Zach Thomas arrived in Miami in 1996 as a mid-round draft pick with a questionable professional future.
Despite the fact that he was a dynamo at Texas Tech University, where he reached hero status, Thomas’ NFL ability was uncertain.
He hoped to make the Dolphins as a special teams player and backup linebacker.
Instead, Thomas became a starter and never looked back.
5th Round Pick
1,734 career tackles
7 Pro Bowls
Class of 2023
Pro Football Hall of Fame pic.twitter.com/b28bRL5m4K
— Joe Schad (@schadjoe) February 10, 2023
During his pro career, Thomas became a favorite with the fans in South Beach and was a leader for Miami.
Through good times and bad, Thomas remained a consistent player who never wavered in his commitment to his teammates.
In 2023, he was rewarded for that commitment by becoming the newest member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
This is the story of Zach Thomas.
Lucky to be Alive
Zachary Michael Thomas was born on September 1, 1973, in Pampa, Texas.
Happy 47th, Zach Thomas!
MLB, #Dolphins 1996-2007, Cowboys 2008
• All-Decade 2000s (Second-Team)
• 7 Pro Bowls
• 5x First-Team All-Pro
• 1996 NFL All-Rookie Team
• 1,727 career combined tackles
• 1,035 solo tackles – most in Dolphins history
• Miami Dolphins Honor Roll pic.twitter.com/KjG8qFhrGe
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) September 1, 2020
Looking back at his early life, it’s miraculous that Thomas eventually became a football star, let alone a functioning, healthy adult.
By the time he was in middle school, Thomas had several close brushes with death.
When he was a toddler, the driver of a pickup truck didn’t notice young Zach playing near one of the rear tires and backed over Thomas’ head.
The driver then rolled over Thomas’ noggin a second time when he felt the bump and put the truck into drive to investigate.
“…We thought he was dead,” said Thomas’ father, Steve, in 1996.
Instead, Zach had tire marks on his head and a broken arm, and his hearing suffered slightly.
If that incident wasn’t enough, Thomas would regularly jump as high as he could on the family’s trampoline and then land on the ground, on purpose.
“That was really stupid,” grumbled Zach in 1996. “No wonder my knees are so bad.”
Then, when Thomas was in middle school, he decided to use an air mattress to float down a raging river.
His older brother, Bart, had to imitate Jesse Owens and race after his younger brother to save his life.
Through the next several years, Zach and Bart would have many more close calls and live to tell the tales.
Big Fish in a Small Pond
When he wasn’t cheating death or taking other safety risks, Thomas was developing into a sports star in smalltown Parma.
He was a sports enthusiast as a kid and Thomas’ friends noticed early on that he was a bit different than the other local youth.
“We’d go play other schools and our best dude (Zach) was better than their best dude by a lot and that’s when we started to realize there was just something different about him,” said Koby Abney, Thomas’ childhood friend.
During his freshman and sophomore years, Thomas played football for White Deer High School in Texas with his brother, Bart.
The Thomas brothers helped White Deer go undefeated and win the Texas 1-A state title in 1988, Zach’s freshman year.
When Bart graduated after Zach’s sophomore year, the younger Thomas transferred to Pampa High School.
Congratulations to Pampa Harvester, Zach Thomas, on his selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2023! From the PHS Hall of Fame to the Pro Football Hall of Fame! #pampaproud #harvestingsuccess @MiamiDolphins pic.twitter.com/uxaVNnJjsI
— Pampa ISD (@pampaisd) February 10, 2023
Although he was slight in stature and not overly fast, Thomas became one of the best linebackers in Texas, eventually taking home all-state selections in his junior and senior years.
Not to be outdone, Thomas also tried his hand as a running back and ran for over 900 yards and eight touchdowns as a senior.
That same season, Thomas racked up 158 tackles, six sacks, and knocked down eight passes.
His efforts during his final prep year led to Thomas being selected to play in a prestigious all-star game.
“I do know that even at a young age, he worked harder than everybody else,” said Abney.
No Holding Back at Tech
Thomas was a few inches shy of six feet and just over 200 pounds when he signed a letter of intent to play for Texas Tech University.
Despite his accolades in high school, Tech was one of just two scholarship offers that Thomas received.
After arriving on campus, Thomas didn’t hold back and threw himself into drills, eventually playing as a true freshman on Coach Spike Dykes’ 5-6 team in 1992.
In 1993, Thomas became a starter for the Red Raiders and began punishing ball carriers as well as himself.
