When the Falcons were accepted by the NFL in 1966, they were awarded two first-round draft choices. As it developed, the two they chose were from the same state, the same hometown, and at one time, the same housing complex.
Over the long haul, as this story will bear out, the course they took in their life after football could not have presented a more diverse path. It was the accidental philosopher Yogi Berra who said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
In the cases of Tommy Nobis and Randy Johnson, each chose his own course. One led to an honorable life after football, the other to utter degradation. This is the story of all that, the gladness and the sadness.
Tommy and Randy both grew up in San Antonio. They went to different high schools, in Tommy’s case, “because of the coach.”
Tommy became a celebrated All-American at Texas and is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. He is engraved on the memory of thousands for a goal-line tackle he made on Joe Namath in the 1965 Orange Bowl.
Randy spent his college career at Texas A&I (now Texas A&M-Kingsville), where he was Little All-America quarterback, and not widely known until he was voted most valuable player in three postseason games. He was tall, lean, with the handsome features of a frontiersman, and his sweetheart was the leading cheerleader, who later became his wife.
Now, it might be said that Randy’s life could have turned differently if not for an injury in a game at Washington in 1969. The week before, he had thrown four touchdown passes against the Bears and was voted NFL Player of the Week. He lost his place to Bob Berry, eventually moved on to the Giants, Redskins, Packers, and out. He was a natural at anything athletic, an excellent golfer and had a personality that matched his slick features.
A few years ago, neighbors returned from a trip to Florida, where they had looked at some real estate, and brought back a message from the agent, none other than Randy Johnson. “Maybe we can get together some time and talk about old times,” he wrote on notebook paper.
In 1999, I heard of him again. Married, divorced, two daughters, estranged from family, destitute, alcoholic, far from “the football golden boy” he had been, according to news clippings that were accompanied by pictures that showed those once-striking features now streaked by abuse.
He had spent his last dollar on vodka and stood on a bridge ready to jump. While he pondered his despair, someone came to his rescue, so the story said.
“My mother said God and the devil fought over Randy,” his former wife, the cheerleader, said, “and the devil won.”
He found help in a church mission, doing chores, staying dry, and last was said to have been in a refuge in Brevard, N.C., where the telephone number registered to him responded with this recorded reply: “The person at this number is not accepting calls at this time.”
I’m told he still receives an NFL pension check, but he takes no calls.
Meanwhile, the life of his draft-mate and Falcons teammate could not have taken a more creditable turn. Tommy Nobis also married his campus sweetheart, and he and Lynn raised a family of three. At draft time, when the rival American Football League was still viable, Nobis became a subject from outer space. Houston held his draft rights in the other league, and Frank Borman, from Gemini 7, messaged back to earth, “Tell Nobis to sign with Houston.”
As a 240-pound-light linebacker, Nobis became the backbone of the Falcons defense, five times to the Pro Bowl. It was Miami running back Larry Csonka who once said, “I’d rather play against [Dick] Butkus than Nobis.” Cover boy on both Life magazine and Sports Illustrated, everything but the one place he should be — in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
After all the bells stopped ringing and the marquee lights grew dim, all did not turn drab for Nobis. There was more of life out there to be lived, something he could give to society. There had been rough edges to be hewn. “I had to sit down with myself and get hold of myself,” he said. “I was a long way from perfect.”
The difference was, he found a productive course of life.
What evolved was the Tommy Nobis Center, dedicated to providing training and counsel to those with disabilities. It is now in its 30th year, and Tommy is just as involved as when it began.
He has been honored with various Man of the Year awards, and you’ll find the Nobises present at many a community activity.
Same hometown, similar acclaim in their college careers, drafted by the same team with the same opportunity to be a star in the NFL, but a tragically different response after the cheering stopped. There the similarities ceased. When they came to the fork in the road, they took it. Right for one, wrong for the other.