The first thing you need to know about Miami Dolphins munchkin
rookie phenom Zach Thomas is that he is not dead yet.
This, however, is not due to Zach's lack of effort. At 2 1/2 he
was playing near the back tire of a pickup truck. The driver
didn't see him, backed over his head, felt the bump, panicked,
put it in drive and ran over him again, which, come to think of
it, may account for a lot of odd things about Zach.
At nine time and again he jumped as high as he could on the
family trampoline--and landed on the ground. "That was really
stupid," grumbles Zach. "No wonder my knees are so bad."
At 13 he tried to navigate a flooded river on an air mattress
and got swept away. Luckily his older brother, Bart, ran more
than two miles downstream and pulled him out.
By the time he was 16 his family's house had burned down, and
Bart had knocked him out with a right hand and hit him over the
head with the side of a tennis racket.
At 19, he was in an ugly fight in....
"Don't put the fight in there," Zach says.
No fight stuff?
"No. That isn't a good example for the kids, man."
By 20 he had been been 1) inside a friend's car that went out of
control on a dirt road and rolled five times; 2) bounced around
in his 1975 Monte Carlo while trying to back over a fire hydrant
at 30 mph to see if a busted hydrant really does shoot water
straight up; 3) rear-ended twice and sideswiped once in his 1992
Camaro; and 4) passed by his own left rear tire. When the last
happened a second time, Zach said, "Whoa, boy! I just got to get
some new lug nuts!"
And by 21 he had been in more trouble than R.J. Reynolds. In
1993 he and a few of his Texas Tech teammates shot at the ankles
of some innocent passersby with a BB gun from the balcony of his
seventh-floor dorm room. It got so bad, people would emerge from
the bars and restaurants below and run, hunched over, to their
cars. Nobody was hurt, but many were annoyed, especially the man
who climbed off a Harley-Davidson and the reporter for the
"You're going to put the BB gun thing in there?" says Zach.
"But they kind of covered that up. Nobody really knows it was
us. I mean, you couldn't really hurt 'em from that far away
"But shooting at the reporter. That was just stupid, huh?"
Not a good example for the kids.
But more amazing than surviving all that is the fact that Zach
Thomas, a guy who might have trouble meeting the height
requirement to ride a roller coaster, is not only surviving as a
starter on the Dolphins but is also the hottest new linebacker
in the NFL. Thomas, the 154th player taken, is looking like the
heist of last April's draft. After nailing eight opponents in
Miami's 23-20 win over the Houston Oilers on Sunday, he leads
the Dolphins with 125 tackles, 91 of them unassisted. He also
has two sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and two
interceptions, the second of which he returned 26 yards for his
first NFL touchdown on Sunday, giving the Dolphins a 20-17
fourth-quarter lead. All this is a little hard to believe,
seeing as how Thomas stands 5'9" or so--"Yeah, but if I had a
neck, I'd be six-three," he says--is unable to leap small stacks
of change and is slower than the last day of school.
Take a recent night in Miami Beach. Thomas is dressed in a white
shirt and white cap as he stands outside a nightclub waiting for
the parking attendant to bring around his new Chevy Tahoe, a
purchase that still blows his mind. "I'm making $131,000, man!
That's big money for a guy like me!" (It's also the NFL rookie
minimum.) And this middle-aged woman walks up to him, and he
thinks maybe she is going to ask him for his autograph. That
somebody might want his autograph also blows Thomas's mind. But
no, she hands him a dollar and says, "It's the white Beamer."
Or take the day early in camp last summer when he was getting a
haircut at his Fort Lauderdale barber shop. His barber was
asking how practice was going when a customer broke in.
"What high school you play for?"
The barber winced. "He doesn't play high school," he said. "He
plays for Miami."
"Get out of here! You play for the 'Canes?"
Zach winced. The barber's scissor hands drooped to his side. His
"No," said the barber. "He plays for the Miami Dolphins."
"Ohhhhh." Then the customer gives Zach the old doubting Thomas
kind of look that he has seen his whole football-playing life,
the kind that says, "Well, I'd ask for your autograph, but I
know you're not going to be around long."
Unfortunately for 11-year veteran and Pro Bowl linebacker Jack
del Rio, whom the Dolphins cut during training camp to make room
for their surprising rookie, Thomas is still around. In fact,
draft pick 5C for Miami is showing up in film rooms all over the
league. "That guy," says Dallas Cowboys coach Barry Switzer, "is
just a rolling ball of butcher knives."
He's one of the last players out of the Dolphins' practice
facility by a good hour almost every night; he watches film
until 7:30, when most guys are gone by 5:30 or six. As a result,
in games he's usually already at the ball when the guys with the
4.5 speed are just recognizing the play. Somehow he has turned
his shortness and his slowness into his biggest assets. He flies
under the radar. "I'd rather be five-four than six-five any
day," he says. "If I'd been six-five, I wouldn't be nearly the
player I am because I wouldn't have had to try so hard. This
way, I can get under all those fat linemen."
Says Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson, "I've never had a rookie
linebacker like this. He has the finest instincts of any middle
linebacker I've been around." And all for about $3.17 million
less per year than the guy Thomas is making Miami fans forget:
Bryan Cox, who signed a $13.2 million free-agent deal with the
Chicago Bears last February.
"You going to put anything in there about the cross?"
"Good. Put some stuff in there about my parents and religion and
everything, and they'll just get all kinds of happy. I mean,
that'd be great."
The cross is in.
Brother Bart, who's 2 1/2 years older than Zach, and the cross
are two West Texas landmarks.