Zach Thomas (LB), Texas Tech – College Football Hall of Fame pic.twitter.com/0vjJ8jwomR
— Pick Six Previews (@PickSixPreviews) January 9, 2015
During his college career, Thomas set an unofficial program record by breaking his own face mask three times while making tackles.
It wasn’t just opponents who Thomas would crush—he also doled out hits to his teammates in practice.
“He used to give us more headaches,” said former teammate Shane Dunn. “Plus he’s got that Fred Flintstone square head of his. That thing hurts.”
The ‘93 Red Raiders team won six games and lost to Oklahoma in the John Hancock Bowl.
Then, in 1994, Thomas became a first-team All-American and Defensive Player of the Year for the Southwest Conference.
Tech finished the year with a second consecutive 6-6 record and a loss to USC in the Cotton Bowl.
Thomas’ Pick Six Beats Texas A&M
Texas Tech finally overcame mediocrity in 1995 and won nine of its 12 games including a victory over Air Force in the Copper Bowl.
Thomas played lights out and hammered ball carriers for 131 tackles, one interception, and a pick-six.
His interception for a score was the highlight of the ‘95 season and is still remembered to this day.
In Tech’s fourth game of the year, the Red Raiders faced Texas A&M in Lubbock.
The Aggies were supposed to win big, but nobody told Thomas and his teammates.
Before the contest, A&M was ranked in the top ten nationally and Tech had not beaten the Aggies in several years.
However, with less than a minute to play, the score was tied at 7-7 and A&M had the ball deep in their own end of the field.
On third down, Aggies quarterback Corey Pullig dropped back to pass and proceeded to throw the ball right into Thomas’ waiting arms.
TDIH, Tied 7-7 with #8 Texas A&M Zach Thomas intercepts Corey Pullig and races 23 yards for the go ahead pick-6. pic.twitter.com/nL0IHFK6b6
— UCampus Test Content (@UCampusTest) April 11, 2016
With nothing but green grass in front of him, Thomas took the pigskin into the end zone for the improbable victory.
“He (Pullig) practically threw it right to me… It’s not so much about the great play; it’s about how excited everyone was in the locker room, how excited the fans were,” said Thomas. “Tech fans are so loyal. They are definitely great fans and they deserved it. That’s why I really cherished that moment in time, and that’s why I look back and I’m proud.”
For the second consecutive year, Thomas was named the SWC Defensive Player of the year.
He was also named a consensus All-American and was invited to the East-West Shrine Game.
During his college career, Thomas had 390 total tackles, seven interceptions for 157 return yards, and two pick-sixes.
He has since been inducted into the Texas Tech and College Football Halls of Fame.
Miami Takes a Chance on Thomas
Thomas was a two-time All-American, the hero of the Texas A&M game, and a celebrated athlete in Northwest Texas.
None of that seemed to matter to most NFL teams.
Even though he was a head-snapping tackling machine on the football field, Thomas didn’t meet the size requirements that scouts and personnel directors wanted for a pro linebacker.
He was only around 5’11, weighed about 240 pounds, wasn’t very fast, and had a paltry 28” vertical jump at the 1996 NFL Scouting Combine.
In other words, most NFL clubs didn’t think Thomas would make it as a linebacker in the pros.
“Hell, I tried to tell them about the kid,” said Tech coach Spike Dykes. “But if your guy isn’t six-two, they don’t even want to talk about it.”
Meanwhile, in Miami, former Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson was taking over for the recently retired Don Shula.
DRAFT STEAL. In the 5th rd (154 overall) of the 1996 NFL Draft the Miami Dolphins selected LB Zach Thomas from Texas Tech. Rest is history. pic.twitter.com/2QJokNKsAk
— Miami Dolphins🐬🆙 (@AquaAndOrange13) April 14, 2017
The Dolphins decided to take a chance on Thomas and selected him with the 154th overall pick in the fifth round of the 1996 NFL Draft.
“I just hoped he’d make it on special teams,” said Johnson.
No fewer than 17 linebackers were drafted ahead of Thomas.
They included Ray Lewis, Tedy Bruschi, and Donnie Edwards as well as several others who never lived up to their billing.
However, Thomas believed that he should have been picked closer to the top of the draft.
“You know, I was two-time all-state, but I don’t get offered,” he said in 2023. “I don’t look the part. I get offered two scholarships, so I take one (to Texas Tech). And then in college, I was two-time All-American and then I go, the 154th pick. So for me, even in my early years, I knew every one of the 17 linebackers that went ahead of me. It was all just for motivation.”
