MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — The sun was already out the morning of Zach Thomas’ first NFL training camp 27 years ago.
It was 8:45 a.m. — back when the Miami Dolphins held two practices a day. A gentle breeze wafted the smell of wet grass through the air.
Thomas, a fifth-round draft pick from a small town in northwest Texas, took in his surroundings. The Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino stood just across from him, but Thomas didn’t bask in admiration for long.
“I was so focused, laser-focused just to make the team,” he said.
Thomas knew then that he didn’t look the part of a typical NFL linebacker. At 5-foot-11 and 228 pounds, Thomas was undersized and overlooked. He was barely scouted out of high school and originally recruited out of Texas Tech to play special teams for the Dolphins.
Miami selected him with the 154th pick in the 1996 NFL draft — the 19th linebacker taken in a class that also includes Ray Lewis. Thomas spent the rest of his 13-season NFL career running through blocks, and doubt, en route to seven Pro Bowls, five All-Pro selections and the fifth-most tackles in NFL history.
He made the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his 10th year of eligibility, and fourth straight as a finalist.
“Zach was tough, nasty and relentless,” said his former teammate Larry Izzo, a linebacker who played for Miami from 1996-2000. “He was a three-down linebacker who never left the field. He just made plays. Zach was a guy who always played with a huge chip on his shoulder, and that drove him to greatness. His play inspired his teammates, and Zach set the tone every time he stepped on the field.”
Jimmy Johnson, the Hall of Famer who coached the Dolphins from 1996 to 1999, signed veteran linebacker Jack Del Rio in 1996 to start in the middle of Miami’s defense.
Del Rio guided Thomas to his first preseason game as a rookie and gave him pointers.
But before the start of the season, Johnson decided that Thomas would jump up from the fourth team and replace Del Rio as Miami’s starting middle linebacker.
Del Rio was cut soon after and later joined the New Orleans Saints as a strength and conditioning coach.
“To throw you in the mix before a game even starts? First game? That’s wild to me, but he saw something,” Thomas said.
That “something” was more evident to those who played with and against him than to Thomas himself. What he lacked in size, Thomas made up for in grit, intelligence and will.
Thomas led the Dolphins with 154 tackles his rookie season, which also included three interceptions, and two sacks. He led Miami in tackles for 10 seasons and had 100-plus tackles in 10 of his 13 NFL seasons.
“I always wanted to make myself uncomfortable to get the best out of myself,” Thomas said.
Thomas had keen football instincts, and he was versatile. He covered tight ends, running backs, receivers. It didn’t matter. His former teammate, defensive tackle Larry Chester, said playing with Thomas was like “taking your defensive coordinator on the field with you.”
“He could make checks just from seeing personnel come off the sideline,” Chester said.
Thomas was a face of the Dolphins defense as the team transitioned to a post-Marino era after he retired in 2000. Those defensive units smothered opposing offenses.
Tom Brady said in 2021 that the worst games of his career were against those early 2000s Dolphins teams, which also included players such as Hall of Famer Jason Taylor, Patrick Surtain Sr. and Sam Madison.
“The most unnerving thing about playing Miami was Zach Thomas calling out all of your plays,” Hall of Famer Peyton Manning said in 2020. “He caused the most problems for me of any player I ever faced.”
Thomas never complicated things on the field. For him, it was as simple as deciphering the run from the pass.
“I feel like that’s where I got a great tip before they even snap the ball,” he said. “Knowing the play, I feel like there were times I’d call it out, especially with Peyton because we’re up there in the dome, it’s quiet, you can hear their numbers, you can hear everything. You knew a play they were going to run, you let them know it. It’s all such a mind game.”
For nine years after he became eligible for enshrinement, Thomas waited for his call.
The same humility that drove him to 1,734 tackles in 168 games with the Dolphins and one final season with the Dallas Cowboys in 2008, remained with him as he was overlooked year after year.
“For me, I finally got that win when it comes to being a Hall of Famer,” he said, “because that’s all I played for was the wins. It wasn’t for the accolades or any of that stuff. It was always just about the wins.”