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The Force
Dan Jenkins
January 07, 2006
In his three seasons at Texas, Tommy Nobis left a lasting legacy as one of the Longhorns'--and the game's--finest players
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January 07, 2006

The Force

In his three seasons at Texas, Tommy Nobis left a lasting legacy as one of the Longhorns'--and the game's--finest players

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Reprinted from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, October 18, 1965

TOMMY NOBIS WEIGHS 235 POUNDS; STANDS 6 feet 2; has a size 19� neck and a bulging physique that gives him the appearance of a man who has swallowed a dozen bowling balls; is quicker than most of the runners he stuffs away like wrinkled suits in hanger bags; and, furthermore, according to his keeper, Texas coach Darrell Royal, "He ain't exactly eat up with a case of the stupid." Nobis is the living, breathing, bear-hugging, stick-'em-in-the-gizzle proof that linebackers, not blondes, have more fun.

You know about linebackers, of course. They are the evil-looking guys who stand behind those groveling linemen and stare coldly at the opposing milker--sometimes called a quarterback--then try to milk the ball from him. They are the fun lovers who get just plain gleeful when they show their speed to smother a ballcarrier going wide, when they display their agility by spearing a scrambling passer before he can throw, when they get to meet a barging runner head-on, showing their want-to. They are also the players who occasionally get to drop off and intercept passes, then run in such wild-boar fashion that their coach is always pressed to explain at the Monday boosters' luncheon why they aren't playing offense. That shows, finally, that they are the complete athletes; very often the best ones a team has.

Good linebackers must be. They are the soul and heart of a defense, both physically and spiritually. They can never be tired or look tired in either respect, nor can they think tired, for many of them call defensive signals and hope to outguess the milker. They are such people as Dick Butkus, the 1964 season's best, and Leroy Jordan, E.J. Holub, Les Richter and Chuck Bednarik, who were all brilliant in college, and Joe Schmidt, Sam Huff, Bill George and Ray Nitschke, who became brilliant as professionals. And now comes this Tommy Nobis, who is proving for the third straight year that because of his unusual love of the game, his strength, quickness, speed, pride, instinct, coaching and ideal attitude--all of those things--that he may well be the best linebacker in the history of college football.

Granted, that is a statement to rattle several plaques in the corridors of the Hall of Fame at Rutgers and encourage a lot of guys--Doak, the Ghost, Old 98, Bronko, Ernie--to maybe wonder what Tommy Nobis would have done with their hip feints and stiff arms. But Darrell Royal knows.

"He'd have stuffed 'em," says Royal as calmly and assuredly as you please. "All he does every week is play a great game, and you can just see joy on his face when he's out there. He's done it from the first game he started, which was as quick as I could get him into a suit as a sophomore. Players keep getting smarter, stronger and faster, and Tommy is only the latest. Aside from his super ability, he's just one of those trained pigs you love. He'll laugh and jump right in the slop for you."

Nobis, who is alert and wide-eyed on the field rather than the snarling prototype football brute, jumped in the slop enough to be judged a bona fide Southwest Conference immortal before the 1965 season even began. A Texas football immortal is usually any letterman who has been out of school a year, but Nobis, apparently, is for real. He was a two-way all-conference guard as a sophomore in 1963 on Texas's unbeaten national championship team. That was a team led by tackle Scott Appleton, who became Lineman of the Year. "Scott was a great defensive player," Royal says, "but when he went one-on-one against Nobis he got stuffed." In the Cotton Bowl game against Navy and Roger Staubach, concluding that season, Nobis draped himself around the Heisman Trophy winner like a clawing necklace all afternoon as Texas won a laugher, 28-6, and his performance prompted Army coach Paul Dietzel to call him "the finest linebacker I've ever seen in college." In 1964, playing both ways and making All-America, Nobis bulled and quicked his way to more than 20 individual tackles--most of them near the scrimmage line--in each game against Army, Oklahoma, Arkansas, SMU and Baylor, and nearly every Texas writer ran out of exclamation points.

And then in the Orange Bowl in those unbearable moments down on the Texas goal line, as the Longhorns clung to a 21-17 lead over Alabama and Joe Namath tried to take the Crimson Tide in with three plays from the one, it was Nobis again. Well, it was everybody, really, for as Royal says, "The film shows that not only did Namath not get across, but no Alabama lineman got across." But it was mostly Nobis, securing the ballcarrier. The result of all this is that when 25 leading newspapermen and coaches in the Southwest were polled to name the greatest defender in the history of the conference--a task they did not take frivolously, football being more important down there than elections and border disputes-- Tommy Nobis was the winner even though his final season was yet to come.

Now it's 1965, and Nobis is still Nobis. He led the defense that allowed poor Tulane just 18 rushing yards in Texas's 31-0 opener. He made the big play, a game-turning fourth-down tackle for minus yardage, and a lot of others in the 33-7 victory over Texas Tech. This was a game in which Nobis and Texas shut out All-America halfback Donny Anderson for the third straight year (three games: 71 yards), a feat that tickled Royal more than his collection of Roger Miller records. "He ain't drank a drop against us," said Royal, perhaps better than Roger could have. Nobis was equally brilliant in the 27-12 victory over Indiana, stunning the ponderous Big Ten linemen with his speed. But he was even more of himself against Oklahoma, because a Royal-coached Longhorn in that one is expected to put on his most dedicated game face of all. Texas won 19-0, and Nobis said, "Only thing I know of that'd be more fun would be to play OU twice on one day." Fun is the key word. Football may be work for some, a hostility outlet for others, but for Nobis it's a John Wayne movie, a platter of fried chicken and guitar music all wrapped up in a burnt-orange jersey.

With these four games behind him Nobis is on his way to All-America again, to becoming one of the precious few Southwest players to make all-conference three years, probably to Lineman of the Year honors (since he also happens to be the best blocking guard Royal has ever had and even now plays both ways), certainly to making as strong a bid for the Heisman as any linebacker or interior lineman ever has, and obviously to a first-round draft choice of the pros--perhaps No. 1--and quite likely the highest bonus ever paid to a player who does not run, throw or catch.

But more important to Nobis and his teammates is the fact that Royal's team is ranked first in the nation again for the 14th time in the past three Nobis-spangled seasons. That would include the seven weeks the Longhorns protected the burden in 1963, the first four weeks of the 1964 season before Arkansas upset them 14-13, and three weeks of the 1965 season. "That," says Nobis, "is what you play for--to try to be the best. Losin' is just terrible, and if anybody's got any man in him at all, he'll go 'til he drops tryin' not to."

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