Last Summer in Ohio, a class of Hall-of-Fame football players were ready for induction into immortality. Gold Jackets worn, bronze busts sculpted, and the silver-lining that comes with the finality of a career.
The August tradition is unlike any other in sports, in my opinion. To me, football is the quintessential microcosm of life. Many aspects of “the game,” both pigskin and life itself, need to work in cohesiveness for long-term goals to be accomplished. The speeches tell the stories with drama in its greatest form.
It is really a remarkable crossroads, as many times player’s journeys are very similar yet some are very different, but in between are those speeches you hear from your past heroes, favorites and even villains. When newly minted Hall-of-Fame center, Kevin Mawae, got his moment to deliver what would instantly become an epic induction speech, he did something I have never seen, heard, or even imagined on this stage.
In what I truly believe was the ultimate show of respect and class, Mawae didn’t waste any time selflessly mentioning another player. A rival whom he took issue with not being a Hall-of-Fame colleague.
Mawae, a former Tennessee Titan, but arguably much more-so a Gang Green favorite New York Jet, shocked the Miami Dolphins and overall football world.
He officially started the Zach Thomas campaign for the former Miami linebacker’s inevitable calling into “The Hall.”
As a born-and-bred New Yorker Fin-Addict, hearing a Jet take his moment to not just mention, but endorse his “nemesis,” literally floored me. Like if I was the recipient of a Zach Thomas torpedo-dive tackle, I was almost knocked out.
I was in a state of shock, much like how I was when Thomas intercepted Houston Oilers quarterback Chris Chandler’s pass and chugged into the endzone for his first NFL touchdown in 1996.
I was fifteen.
Mawae used his valuable moments and platform to talk about the man he had to prepare for twice a year, for nearly a decade. To the All-Pro center, it was clear…
This was his Borg-McEnroe. His Palmer-Nicklaus. His Ali-Frazier.
Two all-timers, battling several times with nothing but respect for one another, and an equally burning fire to win their match-up.
Mawae earned more respect that day than the hoards he has already earned from the two teams he wore that significant “C” on his jersey for. He brought a third fan-base on board with him instantly with his premeditated homage to his bitter, yet respected rival.
This Miami Dolphins fanbase has been waiting for another hero to “Don” more than just an Aqua jacket. Mawae started a rift in the ocean amongst a sea of Dolphin Die-Hards ready to ride a Tidal wave onto Canton.
A fan-base that takes its history seriously, sometimes more than it’s present while praying its future can bring back the glory days of the past.
They say that the greatest complements come from peers, but how about a “nemesis?” Mawae has something now that is more dangerous than a Thomas tackle or a Titanic run-block, and that is a voice. With Mawae on the inside of the doors of The Hall, I am confident the whispers at closing time will begin when the security guards leave the Holy Ground.
“The Busts Talk,” they say.
We know Jason Taylor’s bronze bust will second Mawae’s motion, as well as Dan Marino’s and the other Hall-of-Fame Dolphin lengendary heads, both players and coach.
Will the whispers inside the hallowed hallways reverberate nationwide, and more importantly, media-wide?
Just in case Mawae was not loud enough, and just in case Thomas’ hits weren’t hard enough, please allow me to present a further case on why Zach Thomas not only needs to be inducted in 2020 but why it is years passed due.
Once again, Zach Thomas is a Pro Football Hall of Fame Semi-Finalist.
BREAKING: 3 first-year eligible players are among the list of 25 Modern-Era Player Semifinalists for the Class of 2020. #PFHOF20— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) November 26, 2019
More on the semifinalists: https://t.co/gn5wGtyCVt pic.twitter.com/C1ViE4524c
The 30 Hall-of-Fame Linebackers in Canton (listed alphabetically)
Chuck Bednarik, Bobby Bell, Robert Brazile, Derrick Brooks, Nick Buoniconti, Dick Butkus, Harry Carson, George Connor, Chris Doleman, Bill George, Kevin Greene, Jack Ham, Chris Hanburger, Ted Hendricks, Sam Huff, Rickey Jackson, Jack Lambert, Willie Lanier, Ray Lewis, Ray Nitschke, Les Richter, Dave Robinson, Joe Schmidt, Junior Seau, Mike Singletary, Lawrence Taylor, Derrick Thomas, Andre Tippett, Brian Urlacher, Dave Wilcox.
What I would love to do, is a bit of a trim-down, much like the epic George Carlin breakdown of The 10 Commandments.
While the late, great comedian believed there really are a fraction of Commandments needed in that realm of religion, I would argue that we should find a similar approach, in theory, on how we can breakdown why Thomas needs to be included in this elite group on men.
What I am saying is, and ask yourself this, is the group of linebackers in Zach’s class really all 30 of these players?
Right off the bat, let us cut the list down to pure middle linebackers, which means no movement to the outside, no stints at defensive line, and just a prototypical Ray Lewis-ian style backer.
The pure-blood middle-linebackers are as follows:
Chuck Bednarik (played ironman football at C, but his lone defensive position was MLB), Nick Buoniconti, Dick Butkus, Harry Carson, Bill George, Sam Huff, Jack Lambert, Willie Lanier, Ray Lewis, Ray Nitschke, Les Richter, Joe Schmidt, Junior Seau, Mike Singletary, and Brian Urlacher.
