Tommy Nobis had led an epic football life. Just as he had endured a tragic football death, losing himself to dementia and leaving to question the exact toll of all those glorious collisions.
On a dull gray late Tuesday morning in Buckhead, they held a very football funeral.
From the distinctive parade of large mourners walking stiff-legged into the service: All those men with broad shoulders rounded by the years – they just had to have shared some long-ago locker room.
To the choice of music at the service end: Maybe the first time “The Eyes of Texas” have been played on the church organ at Peachtree Road Methodist. And, certainly the first time family members of the departed flashed the “Hook ‘Em Horns” hand sign as they made for the door. That to honor the San Antonio-born player who won the Maxwell Award at Texas in 1965.
This was a tribute fit for a football hero.
Nobis was the Falcons first-ever draft pick in 1966, a fierce linebacker who went on to five Pro Bowls in 11 seasons and became such a fixture with this franchise and the neighboring community that he bore the name “Mr. Falcon.”
The Nobis funeral commanded a wide range of observers. Like Falcons owner Arthur Blank. And former Falcons of more recent vintage, like running back Jamal Anderson and tackle Bob Whitfield, who only knew Nobis as an omnipresent front office Falcon (“The first man you met when you got here,” Whitfield said). Two former Falcons coaches, Leeman Bennett and Dan Reeves. One usher who had been working from the day Nobis reported, Walter Banks. And a thousand or so others who came to give the Ring-of-Honor Falcon his due.
Billy “White Shoes” Johnson (Falcons returner/receiver 1982-87) was there, pairing his suit with white shoes, of course.
In the reception afterward, former quarterback Steve Bartkowski (1975-85) was the source of stories highlighting Nobis’ more mischievous side. Like that time in training camp at Furman University when he spotted Nobis hauling an air conditioning unit he had liberated from another part of campus up to his un-air conditioned room. Only problem – it wasn’t a portable unit. Wires trailed from it like roots of a ficus ripped from its pot. No electrician, Nobis was going to have to settle for a purely symbolic gesture.
That move paled next to the training camp prank he pulled on the namesake son of then-team owner Rankin Smith. Nobis secretly had the boy’s prized new car towed away, and left him to believe it stolen for days. You had to be a very important player to prank the owner’s kin.
All the reminiscences and tributes Tuesday were of the kind that should have been given Nobis during a Hall of Fame induction ceremony. One certified Hall of Famer, Braves old knuckleballer Phil Niekro, gave Nobis the highest praise he could. “He was a man’s man,” Niekro said.
To have played against Nobis was to realize he was made of Hall of Fame stuff. That from Bill Curry, 1960s/70s vintage center and college coach who ranked Nobis with the best of the time – every bit the player as Huff, Nitschke or Butkus.
To have practiced with him was to know the frustration of running into a well-mortared brick wall. Former center Jeff Van Note figured he was five years into his 18-year tenure with the Falcons before he could win as much as a mere stand-off with Nobis in training camp one-on-one drills.
Where the lauds of Canton may have eluded Nobis, they were plentiful Tuesday.
Listen to those who walked up to the pulpit to speak Tuesday.
From Bobbi Knopf, who co-founded with Nobis his foundation to train those with disabilities:
“He was a person with a big heart and a caring soul.”
From Bill Goss, Nobis’ friend since high school:
“He was a guy you could trust.”
“He learned how to deal with fame with humility and dignity.”
From Taylor Smith, son of former team owner Rankin Smith:
“The city had a true star in Tommy.”
“You almost felt guilty asking him to do things (in the community) because you knew he’d never say no.”
“He was our treasure. Thank you, God, for giving us Tommy Nobis.
And from the Falcons former athletic trainer Jerry Rhea, one of Nobis’ enduring friends:
“Talented. Tough as nails. Demanding of himself and those around him. Focused. Stubborn.”
“He thought it was a sign of weakness to be hurt.”
“He loved Willie Nelson, the Atlanta Falcons, the Tommy Nobis Foundation and most of all, his family.
“Tommy Nobis was a legend.”
“He’s with the angels now – and the angels better shape up.”