Linked on draft day, Falcons’ first picks took different paths

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.

29 comments Add your comment

heybud

April 23rd, 2009
10:04 pm

In addition to not making the Pro Football Hall of Fame (a travesty in my opinion and in the opinion of practically every long-standing Falcon fan), not many people know that when Arthur Blank took over the Falcons organization, he distanced “his” organization from much of the Falcons’ past history.

This distancing includes outstanding representatives of the organization like Tommy Nobis and many, many others. And this year Jack Ragsdale, long-time head of ticket sales for the Falcons, finally threw in the towel.

Unfortunately, these stories never find their way into the newspaper or into the public consciousness.

Arthur Blank has done some good things for Atlanta, but distancing “his” current organization (the Atlanta Falcons franchise) from quality people like Tommy Nobis is not among them.

From what I understand, Tommy merely suggested that maybe it wasn’t the best idea in the world for Arthur Blank to be down on the field at the conclusion of Falcons games. Whether that had anything to do with the fact that Tommy no longer has a position with the Falcons is the reason or not, no one knows, but it possibly did contribute to it.

There are a number of Falcon fans that would prefer that Arthur Blank not go down on the field at the end of games. Walking around the perimeter of the stadium and greeting fans from the field prior to the start of a game is fine, but let the Jerry Jones’ go down on the field. Stay in your suite. The only possible reason that Arthur Blank should be on the field following the end of a game is to accept the Lombardi Trophy.

Tommy Nobis is the best player the Atlanta Falcons have ever had, and he and Warrick Dunn are probably the best humanitarian players the team has ever had as well.

I remember Randy Johnson and Bob Berry playing QB for the Falcons. It’s sad that Randy’s life took the path that it did, but maybe he is learning something from his travails and will perhaps be able to steer someone else away from the direction he took.

Thanks for another fine article about the past, Furman. Thanks for keeping the memories alive.

H1022

April 24th, 2009
12:38 am

I thought Nick Rassas from Notre Dame was the Falcon’s second choice. I am getting too old.

bgarcia

April 24th, 2009
6:01 am

Once again, a beautifully written article. Mr Bisher, you are a rare bird.

Tommy Nobis deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. I am disappointed that Mr Blank has not used his influence to give Tommy the honor that he has earned.

Reebok

April 24th, 2009
7:52 am

Brilliant column, compassionately expressed. Thanks, Mr. Bisher.

tixholdersince66

April 24th, 2009
11:08 am

Nobis was All World on a pretty crappy team. I remember the hit he put on Tarkenton to end the game, on our first Monday Night win. I agree that Blank should embrace the former players and followers, as we supported many horrible years by buying season tickets before the Dome became a hip hop arena. Continual price increases to long term fans to subsidize the $10.00 seats is no way to show any appreciation to us. ( I know we were under league average, but overpaid for the product being sold). BTW, I dropped my 4 tickets last year after 41 years of support. I still watch all the games, as I am a true Falcoholic. Must say the beer is cheaper and the restroom cleaner at my place. Go Falcons and let’s not forget the past legends. Another great column Furman!

**Frederick(Bailey)Douglass**

April 24th, 2009
11:49 am

Very good and timely Bisher. THESE are the stories that are yours to write. Give us some history and context on the Birds (Hawks, Falcons) and the Braves. Real fans appreciate your knowledge and wisdom.

Rocky Redwood

April 24th, 2009
12:29 pm

If I owned a team I’d be on the field too. I’d also find a place for Tommy Nobis.

pcoleman

April 24th, 2009
3:07 pm

In the 1966 NFL Draft Nobis was the #1 Pick overall and Johnson the #16 pick (the extra first round pick) of the first round. Rassas was the first pick in ROUND 2.

Mac

April 24th, 2009
3:50 pm

Standing in the concession line at Fulton County Stadium during an exhibition game circa 1985, it wasn’t until he was ordering that I realized I was behind Nobis. When we were both dressing our hotdogs, I told him how much I had enjoyed watching him play. He was humble and gracious – and buying his own dogs at the stand, not eating filet mignon in a suite. A good guy that Tommy Nobis.

