(EDITOR’S NOTE: To access the Rich McKay interview, click on the following attachment: Ep 50: NFL Rule Changes, Falcons HOF, and The 2020 Season With Rich McKay | Spreaker)
Former linebacker Tommy Nobis is one of the most decorated players in Atlanta Falcons’ history.
He was the first elected to the team’s Ring of Honor and first to have his number retired. He was named to the Pro Bowl five times in an 11-year career and was a two-time All-Pro. He was the league’s Rookie of the Year in 1966 when he totaled 294 tackles, the most ever credited to one player in a season. And he was so accomplished that he was known as “Mr. Falcon.”
He’s in the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. He’s in the College Football Hall of Fame. He’s in the State of Texas Hall of Fame, the San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame and the Atlanta Sports Hall of Fame. So why isn’t he in the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
Don’t ask Atlanta Falcons’ president and CEO Rich McKay, a self-proclaimed “huge fan” of Nobis and one of many puzzled that Nobis isn’t in Canton.
“I kind of got to know the experience and the story of Tommy because I knew of him through the eyes of (former Tampa Bay great) Lee Roy Selmon,” said McKay, the Bucs’ GM from 1994-2003, on a recent "Eye Test for Two" podcast on fullpressradio.com. “Lee Roy Selmon was the first pick of the Bucs. He was the best player on the Bucs. He was the best player on a bad team for a number of years.
“But the difference with the Bucs was they had some success with Lee Roy, and they went to some playoff games and he got noticed. He only played nine years in the league, but he impacted the franchise tremendously. And so in Tampa they actually took a piece of interstate – a connector of interstate, if you will – and named it after him. And then he ended up in the Hall of Fame after nine years of playing.”
McKay is correct on all counts. State Road 618, a 14.168 limited-access toll highway connecting south Tampa to downtown, was renamed Lee Roy Selmon Expressway in 1999 in honor of Selmon, enshrined in Canton in 1995 and, like Nobis, the first player chosen to his franchise’s Ring of Honor and first named to an all-decade team.
But the difference between the two is precisely what McKay identified: Success. Selmon played on three playoff teams, including the 1979 Bucs that made it to the NFC championship game. Nobis played on none. Worse, in his 11 seasons with the Falcons, they broke .500 twice, seven times failed to win more than four games and were 6-35-1 in his first three years.
But don’t blame Nobis. He led the team in tackles nine of his 11 years, provoking Hall-of-Fame running back Larry Csonka to say, “I’d rather play against Dick Butkus than Tommy Nobis” and one-time Falcons’ coach Norm Van Brocklin to point to the Falcons’ locker room and say, “That’s where our team dresses.”
“I got to know Tommy when I first got to Atlanta,” said McKay, who joined the Falcons in 2003. “So I come here, and all of a sudden here’s Tommy Nobis. First pick of the franchise. Best player on a really bad team. Five Pro Bowl appearances in 11 years. Two times All-Pro. And he’s on the all-decade team of the 1960s. So he is recognized as an elite player.
“But he played with really bad teams … and teams that weren’t competitive. And the franchise was never competitive for an awfully long time. So I think he just got lost in the shuffle, and it bothers me because I look at franchise players, and I look at seminal players -- meaning the first picks of the franchise, whether it’s Seattle, whether it’s’ Tampa Bay or wherever it may be. But here in Atlanta everybody still refers to Tommy as ‘Mr. Falcon,’ and ‘Mr. Falcon’ is not in the Hall of Fame. It does not make me happy.”
It shouldn’t. Nor should it make him happy that former offensive linemen George Kunz, Mike Kenn and Bill Fralic – all of whom played later -- have been ignored by Canton, too. All are Hall-of-Fame worthy but, like Nobis, penalized by the Falcons’ lack of success. None has been a Hall-of-Fame finalist, with Kenn the only semifinalist.
Nobis has been a finalist once, one of 20 named for the Hall’s Centennial Class of 2020. He was not elected.
“I got to know him” said McKay. “I got to know his statistics. And when you talk to the players who played it was: ‘Hey, this was a really tough place to play. This was a really tough place to be a part of because we weren’t winning, we weren’t competitive. But there was one guy who wasn’t having any part of it. And that was Tommy.’ And so I’m a Tommy Nobis fan.”