Friday, May 21, 2010

You did us proud, Zach

Maybe the greatest football player in Texas Panhandle history officially called it a career Thursday. Zach Thomas signed a one-day contract with the Miami Dolphins so he could retire from the team that he played with 12 seasons.

I first knew of Zach Thomas 22 years ago. His older brother, Bart, got most of the attention as he quarterbacked White Deer to a 15-0 record and the 1A state title. But you couldn't help notice this squatty body in the middle of the defense making all these tackles. It was Bart's little brother starting at middle linebacker on that team -- as a freshman.

Two years later, Zach moved to Pampa and dominated on the 4A level for two outstanding teams of coach Dennis Cavalier. He led the Harvesters to the 1991 state quarterfinals. To this day, Thomas credits most of where he is to the fundamentals taught to him first at White Deer, and especially by Cavalier and staff.

Zach was always seen as too small and just not fast enough. And that was all the motivation he needed. Just tell him he can't do something and then get out of his way. His mother, Bobby, used to send him clippings of people doubting he could make it just to light a higher fire under him.

Very few Division I schools came calling and so Zach went down the road to Texas Tech where he was a three-year starter at linebacker, and an All-American his senior year. Best defensive player in Tech history. Oh, but that's right. He was too small and too slow.

The NFL thought the same thing. The draft is all about measureables, not production. But Jimmy Johnson of Miami took a chance on him in the fifth round in 1996. There may have never been a more productive fifth-round draft choice in the history of the NFL.

Zach was driven, instinctive, smart and tough. Maybe he wasn't six feet tall, but as his old Tech coach Spike Dykes would say, "He was a football-playing Jesse."

For the next 12 years, he went to seven Pro Bowls and was named to the NFL's All-Decade teams for the 2000s. He had 1,038 tackles, 19 1/2 sacks and 17 interceptions in 168 games. Dolphin fans loved him for his passion for the game and his honesty in dissecting it.

In a difficult decision, he was released after the 2007 season, played one year with the Cowboys and then signed with the Chiefs before he was released in training camp. As it does with everyone who plays the game that long, injuries and age finally caught up with him. But his football heart was always in Miami.

Zach, who is now married with a 4-month-old son, has always been class in dealing with those where he grew up. He's always been extremely gracious to me and other local members of the media. Though home is Florida, he's never forgotten his roots. I remember a few years ago the effort he made to be at the funeral of Cavalier.

The Panhandle watched for years the sideline-to-sideline tenacity of Thomas. Anytime he had an interception or a sack on a blitz, I think most of us bowed up a little bit thinking he was our own. And he was.

Was he the best football player in Panhandle history? I'd say he was. The longevity and numbers speak for themselves. So did the leadership. He's a lock for the Panhandle Sports Hall of Fame, probably next year, as well as the Texas Sports Hall of Fame and anything the Dolphins may have.

Will he make it to Canton? I don't know. But I know this. He doesn't need enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame for validation of what a fantastic football career he had. Nice going, Zach. You made us all proud.


tigertraxpro said...

Zach Thomas and Jon Mark Beilue...two Panhandle legends! Thanks Jon Mark for the great commentary. And a mega-thanks to Zach for making all of us both proud and inspired all these years!

qbagwell01 said...

Canton may not have room for that much heart.