AGTFan

April 24th, 2009
4:40 pm

It truly is a travesty that Tommy Nobis isn’t in the NFL HOF. He really was an effective defense pretty much all by himself. If he had played anywhere except Atlanta, he would be in the HOF. A great player and a great human being. If I was Arthur Blank, I’d want Nobis around my team, just to give lessons on being human.

Rock

April 24th, 2009
5:10 pm

Thank you Furman Bisher.
I googled Randy Johnson about a week or two ago wondering what became of him.
Tommy Nobis was maybe the best middle linebacker in the era of great ones.
It is a travesty that he is not in the Hall.
Arthur Blank should do everything he can to get Nobis in.

shortcircuit

April 24th, 2009
5:16 pm

If I owned the team I would go anywhere I wanted to also. I had the privilege of meeting Tommy one time and he is truly just a nice person.

Terrible Truth

April 24th, 2009
7:10 pm

Tommy Nobis is a nice guy and long overdue HOF’er, but judging from the color work he used to do on the Falcons pre-season games many years ago, not too bright. Arthur Blank may have sensed that too. Besides, cuts had to be made somewhere to overpay Michael Vick. I did love how Nobis would throw the ball into the stands after an interception. Hell, he may have had the best arm on the team!

Randy Johnson had guts (or perhaps no brains) for playing most of the time with his chin strap unbuckled behind some horrific offensive lines. I think he finally learned his lesson when Sam Huff ripped off his helmet, very nearly with his head in it.

falcon21

April 24th, 2009
9:15 pm

Terrible Truth, you are 100% right on Tommy and Arthur. Tommy was not a great color guy and AB was and still is learning as a new owner. As for AB being on the field, WTH- if I owned the team that is where I would be.

oldandntheway

April 25th, 2009
12:10 am

Met Randy Johnson a few times in the late sixties and to put it bluntly, he was a dumbass redneck with a lot of money and no class.

Dr. Warren

April 26th, 2009
10:28 am

Nobis gave autographs generously and with a friendly smile when I was a kid in the ’70’s. I think I got two or three of them over time. Even at my young age, it was clear he was the kind of sportsman the youth league coaches wanted you to be, too.

wxwax

April 26th, 2009
11:58 pm

A fine column.

Thank you.

Al Thomy

April 27th, 2009
5:37 pm

As the Constitution NFL beat man for the first 15 years of Falcon history, and a member of the Hall of Fame Board of Selectors for that period, I fought an uphill battle to get Tommy Nobis in the Hall. Unfortunately, others put more emphasis on the team’s shaky leadership and its losing ways rather than Nobis’great defense. Most opponents ranked him above Dick Butkus, the NFL’s cover star of the times. Now that they’ve moved Nobis to the seniors’ division, I’m still trying and not giving up. One problem, those who do the voting today never saw Nobis play. I’ve had success in the past, successfully reopening the case for Johnny Mize and Rick Ferrell in the baseball Hall of Fame and for (Georgia Tech’s) Bill Fincher in the College Hall of Fame. The Falcons themselves need to help. If I’m not mistaken, with exception of Norm Van Brocklin, I don’t think there’s a single purely Falcon in the Pro Hall of Fame. As for Randy Johnson, if you took the beating he took for the helpless Falcons of his day, you’d have trouble too. Once he was so beat-up from endless sacks, he lined up behind the guard to take the snap.I treasure my times with the Falcons. It was like being in the trenches together and under extreme fire. It was a lot harder for Nobis to do what he did than it was for Butkus to take his bows.

All I'm Saying Is...

April 28th, 2009
9:43 am

Furman: Great article and keep more of the same coming as you are the one person who can share insight and perspective about sports in general and former great Atlanta athletes that most people do not know about in particular. By the way, can you do anything to get Nobis considered for the HOF? If so, put your time and effort where your pen is and get after it.

