tulane, in the eighth round. Nobis went on to a stellar 11-year career with Atlanta, and was known as “Mr. Falcon” long after he retired following the 1976 season.

The Falcons picked another San Antonian, Sam Houston graduate Randy Johnson, a standout at Texas A&I, with the No. 16 pick in the first found.

Johnson, now deceased, became the Falcons’ first starting quarterback, but Goss was waived in training camp as a rookie.

“I wasn’t there long enough to brush my teeth,” Goss joked on Thursday. “But I married an Atlanta girl and stayed here.”

Goss settled in the Atlanta suburb of Dunwoody, less than five miles from Nobis’s home in Sandy Springs. Goss and Nobis remained good friends until Nobis died on Wednesday at home after an extended illness. He was 74.

Tommy Nobis, Kay Francis Fletcher, left, and Beverly Davis were among Jefferson graduates at Phil Harris' induction into the Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame in 2010.  

“I was around him pretty much since we moved here,” said Goss, now 73 years old. “Some years more than others. We could go months without talking, but then we’d go to lunch or do something together and it was always the same. Everywhere we went up here, he was known as Mr. Falcon.

“People would come up to him when he was eating and talk with him. I don’t know how other celebrities do, but he was always gracious with whoever it was. He never thought of himself as a big deal. That’s just the kind of guy he was.”

Nobis suffered from dementia in his later years and the disease robbed him of the memories that were such a source of joy to him. Nobis was among scores of former NFL and college players whose post-career physical and cognitive problems have been linked to football.

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Goss said it was difficult to see someone as strong and vital as Nobis slowly fade away.

“The last few years he couldn’t drive, so I’d take him to lunch,” Goss said. “Being from San Antonio, we both liked our Tex-Mex food and there was a restaurant we went to two or three times a month. But it was sad to see him go down. It was a steady progression.

“I really don’t know how to describe it. You want to accept that that’s life. We live and we die. But that dementia stuff is just cruel.”

Goss has spent the past day reading about Nobis in happier times, when the Longhorn legend was one the most feared hitters in football. Already a San Antonio legend when he graduated from Jefferson, Nobis’s fame grew exponentially during his All-America career at UT.

Former Jefferson teammates Dick Cunningham, left to right, David Sims and Phil Harris were at UT with Tommy Nobis when his jersey number (60) was retired in 2008. 

He started at offensive guard and linebacker on the 1963 Longhorns team that won the national championship, capping an 11-0 season with a 28-6 victory over Navy in the Cotton Bowl. The Midshipmen were led by future Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1963.

“The things they say about Tommy, that’s the way he was,” Goss said. “He was just a special kind of athlete. He had talent, obviously. You’ve got to have a nose for the ball when you’re a middle linebacker, but Tommy was so danged competitive and he worked so hard.”

Inextricably linked, Goss and Nobis even played against each other every year of their three varsity college seasons. Texas opened the 1963, 1964 and 1965 seasons with victories against Tulane, beating the Green Wave by a combined score of 83-0.

“I tried to convince Tommy forever that he owed me because they always whipped us pretty bad,” Goss said. “It was a like warm-up game for them as they got ready to compete for another national championship. But Tommy never gave me any credit for that.”

Although Nobis and Goss both played linebacker, they sometimes went against each when one of them played on the offensive line.

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“That happened in 1963 because most guys went both ways,” Goss said. “I lined up against him a couple of times. He was [an offensive] guard and we ran a 5-2 defense, so I lined up over the guard. Of course, I beat him every time one on one.”

Then Goss laughed.

“Just say I never wanted to look at the film,” he said.

Goss described himself as a “so-so” player at Jefferson, where he started at center. He has vivid memories of going against Nobis in practice every day.

“It was a learning experience,” Goss said. “He made me better. It made you work harder. We had a real good team at Jefferson my senior season [in 1961] with a lot of good players who played college ball. I really hadn’t developed yet. I don’t know if I would have made it in college if I hadn’t practiced against guys like Tommy and Phil [Harris].”

Harris, who also graduated from Jefferson in 1962, was a two-way halfback on UT’s 1963 national-championship team. He played for the New York Giants for one year before suffering a neck injury that forced him to retire.

Harris returned to San Antonio and went to law school. He practiced law in San Antonio for several decades. Harris was inducted into the Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame in 2010.

While Nobis had been in declining health for years, life won’t be quite the same for Goss without his longtime friend and former high school teammate.

“I’ll miss him,” he said.

Goss won’t be alone.