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Tackling Greatness: How Zach Thomas Earned His Trip to Canton

An incredible football journey is about to end exactly where Zach Thomas belongs, in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. 

It shouldn't be surprising that it took Thomas a decade to get in. After all, his story was never about doing things the easy way. He simply kept pounding at the proverbial door, year after year, until the hinges finally flew off. And now on August 5th in Canton, Ohio, he will rightfully take his place among the greats of the game. 

"Amazing," Thomas said of his induction. "I know I have never looked the part, but I'm so humbled to finally get there."

Undersized. Undervalued. Underappreciated.

It never stopped Zachary Michael Thomas from becoming the greatest linebacker this franchise has ever seen. See, you can measure 40 times. You can measure vertical leaps. But you can't measure heart. You can't measure perseverance. You can't measure a burning desire to out-prepare every opponent he faced. If you could, then Zach Thomas would have never made it all the way to the fifth round and the 18th linebacker taken in the 1996 draft, perhaps the greatest draft day steal in team history.

This is what defined the player Zach Thomas was. Not the 1,700-plus tackles. Not the 17 interceptions, four of them for touchdowns. Not 20 ½ sacks or 16 forced fumbles or the 100 tackles he amassed in each of his first 11 seasons. And certainly not the five first-team All-Pro selections or the seven Pro Bowls. Sure, he is proud of those accomplishments. But he is most proud of the obstacles he overcame, of the people he convinced and of the respect he has gained from some of the greatest minds of the game. 

 "I would look across the line of scrimmage and Zach Thomas is calling out our play," said former quarterback Peyton Manning who is awfully smart himself.  "I mean he knew our formations, he understood our cadence. It was almost like he was inside our huddle."

That's the type of compliment Thomas embraced because it says so much about the man inside the uniform. What did Zach Thomas mean to the Miami Dolphins? He meant just about everything. He was the heart and soul of this defense for so long, at one point leading the Dolphins to five straight playoff appearances and eight overall during his career. He set the best kind of example for others to follow and you can be sure that they did. He just had an uncanny knack of figuring things out in a hurry and letting his tenacity and toughness take over from there.

From the first day he stepped on the practice field it was clear that this young man from tiny Pampa, Texas was a highly unique player. One practice in that summer of 1996 convinced Coach Jimmy Johnson that Thomas deserved to start as a rookie. The Dolphins had brought in veteran Jack Del Rio to take over the middle of the defense. Del Rio didn't make it through the summer because it was clear to Johnson and every member of this team that this 5-foot-11, 228-pound bundle of finely-tuned energy was a step or two, or maybe three, ahead of everyone else. Yes, even as a rookie.

He played his entire career as if he had something to prove, humbled by his accomplishments, determined to keep getting better and driven by a motor that wouldn't stop and a mind that never slowed down.

I was fortunate enough to cover every game Thomas played for the Dolphins. In many ways, it was like covering Dan Marino and Jason Taylor. You knew every Sunday you were going to see something special. You just didn't know what. As my mind wanders through the years, it is hard to pinpoint his greatest plays because there were simply so many. Some were obvious, like those four interceptions for touchdowns, but so many others were more subtle, a tackle he had no business making, a pass he had no business breaking up, a third-down stop that demanded perfect technique.

Greatness indeed became his norm.

"I didn't fit the part," Thomas said of his smallish physique. "In the middle of the defense you're supposed to be like the Dick Butkus, Brian Urlacher type of look."

But there he was, an inch or two short of 6 feet tall, rarely tipping the scales at more than 230 pounds (though he was listed as heavier), getting by on instincts and intelligence and fueled by the underdog mentality that he carried with him his entire career. "I was able," he once said in a moment of candor, "to figure things out."

In fact, you can make the case that it was the moments before each snap that separated Thomas from so many others in his profession. It is in those precious seconds when he used all the knowledge he gained during the week, often studying late into the night, to anticipate where the play was going and what he needed to do. Because of that, his first step was almost always the right one.

There were so many examples of this throughout his career. The one play that stands out most came on a September Sunday night in 2001 when Thomas perfectly read the eyes of Tennessee quarterback Neil O'Donnell, stepping in front of one of his passes as if it was all along intended for him, and returning the interception 34 yards for a touchdown. It was a perfect example of how preparation equals results and Thomas celebrated in a very uncharacteristic manner by somersaulting into the end zone. As you would probably expect, his form was perfect. 

"Don't know why I did it," he said afterward. "Just felt right."

The thing you may not know about Thomas, and what those of us who covered him were fortunate to see, was his demeanor after games, standing by his locker, answering every question, rarely taking credit in a victory and almost always accepting blame after a loss. He was welcoming and candid. He was analytical and often was very critical of himself. He never hid his emotions and if you asked him about a specific play, he broke down every angle, dissecting it in a manner you could, for the most part, easily understand. Put simply, he was so much fun to cover because you knew how much he cared. He was, in every way you look at it, a class act. 

"This game is hard," he would often say.

Zach Thomas, though, had a way of making it look easy. And that was certainly a major part of his brilliance.

The man who led the Dolphins in tackles for 10 of his 12 seasons is now on the doorstep of 50 years old, a husband and father and, to nobody's surprise, he's still keeping himself in his excellent shape. He is clearly humbled by his Hall of Fame selection, but you get the impression that deep down he knows he belongs. And why shouldn't he. His numbers match up with the greatest players to play his position. His resume is overflowing with honors and awards. He earned this trip to Canton. Every Sunday. Every game. Every tackle.

It's no surprise that he has embraced all the moments leading up to his induction, evidenced by a recent video of him opening the box that housed his gold Hall of Fame jacket. He looked like a kid on Christmas morning. Yes, even knowing what was already inside.

"For me to be here with all these greats and legends that I used to watch and even play with, it's just an honor," Thomas says. "I'm just so grateful for everyone that helped me along the way."

He made it in his 10th year of eligibility and his fourth year as a finalist. No doubt Thomas had to wait longer than he would have liked. But his remarkable journey was so much about battling steep odds and having to prove himself over and over, why should this have been any different?

The bottom line, though, is that Zach Thomas has finally made it to the top and, after all the things he had to overcome, and all the respect he had to gain, he couldn't be more deserving.

(Andy Cohen began covering the Dolphins in 1980 for the then Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. He has also been a columnist for Dolphin Digest and