In 1963, legendary scribe Dan Jenkins went up to Army coach Paul Dietzel and quizzed him about the Texas Longhorns, a team the Cadets would face in ’64.
Texas, ranked No. 1 in the country, had a sophomore linebacker from San Antonio with particular aggression.
“I asked him, ‘Have you ever seen a better linebacker than Tommy Nobis?’” Jenkins recalled Wednesday. Dietzel won a national title at LSU in 1958, so he’d been around some stout players.
“Tommy Nobis is not the greatest linebacker I’ve ever seen,” Dietzel told Jenkins. “Tommy Nobis is the greatest linebacker who ever lived.”
Nobis, one of the most ferocious players in Texas history and the Atlanta Falcons’ first-ever draft pick, died Wednesday after a long illness, UT and Falcons officials confirmed. His wife Lynn was by his side. Nobis was 74.
“You could make a case he was not only the best linebacker, but the best player,” longtime Texas sports information director Bill Little said. “There are few players that strike fear in opponents the way Nobis did in his time.”
Nobis played pro football from 1966-76 and was a five-time Pro Bowler. In Atlanta, he’s known as “Mr. Falcon.” But back home, Nobis is known as the best linebacker in Texas history, a two-time All-American who started on the 1963 national championship team and one of the best players Darrell Royal once said he ever coached.
“He was one of the best, for sure,” said Duke Carlisle, UT’s starting quarterback in ’63. “I played with (Pat) Culpeppper and (Johnny) Treadwell my first years, I didn’t think I’d seen any linebackers to compare with them. He quickly showed that he was probably the best that I’d seen since I’d been watching football.
“I’d imagine most of the guys on our team would say the hardest licks they got all year was when he tackled ’em.”
Treadwell wore jersey No. 60 as an All-Southwest Conference, two-way player in 1962. Royal and defensive coordinator Mike Campbell felt whoever wore that number next better match Treadwell’s aggressive style. It wasn’t long before the 6-2 Nobis, with a barrel chest and 20-inch neck, started smashing ballcarriers.
David McWilliams, a lineman on the ’63 team and later UT’s head coach, said Nobis tackled in a way that might get him kicked out of games today.
“He hit a kid at Baylor, I don’t know how that poor boy got up,” McWilliams said. “Really, Tommy would tackle you with his chest. He would come up and raise his head and tackle you with his big ol’ arms. He was, to me, the best linebacker I ever saw play at Texas.”
Royal eventually put Nobis on the field as an offensive guard. “If Nobis plays just defense, he’s going to be out there less than half the time,” the coach once said. “You gotta be crazy to have Nobis playing less than half the time.”
Nobis was a consensus All-American in 1965 and won the Outland Trophy and Maxwell Award as the nation’s best defensive player. He finished seventh in the Heisman Trophy voting that season, two spots ahead of Florida’s Steve Spurrier.
“Tommy Nobis was an icon not just at the University of Texas, but in all of college football,” former teammate Mike Perrin said. “More than that to me, though, he was a friend. He was a real treasure who personified greatness as a player and a human being.”
Jersey No. 60 became revered within the football program. It’s been given out only sporadically as the years progressed. Jeff Leiding was an All-American in 1983 wearing No. 60. Britt Hager wore 60 and set the school’s season tackles records in 1987 and again in 1988. Brian Jones (1989-90) also wore No. 60.
In later years, Dusty Renfro and Derrick Johnson both wore No. 60 in one-off games, but no player has worn it on a regular basis in years. “You can’t help but be proud to be a part of it,” Johnson said in 2004.
“I just didn’t think we had a player who deserved to earn No. 60 after Brian Jones,” McWilliams said.
Nobis was the first overall pick in the 1966 NFL draft and became the league’s defensive rookie of the year. Nobis made a ridiculous 294 tackles that season, an unofficial record as it was not an NFL statistic at the time.
Nobis worked for the Falcons for decades, but McWilliams tried to get him a part-time job at UT. Unfortunately, nothing ever panned out, McWilliams said. The school honored Nobis with an on-field ceremony to retire jersey No. 60 in 2008.
“I certainly don’t think he would have been protective about that number,” Carlisle. said. “Coach Royal on a number of occasions calls him the best player he ever coached in his life. That’s a pretty select group right there.”
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: This story will be updated.
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