We can now start at 15 linebackers in Zach Thomas’ “class” and not the overall “show” of the position.
Now let’s do what many people do, and I say this with a virtual tear, and that be to forget about the past. This is something we should never do, but for this study, let’s get rid of those old-school “leatherheads,” and non-modern era middle linebackers. It isn’t a fair comparison, so much like Tony Stark throwing out holographic images of a Mark-54 Ironman suit in the workshop, I’m tossing those guys into the senior trash-bin; respectfully of course.
We can leave out Chuck Bednarik, Bill George, Sam Huff, Ray Nitschke, Les Richter, and Joe Schmidt.
We are now left with 9.
Football is a game of momentum, so while we are trimming faster than the payroll of the current Dolphins, let’s get one more decade and lose the stars of the ‘60s and ‘70s because, again, it’s a different era altogether.
For purposes of this homage to Thomas, and to Carlin, let’s first and foremost pay our respects to the late Miami Legend, Nick Buoniconti. Fellow inductees Dick Butkus and Willie Lanier saw success in both decades and while Harry Carson’s rookie year was 1976, his final season was 1988.
And just like that, (Carlin tongue-click)…we’re down to five.
Those five immortals are Jack Lambert, Mike Singletary, Ray Lewis, Junior Seau and most recently and with being deservingly so, Brian Urlacher. I can’t help but want to place Singletary and Lambert back in the old-school NFL Films division so I am tempted to slice this down to three, even though I am very loyal to thou elders and respectful to those who made this league what it is today.
I am not being blasphemous, but we are now down to three.
Junior Seau, may he rest in eternal peace, was the Lawrence Taylor of the middle linebacking sect of holy second-tier defenders. They very well could be the best of the bunch at their respective areas of the gridiron and belong in an Elite class all by themselves.
We are left with two.
Ray Lewis is as close as it gets to Seau, and there is zero argument from me on the rightful inclusion of Urlacher, but where is the third on this trio of the “Best Middle Linebackers of the Late 1990’s/Early 2000’s," other than Junior?
For me, there are numerous prerequisites that go on a Hall-of-Fame checklist, but mainly this is an individual achievement, so please save the championship talks for another day or I can cut the current list in half to one with only Lewis remaining.
When you look at the following stats, you will see the same common denominators in Thomas’ era, which I tally as a main point of criteria to induction. That being, dominance and comparability against one’s peers in that similar time frame.
Having said that, here is the 1996-2007 stat breakdown of the middle linebackers in Thomas’ career in Solo Tackles, assisted tackles, Combination of those two, and tackles for loss. *(This includes Thomas’ years with MIA and not including his 2008 season in Dallas)
Sacks, as we know, wasn’t a calling-card responsibility of Thomas’ but if we are on the numerical tip, he has 20.5 career sacks and 17 interceptions. He forced 16 fumbles and recovered eight and scored four touchdowns with a somersault or two.
Top Ten Solo Tackle leaders from 1996-2007 NFL Seasons
Top Ten Assisted Tackle leaders from 1996-2007 NFL Seasons
Top Ten Combo Tackle leaders from 1996-2007 NFL Seasons
Top Ten Tackle For Loss leaders from 1996-2007 NFL Seasons
With Urlacher starting his career a few seasons after Thomas, this is not a study to take away anything from the Bears version of #54 whatsoever, but I will add that tale-of-the-tape of those two in a moment.
This study is simply to say that of these four measurables, perhaps the ultimate in linebackers’ statistical barometers, there are four of these players who appear in the top-10 in each category during this span.
Thomas Versus Urlacher
I look forward to the day I travel to Canton. To witness Zach Thomas taking his rightful place among the greats. Kevin Mawae officially kicked off the campaign. Let's get it. Not a knock on Urlacher but Zach belongs. Enough already. Get. Him. In. Please. @ProFootballHOF pic.twitter.com/aBadbSWvPN— Jason Sarney (@JSarney_PFN365) August 4, 2019
Stats mean a lot in Hall-of-Fame voting and debating, as do intangibles such as leadership, philanthropy, and legacy, all of which Zach Thomas has in droves. The size of his heart, grit, and determination is second to none and in vast contrast to his frame and underdog tag.
The 1996 5th round draft pick, number 154th overall from Texas Tech and Bob Hope All-American, played a career that should be taught to young prospects at every step of the way.
He played the game correct, with passion and purpose and lives his life that way as well. You’ll never hear a negative word about Zach Thomas. Ever.
Now it is time for the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame to do what is necessary. Please, open your collective ears and hear the fans while listening to Mr. Mawae’s speech over and over again as it was a movie teaser-trailer.
Please, open your collective eyes and see the waves of Orange and Aqua, pleading with your voters, who will undoubtedly flood Canton with commerce that glorious Summer weekend.
And more importantly, please heed Hall-of-Fame center, Kevin Mawae’s words and respectfully, helmet-in-hand...
...open your Door, for 54.