The wait for Zach Thomas to be voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame was longer than it ever should have been. When the Class of 2023’s induction ceremony kicks off on August 5, it will not be a long wait for Thomas to have his bust revealed. According to the Miami Herald’s Greg Cote, Thomas has been told he will be the night’s first inductee and give the first speech.
It took 10 years of eligibility to get Thomas his rightful position in Canton, Ohio. He will be presented to the Hall of Fame by former Miami Dolphins coach and Hall of Fame member Jimmy Johnson. Johnson selected Thomas in the fifth round of the 1996 NFL Draft, initially projecting him to be a special teams contributor. By the end of the first preseason game, Thomas had lept up the depth chart, replacing Jack Del Rio as the team’s starting middle linebacker and leading to Del Rio’s release and retirement.
After the move, Johnson, according to a 1996 Washington Post article, told the media, “The bottom line is that Zach Thomas was making plays. He has quickness, he’s an instinctive player, and he makes plays. Jack Del Rio would still be here and still be our starter were it not for the play of Zach Thomas.”
In 2001, despite having already been selected to two Pro Bowls and having been named a First-Team All-Pro twice, Thomas approached then-Dolphins head coach Dave Wannstedt asking him, “Coach, let me ask you an honest question. How am I doin’?” according to a 2020 article from The Athletic’s Bob McGinn.
The exchange continued, with Wannstedt believing the linebacker was worried about his fitness early in training camp. Instead, it showed just how modest, and hard-working, Thomas was throughout his career:
“I said, ‘Keep it up. You’re doing great. You’re in great shape.’
“He says, ‘No, no, no. Am I going to be OK?’
“I said, ‘Are you referring to OK as in making the team?’
“He said, ‘Yeah. Every day I show up here I feel like I’ve got to prove myself.’
“And I’m thinking to myself, ‘God, I wish half these guys had that attitude.’ He wanted to be sure he wasn’t taking anything for granted.”
McGinn asked Thomas about the exchange, with the linebacker explaining, “I don’t remember that, but it sounds like me. To get myself going, I could have, man. Could have. I always wanted to be uncomfortable. It’s a little crazy, but I got more uncomfortable when I was playing good because I thought I was going to get comfortable.”
Whether he was comfortable or not, Thomas is headed to the land of the immortal football players. In 12 seasons with the Dolphins, Thomas played in 168 games - all starts - totaling 1,640 tackles, 19.5 sacks, 16 forced fumbles, seven fumble recoveries, and 17 interceptions with four touchdowns. He locked down the middle of Miami’s defense as he was named to seven Pro Bowls, was a five-time First-Team All-Pro selection, and a two-time Second-Team All-Pro. He was named the 1996 AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year, twice was selected as the NFL Alumni Linebacker of the team (1998, 2006), and was named to the NFL’s All-Decades Team for the 2000s.
He averaged 9.7 tackles per game over his Dolphins career, with an average of 155 tackles per 16 games.
Thomas played one final season in 2008 with the Dallas Cowboys appearing in all 16 games with 14 starts. He added 94 tackles, one sack, and one fumble recovery that season.
He started eight playoff games in his career, all with Miami, recording 60 tackles with one sack and one fumble recovery.
Typically, the Hall of Fame induction ceremony gives the first and last speeches of the night to marquee members of the class. On August 5, Thomas will be honored by opening the night as he becomes the 11th member of the Hall of Fame who was primarily a member of the Dolphins and the 18th person to have spent at least some time with the Dolphins during a Hall of Fame career.