Tommy Nobis might have been the greatest player University of Texas football history. Nobis was the last of a breed—he started on offense and defense—and so thoroughly dominated at linebacker that he came in seventh in Heisman voting in 1965. Nobis had a Hall of Fame career in college and in the NFL, where he was the first draft pick in the history of the Atlanta Falcons’ franchise.
The Longhorns have retired Nobis’s jersey and he is part of Texas football mythology. What Longhorn fans probably don’t know, however, is that Nobis was almost a Sooner. Nobis idolized OU coach Bud Wilkinson, but couldn’t take the Oklahoma boys trash-talking his native state. “When I started hearing people say negative things about not just The University of Texas but the state of Texas, I couldn’t handle that,” Nobis writes in the new book, What It Means to be a Longhorn: Darrell Royal, Mack Brown and Many of Texas’ Greatest Players, edited by Bill Little and Jenna McEachern.
Little and Eachern’s book gives many of Texas’s greatest players the chance to tell their stories in their own words. Whether you’re a fan or a hater, you’ll want to check this out. You can read an excerpt below. – Russell Cobb
TOMMY NOBIS Linebacker 1963–1965
People ask me how I got to Texas. Highway 35 was a two-lane road when I made my first trip up there. Now it’s an interstate highway. Times have changed.
I was very fortunate my senior year at Thomas Jefferson High School in San Antonio that I had a good season. I caught the eyes of several major colleges in the area, including The University of Texas.
I did get recruited by Oklahoma. I was very fond of their coach, Bud Wilkinson. He had a pretty good track record of putting out some young men who went on to be pretty good coaches, and early on I had thought about wanting to be a coach. Some guys wanted to be a conductor on a train, or fly a plane, or be a carpenter and build a house. But my thing was I wanted to stay in sports and coaching.
I really had a lot of admiration for Coach Wilkinson, and the OU program was winning a lot of games. But you know, when you cross that Red River and go into Oklahoma, it’s different. When I started hearing people say negative things about not just The University of Texas but the state of Texas, I couldn’t handle that. I don’t know how they got so many Texas boys, and they still do, to go there when the attitude is what it is about the state of Texas. It’s amazing that a kid coming out of Texas would go to Oklahoma with some of the things that they say about our great state. And I didn’t want to put up with it. I knew I belonged somewhere back in Texas, and of course, I was leaning all the way toward the school in Austin.
Charley Shira had the San Antonio recruiting area, and people who knew Coach Shira knew he was a likable, great man. To me, he was like Hoss Cartwright, that big ole character from Bonanza on TV. He was a quiet guy who walked with a big stick, and he really had a lot of respect from everybody once they met him and found out what he was all about.
They didn’t have any limits in scholarships, but they probably had more people than they needed when I was coming out of high school. I was probably one of those who if they didn’t get, it wasn’t any big deal. Coach Shira was bringing Coach Royal to visit, and that was a big thing for my parents, to have Coach Darrell Royal come and visit our house. My mother cleaned the house for a couple of days to get ready. I had to help her. I guess that’s why I remember it. But we got the house all cleaned up for the coach to come in.
Basically, what he told us was that there was a scholarship up there, and they’d like to see me consider coming to UT. He said he knew there were a couple of others I was considering, and if I chose to go there, they’d wish me the best. I knew The University of Texas was going to continue on with an outstanding program without me, but it made me feel good that I did get an invite, and I certainly made the right decision when I did get the invite.
What I noticed when I got to Texas was the good-looking women. Now, anybody who played in that era of the ’60s and ’70s knows that the academics were tough, so it was hard just trying to stay eligible and pass your work. The game plan the coaches had to keep us on point was to keep us busy, and they certainly did that. We had football, trying to keep up with your school work, and occasionally going out. We did find time to have a good time, though. It was demanding trying to hold your position and staying eligible, and I worked pretty hard at each.
We won a national championship my sophomore year of 1963 and lost a one-point game to Arkansas that cost us another in 1964. I guess my biggest memories are the true excitement of game day in Memorial Stadium—to stand out in that stadium at the start of the game, with the people standing up and singing “The Eyes of Texas.” I will remember those afternoons forever. It was a big motivator, and the whole scene kind of put things in perspective. You felt like you were not only playing for yourself and your teammates, but it gave you the feeling that you were playing for a lot of people. That song got me going.
I was really fortunate to play in two of the greatest bowl games in our school history, and both had particular meaning. In 1963 we had already won a national championship when we went into the Cotton Bowl, but there were a lot of media people and fans in the East who favored Navy. I was a sophomore, but I still remember the tradition of playing an academy and its being such a big game. We had Scott Appleton, and they had Roger Staubach, and they were two of the most famous players of the time. It was a big, big football game back in that era, and we won handily 28–6.
Then, after my junior year, we played Alabama in the first Orange Bowl night game. For me, that game was special because of what I was thinking of doing with my life, and at that time, I was thinking about coaching. Two of the greatest coaches who had ever been in the college game, Bear Bryant and Darrell Royal, were coaching, and just to be a part of that was special. You had two great universities, where football meant so much to the alumni, the students, and the faculty. When you put those two teams out in the arena, you have all of those factors—the history, the tradition, the popularity—going. You could feel that.
Everybody remembers our stop of Joe Namath at the goal line to preserve the win, but as a player, it didn’t make any difference if Joe Namath or somebody else was the quarterback. We were excited about playing that football game. When I think about having played against Roger and Joe, I realize what we accomplished. We played against two NFL and College Hall of Famers, and won both games. Then when I went to the NFL, I was suddenly playing against pros like Johnny Unitas, Bart Starr, and John Brodie. That was the era of guys I grew up watching, and all of a sudden, I was playing against them.
Going into my senior year in 1965, we kind of started out on the same path we’d been going down. To that point, we had lost one football game in my three years. We beat Oklahoma and seemed headed to a pretty good year. But things turned around at Arkansas. We fell behind 20–0, then came back to take the lead, only to have them overtake us 27–24. The game was real close. We had played them so well. It was hard to understand. I was a senior and I was supposed to be a leader.
I will never forget that year. I learned then that you should never take anything for granted. Did we work hard enough? Our opponents were going to be as good athletes as we were. They were big, fast, strong, but we thought we’d outwork them. Now, there were a lot of questions. I thought I had worked hard enough, I thought as a team we’d worked hard enough. The coaches had us prepared, but things happened. That’s football. If there is any one year in my life I would like to relive, it would be that.
We finished the season at 6–4 and were invited to play in the Bluebonnet Bowl. We didn’t belong—not that we didn’t deserve a bowl bid, we just didn’t belong. I was limping around a little bit, I had hurt my knee earlier in the Oklahoma game. As I said, I’d just like to go back and do that one over.
It’s been a long time, but it was certainly a special experience. If you crank up “The Eyes of Texas” and “Texas Fight,” I still get goose bumps. You have a feeling that you are representing all that tradition. Coach Darrell Royal was a great football coach, and his most valuable talent was to surround himself with good people. You can go down the list and look at the ones who were there when I was in school, and they were not only good football coaches, they taught positives about life. It was not only all the X’s and O’s of the sport, they taught us how to do right on the field, in the classroom, and in all things. There are a lot of challenges when you are that age, but they were great teachers and they made a difference in our lives.
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This excerpt from What It Means To Be A Longhorn is printed with the permission of Triumph Books / www.triumphbooks.com.