Zach Thomas says he won’t take offense if you believe he’s not good enough for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Google Thomas’ name and “Hall of Fame,” and you’ll see much debate on the subject.
Which just amazes — and flatters — the former Texas Tech linebacker.
“To have somebody say, ‘Oh no, he doesn’t deserve to be in the Hall of Fame ... I’ve already won for him to even bring up my name,” Thomas said this week. “I don’t lose any sleep over it, because I’ve already won.
“I won before I stepped on that field for my first game, and that’s the truth, because I always just wanted to make it to the NFL, and I never imagined the type of career that I had. Even if I don’t make it, I’m grateful in my career.”
NFL players become eligible for Hall of Fame consideration five years after they retire — in Thomas’ case, five years after May 2010. In 14 seasons, 12 of them for the Miami Dolphins, Thomas made the Pro Bowl seven times and logged more than 1,700 tackles. Regardless, he appears to be viewed by many as only a borderline Hall of Fame candidate.
That discussion will continue for the next few years.
In the meantime, Thomas is more certain of one thing: He’s not headed back to Texas Tech to coach. Not in the near future anyway. Not while trying to look after three workout facilities, two little children and his wife.
Tech’s hiring of Kliff Kingsbury and Kingsbury’s subsequent hiring of two young Tech exes as assistant coaches fed the fever of some Red Raiders fans to have the 39-year-old Thomas join the staff, too.
“I’m not going to be coaching anytime soon,” Thomas said. “It’s just an honor to have the fans consider me. I committed 28 years of my life to football, and you can’t just be partly committed. So my commitment now is to my family and my business ventures. I’m just trying to see if I’m good at anything else besides football. It’s been fun. I get to set my own schedule and do all that.”
Thomas owns two gyms in Lubbock and one in Amarillo, facilities known as Zach’s Club 54.
It’s not that Thomas thinks he couldn’t coach. He certainly has the energy, and he believes he has the knowledge base. Thomas said later in his playing career, he’d have head coaches and defensive coordinators coming to him weekly asking for advice or suggestions. He took pride when a Jim Bates, a Dave Wannstedt, a Dom Capers would seek his opinions in drawing up a game plan.
“Those were guys that had been around for a lot of years, coached a lot of years,” he said. “It was a respect thing. That’s when I knew, ‘Hey, I’ll have something to fall back on, put on the back burner for when I’m done playing.’”
Even though the Dolphins regularly produced good defenses, Thomas played for several coaches and said it helped his career to learn from all of them. Included in that group is Nick Saban, who went only 15-17 as the Dolphins head coach in 2005 and 2006 but has won three national championships as a college head coach at LSU and Alabama.
“He’s not my favorite person,” Thomas said, “but you know what? He was prepared. And his practices? They were efficient and productive. I’ve never been around a coach that had better practices. Your winning is your best tool for recruiting, but he’s definitely disciplined. That’s why he’s probably going to win three championships in the last four years, because he definitely has his team prepared.”
Thomas said Jimmy Johnson, the coach who drafted him in the fifth round and promptly made him a rookie starter, was tops for straight-shooting honesty and motivation. (“When he gave a speech, it was moving. It was stuff you wrote down.”)
A Super Bowl title is the biggest thing missing from Thomas’ resume. Over the course of his career, he had more than 120 tackles in 10 seasons.
Along the way, he became arguably as beloved in South Florida as he is in West Texas. Thomas, his wife Maritza, and their young children, Christian and Valentina, still live in Miami, where Thomas enjoys boundless popularity.
“I wasn’t the biggest,” he said. “I think that’s why fans were drawn to me. I wasn’t the biggest, the strongest or the fastest, but when I was on the field, I was the most confident. I promise you that. I had more confidence than anybody out there. I felt like I’d won the game before I even stepped on the field, because I did that with preparation.”
Thomas said Johnson compared it to being a student in a classroom. Not studying for a test led to nervousness and anxiety, he said. Studying for the test bred confidence.
With the amount of time he spent in the filmroom, Thomas said he sometimes felt come game day as if he were in the opponent’s playbook.
He kept himself motivated, too, even as he was making All-Pro five times and second-team All-Pro twice.
“I used to pull up the negative stuff (clippings) and keep them to remind myself,” he said. “When I would start feeling good about myself ... that can sneak up on you. I don’t ever want to feel ... comfortable.
“When I was playing really well, I would always pull out clips with negative comments. When I was playing bad, I would do the opposite. I would pull out clips that said good things about me.”
There figure to be some of both over the next few years as writers debate Thomas’ worthiness for the Hall of Fame. Only 23 linebackers are enshrined, none of whom made as many tackles as Thomas.
Though the former Tech All-American went on to make an NFL all-decade team, several writers appear to view him as a first-rate leader and a productive player but not quite Hall material.
Thomas says he’s grateful regardless.
“I’m very happy, because I overcame a lot,” he said. “I was the underdog. I had to land in the right position, and I had to have good coaching. I promise you this: If I had never met my high school coach, (former Pampa assistant) Max Plunk, I never would have been in that position anyway. He taught me the same read in high school that I used in the pros — the same read. That’s amazing how one coach can affect your life so much. I’m just grateful I came across him and so many other good coaches along the way.”
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On the bandwagon
Zach Thomas says he endorses Texas Tech giving Kliff Kingsbury his first head-coaching job, and thinks the former Red Raiders quarterback has what it takes.
“You know that Kliff is young and hungry,” Thomas said. “He’s known as a workaholic that loves the university and the town. You can’t get any better than that.
“I know he set multiple school records. I hope he sets coaching records, too. He’s a fan favorite. He embraces the town. That’s what you cheer for.”
The biggest question mark about Kingsbury is his age (33) and his coaching experience (five years).
“If you wait around for him to have more success, you might miss out on it and he goes somewhere else, you know?” Thomas said.
A crushing loss
Zach Thomas idolized Junior Seau so much that he had Seau’s poster above his bed — in college. Aware of Thomas’ love for Seau, the father of one of Thomas’ roommates bought him the poster.
So Thomas was as stunned as anyone when Seau committed suicide in May.
“He was a guy that was full of personality,” Thomas said. “You never saw any weakness, and I guess he was holding that in. He was the most fun guy to be around. I’m serious, he had theme music following him around. He was full of energy.
“He was always in there working out at 5 o’clock in the morning. (His suicide) was shocking to me. He’d be the last person, if they told me of that situation, that I would think of on our team. I promise you, he’d be the last person that I’ve ever played with.”
Thomas was already a three-time All-Pro when Seau came to the Dolphins for three seasons starting in 2003.
“To play side by side with him was a dream come true for me,” said Thomas, five years younger than Seau. “I’d come this far, and the guy I still looked up to, I’m playing beside him now. That was awesome.”
Still in shape
If not for concussions late in his career, Zach Thomas thinks he could have played even longer than he did. His fitness became addictive.
“I took care of my body so well,” he said. “Even now, I’m running. I cycle. I do all these different things, because you’ve got to keep the body moving. It’s like an old car. If you don’t keep it running, it won’t start.”
Thomas said it makes him sad to see former players with bad knees or other joint pains go downhill when they put on weight in retirement.
“I don’t want to be that guy,” he said. “I really took care of myself. I was blessed with my knees and everything else. It was just one thing (concussions) that caused me to shut down or I feel like I could still play right now.”