Nobis was born in San Antonio, Texas and played collegiately at the University of Texas (1963-65) where he also played on the offensive line. As a sophomore, Nobis was a key contributor on an 11-0 team. The 1963 Longhorns defeated Navy (and Heisman Trophy winner/future Pro Football Hall of Famer Roger Staubach) in the Cotton Bowl Classic for their first national championship.
Nobis also led the Longhorns to a 21-17 victory in his final collegiate game: the 1965 Orange Bowl against Paul “Bear” Bryant’s Alabama Crimson Tide. He was instrumental in stopping Alabama quarterback (and future Pro Football Hall of Famer) Joe Namath‘s march down the field on fourth-and-inches on what would have been the game winning drive for the Crimson Tide.
Nobis was a two-time All-American and made the All-Southwest Conference team in each of his three seasons with the Longhorns. He won a variety of awards in his senior year despite being slowed by a knee injury. The accolades included the Outland Trophy as the nation’s top lineman and Maxwell Award as the best player in college football. Nobis finished seventh in the Heisman voting, the top finisher among defensive players. He was featured on the covers of Life and Sports Illustrated, who declared him “the best defender in college football”.
As was the case with many great players of the era, both the AFL and NFL got into a bidding war for Nobis’ services. He was selected first overall by the expansion Falcons in the 1966 NFL Draft and fifth overall by his home-state Houston Oilers in the 1966 AFL Draft.
Astronaut Frank Borman, while orbiting Earth in Gemini 7, made his pitch for Nobis to sign with the Oilers (Borman’s sons were Oilers ball boys).
“I hope he comes here,” Borman said as Gemini 7 flew over Houston during its 59th orbit.
Eventually, Nobis decided to sign with the Falcons. He made his impact felt immediately. Nobis recorded 296 tackles in his rookie season, a team record that still stands today, on his way to Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. He led the Falcons in tackles in nine of his 11 seasons and had 12 career interceptions (two returned for touchdowns), and 13 fumbles recovered.
Nobis made five Pro Bowls (1966-68, 1970, 1972), was a two-time All-Pro (1967, 1968), and named to the NFL’s 1960s All-Decade Team. His ferocity was perhaps best summed up by Pro Football Hall of Famer Larry Csonka: “I’d rather play against Dick Butkus than Nobis.”
After his retirement from playing, Nobis worked in the Falcons front office. He was also known in the Atlanta area for running a charitable organization that provided job training for individuals with disabilities.
Nobis was named to the Professional Football Researchers Association’s Hall of Very Good in 2005. There are those who believe Nobis’ resume is worthy of being enshrined in Canton.
“As a running back for eight seasons in the NFL, I certainly took my share of hits,” former Falcons head coach Dan Reeves said. “Unfortunately, I remember some of them, particularly the ones from Falcons linebacker Tommy Nobis. ‘Mr. Falcon,’ as he is known in this part of the country, should be considered a worthy candidate for the Hall of Fame.”
Reeves also said Nobis’ achievements might be overlooked because of the team’s lack of success during his career. The Falcons went 50-100-4 with only two winning seasons and no playoff appearances. The Falcons made the postseason for the first time in 1978, two years after the end of Nobis’ playing career. Despite this, Reeves feels Nobis is one of the best to ever play in the NFL.
“I played and coached on some great teams while I was with Dallas,” Reeves said. “Those teams consisted of Hall of Fame members like Bob Lilly, Roger Staubach and Tom Landry. I feel that Nobis’ contributions on the field merit those of the Cowboys’ Hall of Fame players.”
Nobis was the first player inducted into the Falcons Ring of Honor in 2004 and his No. 60 was the first to be retired by the team. His No. 60 was also retired by the University of Texas. He was a member of both the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame and College Football Hall of Fame.
Nobis had been in poor health with ailments that may have been related to his football career. His wife, Lynn, said she was uncertain if her husband knew that the Falcons reached Super Bowl LI.
“We told him the Falcons are in the Super Bowl, and we wear red and black,” Lynn Nobis said in an interview with The Houston Chronicle. “But it doesn’t seem to click. I don’t know if he understands.”
He was one of the plaintiffs who settled the huge concussion lawsuit against the NFL. Nobis was also among a group of hundreds of ex-players who were part of a plan that reimburses players for expenses related to the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, ALS, and other neurological disorders.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank released a statement regarding Nobis’ death.
“On behalf of the Atlanta Falcons we extend our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of the great Tommy Nobis,” Blank’s statement read. “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 in our Ring of Honor. ‘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 is survived by his wife (who was at his side when he died), sons Tommy, Kevin, and Devon, and eight grandchildren.