After signing his contract for the league minimum, Thomas got to work proving that he belonged.
Thomas Become a Starter
In addition to hoping Thomas would make the squad as a special teamer, Johnson also penciled in the rookie behind veteran linebacker Jack Del Rio.
Miami Dolphins head coach Jimmy Johnson drills rookie linebacker Zach Thomas
It's time for Zach Thomas to get his rightful recognition in the Hall of Fame! A dominant linebacker, Thomas redefined the position and deserves to be among the #NFL greats#FinsUp @MiamiDolphins pic.twitter.com/rtqK3DwRkZ
— Let’s Talk NFL 🏈 (@TalkFootball34) January 31, 2023
When training camp began, Thomas and fellow rookie linebacker Larry Izzo (signed as an undrafted free agent) made their names known from day one.
Not holding back, the duo frequently de-cleated ball carriers.
By the end of camp, both rookies had made the team and Thomas supplanted Del Rio (who retired after an 11-year career).
“Jimmy Johnson came to me and was like, ‘Zach, we’re starting you. Don’t let me down,’” Thomas said. “I’m like, ‘Yes, sir.’”
Thomas spent the ‘96 season consumed with film study and was frequently one of the last people to leave the Dolphins facility each night.
The result was 154 combined tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles, three interceptions, and a pick-six.
— Miami Dolphins (@MiamiDolphins) February 28, 2023
His first interception as a pro came against Buffalo quarterback (and future Hall of Famer) Jim Kelly.
Thomas was voted as the AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year, Dolphins Team Newcomer of the Year, and team MVP.
“I’ve never had a rookie linebacker like this,” Johnson said that year. “He has the finest instincts of any middle linebacker I’ve been around.”
In Thomas’ second year, the ‘Fins made the playoffs after missing the postseason in 1996.
The franchise went 9-7 and lost to New England in the Wild Card round as Thomas collected 128 total tackles, a half sack, two forced fumbles, and a pick.
As he was taking the NFL by storm, Thomas couldn’t believe his good fortune.
“Man, sometimes I think about it, and I don’t believe it,” Thomas said. “I’m playing against Chris Warren! Jerome Bettis! I mean, you watch them on TV, and then you’re out there in the game with them! I’ve got posters of these guys on my wall!”
In 1998, Thomas had 137 tackles, two sacks, three interceptions, and two pick-sixes, which led to a first-team All-Pro accolade and an NFL Alumni Linebacker of the Year Award.
— Fins Bandits (@DolFanBandits) November 3, 2022
The following season, he tacked on 134 tackles, a sack, and an interception as Miami lost in the Divisional round for the second year in a row.
At long last, his stats in 1999 got Thomas selected to his first of seven Pro Bowls and he received another first-team All-Pro nod—not bad for a player who was once considered too short to be an effective pro.
“I’d rather be five-four than six-five any day,” Thomas said. “If I’d been six-five, I wouldn’t be nearly the player I am because I wouldn’t have had to try so hard. This way, I can get under all those fat linemen.”
New Century, Same Thomas
During the Divisional round of the 1999 playoffs, the Dolphins suffered their worst loss in postseason history, a humbling 62-7 beat down by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
That loss signaled the end for quarterback Dan Marino as well as for Johnson, who retired to the broadcast booth.
Before the 2000 season, Johnson’s former top lieutenant, Dave Wannstedt, took over as head coach.
The ‘Fins won 11 games, beat the Colts in the Wild Card round, then lost in the Divisional round for the third consecutive year.
54 days until the Miami Dolphins open their season against the New England Patriots!!!
— Big E (@ian693) July 19, 2022
Thomas missed time that season due to a sprained ankle but still made the Pro Bowl due to 99 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and a pick.
Then, between 2001 and 2003, Thomas had over 150 tackles each year including an NFL-high 156 in 2002.
Nick Saban Joins Miami
During the 2004 season, Wannstedt was fired after a 1-8 start and assistant Jim Bates led the team to a 3-4 finish.
Thomas had over 140 tackles and two sacks, and surprisingly, wasn’t selected for any postseason awards.
When 2004 mercifully ended, Miami hired former Michigan State and LSU coach Nick Saban as its new head coach.
Thomas figured he would continue leading the ‘Fins defense until it trickled down that Saban was looking to trade him.
