It was September 1st, 1996. With 12:51 remaining in the 4th quarter, Patriots wide receiver Shawn Jefferson takes an end around and is met by Dolphins rookie linebacker Zach Thomas. He is hit hard. Real hard. So hard he doesn’t get up. So hard he spends the night at Jackson Memorial Hospital. As for the man that hit him, this was one of the first of his 1,076 tackles. This was the day he became my favorite football player. This was also his first memorable moment of a Hall of Fame-worthy career. The question is, why isn’t he in it yet?
Zach Thomas was born and raised in Pampa, Texas. He had football in his blood. He was a high school football state champion and two-time All-American at Texas Tech. He had accolades deserving of the NFL. The problem was he was only 5’11”.
NFL scouts felt he was too small to play middle linebacker in the NFL. Jimmy Johnson decided to take a chance on Zach Thomas and drafted him in the 5th round. But even after being drafted, he faced adversity. Veteran Jack Del Rio was signed and expected to be the starter. But Thomas impressed the team from the moment he put his pads on. Not only was he named the starter on opening day, but the team cut Del Rio shortly after.
Over the next 12 seasons, Zach Thomas would not relinquish that starter role. Instead, he would go on to have 10 straight seasons with 100 tackles or more. He was a seven-time Pro Bowler and five-time All-Pro. He and his brother-in-law Jason Taylor would pair to lead one of the best defenses in all of football for years. But all these accomplishments haven’t helped Thomas reach Canton. Jason Taylor was voted in to the Hall on his first try and enshrined last year. Thomas still waits.
Of the 29 linebackers already enshrined, only one has more tackles. The main comparison made to Thomas is Brian Urlacher. Urlacher was a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, and deservedly so. He led the Bears’ defense to Super Bowl XLI. He won a Defensive Player of the Year award. But a closer look at the numbers help make the case for Zach Thomas to be joining him there. Thomas actually has more tackles, assists, forced fumbles, Pro Bowls, and All-Pro awards. Short of overall team success, and maybe being overshadowed by Taylor who plays a flashier position, Zach Thomas’ resume speaks for itself.
So why have the 46 voters not called Thomas’ name? The man had few weaknesses on the field. But he was undersized and played for the Miami Dolphins. Not only have the Dolphins not been to a Super Bowl since 1984, but Miami-Fort Lauderdale is only the 16th largest media market in the U.S. Chicago, where Urlacher played his whole career, is 3rd. This could definitely play a part.
Another issue that many athletes have is they hold on too long. After injuries derailed his last season with Miami, Thomas attempted to continue to play and signed for one season with the Dallas Cowboys and then the next season with the Kansas City Chiefs. The last attempt was futile, as he was concussed and cut during training camp.
To the average fan, Zach Thomas had a lot to overcome. Being undersized and playing for an average team didn’t help sell jerseys. Fans are enamored with sacks, TDs, and interceptions. Not tackles. Fans enjoy players with movie star looks and endorsement deals. Zach Thomas had none of these things. What he did have was talent. And while that might not be a big draw to the average fan, it’s shameful that he is also overlooked by the Hall voters. This year was the closest Zach Thomas came to getting the call. Could 2019 finally be the year?
This article was written by Tim Felder. Follow him on Twitter: @t_fins
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