One final misdirection play was run at Zach Thomas in his career. His mom, Bobby, took him to lunch. That allowed family and friends to sneak into his Hillsboro Beach home and for his old Miami Dolphins coach, Jimmy Johnson, to wait in a yellow Pro Football Hall of Fame jacket.
You never know where the end of the rainbow is, but Thomas knew he’d reached it the moment he saw Johnson standing there. He bent in emotion.
“Oh my god,” he said softly.
“Zach Thomas, welcome to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, class of 2023,” Johnson told Thomas, his voice quaking.
The applause began that moment and continued Thursday when he was introduced at an NFL awards show as part of that Hall class — and it won’t stop until August in Canton in a way every Dolphins fan can appreciate after this wait.
Thomas was on the ballot for 10 years. He was a finalist the last four years. Time moves quickly, as everyone knows, and Thomas turns 50 this year, and the fear was his greatness as a linebacker would fade as the years passed or be wrapped forever in diluted talk how he “might” be a Hall of Famer or “could” be voted in.
Thursday’s announcement ends all that. It begins the celebration. Being voted into the Hall of Fame doesn’t change anything about the career Thomas had — starting with being named the 1996 Defensive Rookie of the Year before amassing the fifth-most career tackles in league history.
His induction confirms all that. It confirms, too, what everyone saw in watching him. That’s what you want from a Hall of Fame as a fan, isn’t it? You want it to reflect the greatness you watched Sunday after Sunday, season after season.
It’s fitting Johnson delivered this good news to Thomas all these years later, too. Johnson delivered the first big news to the fifth-round rookie their first summer together in 1996.
“You’re starting,” Johnson told Thomas.
That was all. Johnson had just cut Jack Del Rio, a veteran linebacker who had been with him with the Dallas Cowboys and was expected to start at middle linebacker.
Johnson saw in training camp what everyone soon did that season. Thomas was too good to keep on the bench, right out of the gates, even if he wasn’t out of NFL central casting.
It wasn’t just his 5-foot-10 size. He looked so young a barber thought he and teammate Larry Izzo were high-school players that first season. He was so unassuming that Atlanta Braves pitcher Tom Glavine tossed car keys to him outside a restaurant with the idea Thomas worked as a valet.
He was so anonymous upon arriving, some fans thought he was a Black player, “with a name like Zach Thomas,” as he once told me.
Thomas made sure people knew who he was. He was a star from his first start with nine solo tackles and a sack against New England. That was a revelation even to his parents.
“I saw the look in their eyes that said they couldn’t believe I could play like that,” Thomas once said.
He put that look on everyone’s face early on. Then the awards began stacking up for the five-time All-Pro — seven Pro Bowls and a spot on the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 2000s — and everyone saw any first impressions weren’t lasting. He twice led the NFL in tackles and had at least 100 tackles in his first 11 seasons. He played too big to be considered too small, was too over-talented to be labeled an overachiever.
Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning tells of being frustrated when calling an audible at the line and Thomas yelling out what the play was. New York Jets center Kevin Mawae tells how playing Thomas took special effort because the linebacker could wreck their day.
Manning and Mawae are in the Hall. Now Thomas joins them. He becomes the 10th Dolphins player to spend at least five years with the team to go to Canton. He could be the last for a while, too, as far as homegrown talent.
Thomas, like Taylor before him, wasn’t exactly penalized for being part of teams whose limited postseason success came early in their careers. He just wasn’t rewarded for being part of championship teams like some players are.
He had to make the Hall the hard way, the long way. What matters most is he got his due. He stood there with his coach, outside his home, surrounded by family and friends with the pot of gold his stellar career deserves.
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