“He (Saban) gets here and I’m thinking I’m ready to learn this new defense, a 3-4, and I guess he didn’t think I fit the part,” said Thomas in 2020. “So, he wanted to trade me. I got wind of it from a bunch of people because I knew everyone in the building, you know? So they’re telling me, ‘They’re trying to trade you right now.’”
Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed and Saban quickly found out that Thomas could play no matter what defense Miami ran.
— Jon (@jmanker) November 6, 2022
As Saban cobbled together a 15-17 overall record in 2005 and 2006, Thomas continued to prove that he was one of the best linebackers in the game.
In ‘05, he had 162 tackles, two sacks, and an interception and followed that with an NFL-best (and career-high) 165 tackles, three sacks, and a pick in ‘06, leading to Pro Bowl selections both years.
Thomas also received his second NFL Alumni Linebacker of the Year Award in 2006.
Miami Releases Thomas
In January 2007, Saban decided to leave Miami and become the new head coach at the University of Alabama.
That led the ‘Fins to hire former San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator Cam Cameron as its new head coach.
Unfortunately, after a strong start to the ‘07 season, a series of concussions limited Thomas to five games, 52 tackles, and one sack.
After the year, Cameron was fired and Miami brought in former Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Parcells as its new general manager.
Looking over the Dolphins roster, Parcells decided to get younger at linebacker and released Thomas.
Happy birthday to 7x Pro Bowler and @TexasTechFB alum Zach Thomas!
Thomas spent the final year of his career with the Cowboys in 2008. pic.twitter.com/kdakSJQDyo
— Cowboys Blitz (@CowboysBlitzNFL) September 1, 2017
That fueled Thomas to look for the best opportunity to show Parcells that he’d made a mistake.
“After I got cut by the Dolphins—[Bill] Parcells told me, ‘You’re 35, linebackers decline after 35’—just the competitive nature, I wanted to shove it in his face,” Thomas said. “So, I said, ‘Where am I going to go in the division?’ I said, ‘I’m not going to the Jets, hell no. I’m not doing that.’ So I go, ‘OK, let’s visit Bill Belichick.’”
Even though New England’s legendary coach wanted him, Thomas ultimately decided against becoming a Patriot.
“[Belichick] offered me. And I said, ‘Let me think about it,’” Thomas said. “I slept on it and woke up the next morning and said, ‘Hell no, man. I can’t let down the fans because they got my back.’ That was one of those things—I’m getting choked up right now—that come back. They’ve always been good to me, so I thought it was the right move so I went to Dallas. It worked out.”
Thomas signed with head coach Wade Phillips and the Cowboys for the 2008 season, started 14 games, and collected 94 tackles and a sack.
After the 2008 season, Dallas released Thomas and he signed a deal with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Thomas wasn’t in Kansas City long before he suffered yet another concussion, leading the Chiefs to release him.
By then, Thomas had lost track of how many concussions he’d received as an NFL player.
So, instead of continuing to abuse his body, Thomas retired from the game.
In 2010, he ceremoniously signed a one-day contract with Miami so he could officially retire as a Dolphin.
— J.Achtziger (@Sluricain72) January 24, 2023
During his career, Thomas had 1,734 combined tackles, 20.5 sacks, 17 forced fumbles, eight fumble recoveries, 17 interceptions, and four pick-sixes.
He was a seven-time All-Pro, a seven-time Pro Bowler, and a two-time NFL Alumni Linebacker of the Year Award winner. He led the NFL in tackles twice, was the Dolphins’ team MVP twice, and received the Dolphins Team Leadership Award three times (since surpassed by Jason Taylor).
Additionally, Thomas was voted to the NFL’s 2000s All-Decade Team and the Dolphins’ Honor Roll.
Life in Retirement
Between 2000 and 2015, Jason Taylor was married to Thomas’ sister, Katina, and the couple had three children.
Since retiring, Thomas and his wife, Maritza, have mostly stayed out of the spotlight and live in Florida.
He owns a pair of gyms named Zach’s Club 54 in Amarillo and Lubbock, Texas.
Already part of the @cfbhall and now a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) February 10, 2023
In early February of 2023, Thomas was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame after several years of consideration.
“I’m finally in, man,” Thomas said. “You can’t take me out. I am truly honored and humbled to be voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Growing up in Texas, I dreamed of playing football at any level. To have played at Texas Tech and then be drafted by the Dolphins was the ultimate. It was indeed a dream come true.”