Bart is 6'1 1/2", handsome, swift, a great leaper, extremely
responsible and neat. In sum, he is the anti-Zach. Stand the two
side by side and pick which one is the NFL linebacker, you'd
guess Bart. He glides across a room like a jewel thief. Zach
hitches along behind him, taking two steps for every one of his
brother's. Bart hangs his T-shirts in his closet, all facing
the same way, first the short-sleeved ones, then the long
sleeves. Zach's room is so messy you could lose a small farm
animal in it. Bart made the state track meet in two events. He
played football instead of competing in track and field at Tech,
but now he's a junior high football coach who's in decathlon
training for the 2000 Olympics. "Bart is my hero," says Zach.
The cross is the 19-story-high, 2.5-million-pound, $450,000,
visible-for-20-miles white steel cross illuminated by two
1,500-watt flood lamps that his parents put up alongside I-40,
35 miles east of Amarillo, in a town called Groom. Zach's mom,
Bobby, came up with the idea for the cross. His dad, Steve,
liked it, and when Steve sets his mind on doing something, lock
Steve is as stubborn as a weed and twice as hard to get rid of.
He played one year of football at Tech before devoting all of
his attention to his engineering major, started himself in the
oil business with not much more than a phone and a pickup truck
and made himself a multimillionaire by the time he was 35, in
Steve always wanted to give something back to society, so he
erected the biggest cross he could. "We wanted to make people
think of Jesus in their travels," says Bobby, "instead of being
bombarded by all kinds of non-Christian things." She might be
referring to the giant billboard down the road a piece
advertising America's largest adult bookstore.
This is maybe how Zach came to be as compact and indestructible
as a black box. When the pickup rolled over him, "we thought he
was dead," says Steve. But all the mishap did was leave tire
prints in his scalp, break his arm and shift the geography of
his face, pulling the right eye and ear over slightly and making
his head even more Fred Flintstone square than it already was.
It also affected his hearing enough to make him a better
football player: He relies on visual cues much more than most
people, and that's why he watches so much film and can read
plays so quickly. It also made him a wonderful lip-reader. He
occasionally uses that skill to read plays being brought in from
the sidelines by opposing players.
Anyway, after using his head as a speed bump, he was fine in no
time--back running in the canyons, over rocks and cactus,
barefoot, on his parents' ranch. When Zach was in junior high,
Bart knocked him unconscious with a right hand that was supposed
to have a boxing glove tied on it, except that both brothers had
already removed their gloves. Once he fell out of the top berth
of his bunk bed without waking up.
He is a walking Buster Keaton movie. He lived to tell about the
night he walked into the hall outside his dorm room in time to
see a thin line of fire heading straight for his door, which he
slammed a sliver of a second before the door caught fire. And
how did the man who pulled the prank, Shane Dunn, a teammate of
Thomas's at Texas Tech, make such a line of fire?
"Ether," says Dunn.
Weren't you afraid of hurting Zach?
"Awww, you can't hurt ol' Zach."
"You talked to Shane?" asks Thomas.
"Did he tell you about the face masks?"
The face masks: At Tech, Thomas played as a true freshman and
was All-America as a junior and again as a senior. Better than
that, he has the school record for breaking his own face
mask--three times--while making tackles during practice and
games. "He used to give us more headaches," says Dunn, who is a
senior on Tech's offensive line. "Plus he's got that Fred
Flintstone square head of his. That thing hurts."
NFL teams weren't impressed. That might be because of how Thomas
performed on the vertical jump at the scouting combine, which
was not very well at all. In fact, Thomas recalls jumping a
mediocre 28 1/2". You could hear the pencils scribble, scribble,
scribble the end of his career. "Hell, I tried to tell them
about the kid," says Tech coach Spike Dykes. "But if your guy
isn't six-two, they don't even want to talk about it."
The Dolphins risked a fifth-round pick. "I just hoped he'd make
it on special teams," says Johnson. But then in training camp
Thomas started making like Mike Singletary. In Miami's opener he
knocked out New England Patriots wideout Shawn Jefferson so cold
that when Jefferson came to, he mentioned his high school
coach's name. In a recent practice Thomas rocked rookie running
back Karim Abdul-Jabbar, who asked for nothing more than the
rest of the afternoon off. All of a sudden this kid who shares
an apartment with equally abridged rookie free-agent linebacker
Larry Izzo ("People think we're agents," says the 5'9" Izzo),
this no-name who keeps his ties tied because he can't make a
knot, is the hottest thing in Miami this side of stone crabs.
The other day local radio host Joe Rose invited Thomas and Izzo
to a Fort Lauderdale eatery for a free meal. They couldn't
believe their luck. But when they walked into the restaurant
that night, people were spilling out the front door. Thomas
figured the wait for a table was going to be ridiculous. Then he
realized that everyone was there for them, particularly him.
It is almost too much for him to believe. "Man, sometimes I
think about it, and I don't believe it," Thomas says. "I'm
playing against Chris Warren! Jerome Bettis! I mean, you watch
them on TV, and then you're out there in the game with them!
I've got posters of these guys on my wall!"
Looking at him, you've got to admit that the whole thing is a
little hard to swallow. In a nightclub the other night Thomas
and Izzo were talking to four head-snapping models. Hard as our
heroes tried, the models wouldn't believe they were NFL
linebackers. They guessed ankle tapers or agents. Finally Zach
took out his wallet and flashed the clincher--his Dolphins VIP
at Hooters card.
"They still didn't buy it," sighs Izzo.
Ladies, three words of advice: Watch your ankles.