Tommy Nobis was so much more than the Atlanta Falcons’ first-ever draft pick.
For longtime Falcons fans, he was the face of the franchise – he was their Bob Lilly, their Dick Butkus, their Chuck Bednarik.
He was Mr. Falcon.
The former Falcons linebacker, and member of the team’s Ring of Honor, passed away on Tuesday night at the age of 74.
Nobis, the first draft pick in the 1966 NFL Draft, provided legitimacy to an expansion franchise in the deep South, a place where the National Football League had no record of success at the time. A star linebacker coming out of the University of Texas, Nobis did just that – providing instant credibility.
There was a battle for Nobis’ services, as the AFL’s Houston Oilers also selected him in the AFL Draft. A highlight in the debate over which team Nobis should sign with occurred when astronaut Frank Borman chimed in from aboard Gemini 7 to say, “tell Nobis to sign with Houston.”
Nobis chose Atlanta over Houston, and the city embraced him. The middle linebacker soon became known as “Mr. Falcon,” becoming a player fans could immediately latch onto.
Nobis lived up to the hype on the playing field, too, which wasn’t easy to do playing for an expansion team. He was named NFL Rookie of the Year and voted to the Pro Bowl in his debut season, becoming the first player in franchise history to be named a Pro Bowler.
As a rookie, Nobis registered 296 combined tackles, which remains a franchise single-season record and the unofficial NFL single-season record. Considered one of the best athletes of his time, Nobis’ name was mentioned alongside the likes of other great NFL linebackers like Butkus and Ray Nitschke. In a poll conducted by ABC in 1970 to decide the best athlete of the 1960’s, Nobis finished second, behind only running back O.J. Simpson.
Hall of Fame running back Larry Csonka once remarked, “I’d rather play against Dick Butkus than Tommy Nobis.”
Although he never gained some of the widespread recognition he undoubtedly deserved, Nobis’ list of career highlights are among the very best of those who have donned the Falcons’ logo.
- NFL Rookie of the Year (1966)
- Five-time Pro Bowl selection (1966-68, 70, 72)
- AP First-team All-Pro selection (1967)
- Member of the NFL’s 1960’s All-Decade Team
- Named to *Sports Illustrated’s *All-Century Team (1869-1969)
- Franchise single-season record holder in tackles (296)
Nobis was a member of the Falcons Ring of Honor inaugural class in 2004, and his No. 60 jersey has been worn by no other player in franchise history.
Nobis has been embedded into the fabric of Atlanta with a deep commitment to assisting with rehabilitation for those with physical and mental challenges, through his foundation. For over 40 years, The Tommy Nobis Center has helped more than 25,000 people with disabilities find and keep meaningful jobs in the community, per the official team statement.
Undoubtedly among the most important players in Falcons history, Nobis' decision to choose Atlanta over Houston sparked an excitement within the city about the new expansion team and gave the Falcons’ defense a revered leader in the middle for over a decade.
Tommy Nobis truly was Mr. Falcon.