By Barry Wilner
Special to the Pro Football Hall of Fame
The idea way back in 1996 was that fifth-round draft choice ZACH THOMAS would be a special-teamer for the Miami Dolphins. Then Thomas showed up and the plan completely changed.
Before he even suited up for a meaningful game Thomas was the starting middle linebacker for the Dolphins, unseating veteran Jack Del Rio, himself an excellent player. Oh, he didn’t drop any duties on kick teams, either.
Yes, Zach Thomas was a special player, and today he owns a Gold Jacket.
“I’m so proud to be part of this incredible Class of 2023,” said Thomas, who mentioned in his speech that he was run over by a pickup truck when he was 2 years old. “What a great group of men! This Texas country boy who took some dirt roads looked up to a lot of you and I’m so proud to be the 370th inductee in the Hall of Fame.
“On Aug. 5, 1996, exactly 37 years ago today, Jimmy Johnson named me the starting middle linebacker for the Miami Dolphins, even though I was the 154th draft pick. Jimmy believed in me, and I will never be able to repay you, Coach.”
For a dozen superb seasons in Miami and one more with Dallas, Thomas was among the best linebackers during an era of brilliance at the position. Not only did he finish second to Simeon Rice for Defensive Rookie of the Year, Thomas used that as impetus for seven All-Pro selections and six visits to the Pro Bowl. A tackling machine who could disrupt the run and pass game with equal efficiency, Thomas was involved in at least 94 tackles every pro season except one. He twice led the NFL in tackles.
“He made every play,” Johnson said. “He made every tackle.”
As a rookie, he made 154 tackles, had three interceptions, scored a touchdown and threw in two sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Then he built on it.
“Just being out there and just looking across – that’s Dan Marino right there, right across from me. I’m competing against Dan Marino,” Thomas recalled of his initial training camp. “And just looking back at those camps, man, I was so focused, laser-focused just to make the team. There wasn’t anything else on my mind but making the team.
From 1997-2001, Miami made the postseason, and in a 2001 playoff defeat against Baltimore, he had 22 tackles, 14 solo.
Overall, he picked off 17 passes – you won’t see many linebackers even in position to do so nowadays, let alone catch the ball; four of those were pick-6s, a team record – and had 20.5 sacks. Throw in his leadership and versatility and Thomas, chosen for the NFL All-Decade Team of the 2000s, exhibited all of the traits of a Hall of Famer.
“To all the passionate Miami Dolfans that appreciated my play, applauded me and asked for my autograph, you mean the world to me,” he said to the crowd at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium, pumping his right arm. “When I looked up in the stands and saw you wearing my number 54, I knew I couldn’t let you down.”
Mike Westhoff was the special teams coordinator for the Dolphins and was basically responsible for drafting Thomas out of Texas Tech. Thomas supposedly was too small to be an NFL regular, and Westhoff envisioned Thomas as a weapon on his squads. Then Johnson saw how much Thomas could do – and let him do it. While still working special teams.
“Zach is as unselfish and dedicated as any player I have come cross in more than three decades in the NFL,” Westhoff said of the only Texas Tech player in the Hall.
Added Thomas, who retired in 2008 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in his 10th year of eligibility:
“Some of you may have noticed there is one person who’s name I have yet to mention. His poster hung on my wall in college, and every day and every night I dreamed of being like him, because he was everything I wanted to be as a football player. He was my inspiration, he became my teammate, and though he’s not here physically, he’s here in spirit — and in a bust in that building. I am truly honored to join him.
“Junior Seau, thank you buddy.”