If I owned the team, I would go on the field after the game if I wanted to although I would be smart enough not to. If I worked for the Falcons, I would be smart enough to let the owner ask me for advice about whether he should go on the field and bite my tongue otherwise.

Also, if I were the owner, I would be smart enough to always welcome back former Atlanta Falcons especially those like Tommy Nobis, Claude Humphrey, Jim Zook, Jesse Tuggle, Mike Kenn, Robert Pennywell, Steve Bartkowski, Bob Berry, Tim Mazzetti, etc. as honoring the past is the way you show respect for the franchise.

wes

April 28th, 2009
12:07 pm

If I owned the Falcons, I’d go wherever the hell I pleased!

Arthur Blank cares. It’s no big deal to see him down on the field…he’s only down there during the last couple minutes.

angry banker

April 28th, 2009
6:10 pm

Nobis is in the Falcon’s ‘ring of honor’ – beyond that, what else would you want AB to do? He doesn’t have any direct say about who goes in the HOF.

great article Mr. Bisher

Rev. Charles W. Brown

April 28th, 2009
10:57 pm

When I served as pastor of a Baptist Church west of Atlanta back in the mid-70’s, I heard a knock on my office door one evening and greeted a casually dressed, stumpy, athletic-type guy that was looking for a certain church in the area, where he was scheduled to speak to the Boy Scouts. His name was Tommy Nobis. I marveled that such a high profile, professional athlete would take time out to drive to Mableton, GA and address a group of scouts. Needless to say, I was impressed by the man as well as the athlete. Unquestionably, he was a role-model for many.

Brian Hunt

April 29th, 2009
1:44 pm

I really enjoyed reading this piece.

Reno 911

April 29th, 2009
1:50 pm

Mr. Bisher- Always a pleasure to read your columns, and this is no exception. Thanks for all you do.

Dan

April 29th, 2009
8:11 pm

Check google news concerning a San Antonio sports radio talkshow host, Eugene Williams, who is attempting to start a campaign to raise the profile of Nobis and get him in the Hall of Fame. It would be nice to see the Atlanta sports media get behind such a campaign. Nobis earned it on the field; unfortuantely he happened to play for a lousy franchise, in a then-small market, which was seldom one of the featured teams on the two or three nationally-broadcast games on each Sunday afternoon back in the latter 60s and early 70s.

crabapplejoe

April 30th, 2009
11:00 pm

Furman, keep it comin’ old guy. Been reading you since I was a youngster back in the ’60s. It is wonderful that there is still a “journalist” at the AJC. I had no idea that Randy Johnson had taken such a bad turn….too bad..he did take a beating in those early years. Hope he can shed the demons.

Falcon228

May 1st, 2009
8:31 am

My most memorable Nobis game was on Dec. 18, 1966. The Falcons had won 3 of the last 4 games and they were playing the Pittsburg Steelers. Now this wasn’t the Steelers of the ’70’s by no means. They were worse than the expansion Falcons. I had won 4 tickets in a promotion from the local Coca-Cola Bottling Co. in the community I grew up in. We just knew it was going to be a win. As it was all the Falcons wanted to do was show up and get it over with. Get a paycheck and go home. But not Tommy Nobis. He played his heart out that day. Tackle after tackle. The other story of that day was a former UGA QB that had been released by the Falcons early that season. The Steelers picked him up and converted him to running back and he ran all over the Falcons that day. That QB’s name was Preston Ridlehuber. He took over the game and almost single handed beat the Falcons. He had to be sore after that game. I think Nobis was the only one that tackled him that day.

russell nittinger

May 1st, 2009
9:51 am

great piece. lets not forget jeff van note for hall of fame !

Ed Larios

December 14th, 2009
12:59 pm

Al Thomy is a great guy. I was a rookie WR for the Falcons. He probably would’nt remember me but he wrote an article about me during training camp in 1968 at ETSU and my inability to sing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” during rookie hazing. I eventually was put on the “Taxi Squad” but got to know Tommy and Randy. I was scared to death of Tommy and really liked Randy. Randy helped me alot that year and was really a class guy. His death and sad story are a real tragedy.