Tommy Nobis was born 30 years too soon.
If Nobis had played in the NFL in the 1990s and 2000s instead of the 1960s and 1970s, he might be receiving the same benefit of the doubt from the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee that Tony Boselli is now receiving.
Boselli was the second overall pick of the 1995 draft by the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars who lived up to that lofty selection. He went to the Pro Bowl in five of his first six years before his career ended with a knee injury in the third game of his seventh season. But his play those first six years was enough to garner him second-team NFL all-decade honors for the 1990s.
Nobis was the first overall pick of the 1966 draft by the expansion Atlanta Falcons who also lived up to that lofty selection.
Nobis went to the Pro Bowl each of his first three years before an injury to his right knee cut short his fourth season after five games in 1969. He rehabilitated and returned to the Pro Bowl in 1970 – but suffered a second knee injury, this time to his left one, four games into the 1971 season. Again, he recovered and returned to the Pro Bowl in 1972.
Five Pro Bowls, just like Boselli. Second-team all-decade acclaim, just like Boselli. But the question of the length of career has hovered over both Hall-of-Fame candidacies.
Boselli played only 91 career games but has been a Hall-of-Fame finalist each of the last five years. He's been passed over annually with a recurring question – did he play long enough? In three of those five classes an offensive lineman who played considerably more games than Boselli was enshrined – Kevin Mawae (241 games), Alan Faneca (206) and Steve Hutchinson (169). So Boselli sits in the queue.
Nobis played 11 seasons but, as noted earlier, only nine healthy ones because of those knee injuries. He also played on rickety knees his final four years before retirement. He left the NFL having played 132 games.
That was considered a short career by voters in the 1970s and 1980s – and his candidacy was punished for those knee injuries. His 25-year window of modern-era eligibility expired in 2006 without Nobis ever having been a Hall-of-Fame finalist for his career to be discussed, dissected and debated. He’s been in a very crowded senior pool for the last 15 years without any movement on his candidacy.
But there has been a softening of late of the committee’s stance on length of careers. It’s too late to help Nobis, but it’s benefitting Boselli.
Former Denver running back Terrell Davis played only 78 games and former Seattle safety Kenny Easley just 89. Both were elected to the Hall of Fame in 2017. Boselli was a first-time finalist along with Davis and Easley that year, and the voters have annually brought him back since then for discussion. He’ll likely be back a sixth consecutive year as a finalist for the Class of 2022.
There has never been a more decorated linebacker at any level than Nobis. In college at Texas he was a three-time All-Southwest Conference selection and a two-time All-America. As a senior he won both the Outland Trophy as the nation’s best lineman and the Maxwell Trophy as the nation’s best player. He was featured on the magazine covers of Life, Time and Sports Illustrated before ever playing a down in the NFL.
Then Nobis became the first linebacker in the 37-year history of the NFL draft to go No. 1 overall. He led the league with a franchise-record 294 tackles in 1966 on his way to NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
Nobis went to the Pro Bowl his first three seasons on his way to NFL all-decade acclaim for the 1960s. His number 60 has been retired by both the University of Texas and the Falcons. He has a plaque in the College Football Hall of Fame, and the Falcons enshrined him in their Ring of Honor.
“I played against Butkus and Nobis, and I don’t think there was 30 seconds difference between them,” said Hall-of-Fame center Jim Otto. “Butkus, Nobis and Willie Lanier were the best.”
Butkus and Lanier now have busts in the Hall of Fame, Butkus on the first ballot, Lanier on the third.
If five Pro Bowls, second-team all-decade honors and an obvious dominance on tape were enough for Boselli to be discussed five times by the Hall-of-Fame selection committee, it should have been enough for Nobis to be discussed at least once. Like Boselli, Butkus and Lanier, Tommy Nobis passed the eye test.