Throughout his 12 seasons in a Dolphins uniform, linebacker Zach Thomas instilled fear in the hearts of opposing offenses, brought joy and smiles to the faces of Dolphins fans and set the standard for individual excellence amongst his peers in locker rooms.
Thomas returned to Miami Gardens Sunday morning on the first day fans were on-hand to take in 2023 Training Camp. He reflected on his career ahead of his enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"I am proud of getting here, for sure man," he said. "It was a long road. I had to be patient. Good things take time. I never doubted myself when so many doubters were out there. But that was the best thing about it, it just helped motivate me to be my best. It gave me that chip on my shoulder."
The Pampa, Texas native was just a fifth-round pick (154th overall) by Miami in the 1996 NFL Draft but quickly settled into a pivotal role in South Florida.
Thomas was named AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year and was the team's leading tackler (180). Thomas went on to lead the Dolphins in tackles from 1997-99, and 2001-06.
Not only does he attribute that success to his own grit and determination, he's also thankful for the opportunity he got from his head coach, Jimmy Johnson.
"I was the 154th draft pick. Yeah, I was his guy, but still. To throw you in the mix before a game even starts? First game. That's wild to me," he said. "For him to throw me in from the get-go because I could've ended up anywhere else. I could've been in a 3-4, I could've been with one coach who didn't believe in me and then I would've been a special teams guy trying to make the team on the fringe. Crazy how it plays out, isn't it? That's what I'm grateful for. So, it wasn't just all hard work and none of that. It was just getting a little lucky, blessed, grateful to have a guy that believed in me."
Johnson will be Thomas' presenting speaker on Saturday during the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2023 Enshrinement at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio.
His enshrinement will be the final step in a long process. One that passionate, vocal Dolphins fans have played an integral part of.
"The fans, they pretty much fuel me," he said with tears welling in his eyes. "That love, I am not going to lie, I read some of their comments. It's pretty cool comments, the love that they have for me."
When asked what part of the Hall of Fame selection process has stood out, Thomas looked to his family sitting in front of him.
"I think opening up the jacket when it came to the house with the kids. That was special," he said.
Thomas was voted first-team All-Pro five times (1998-99, 2002-03, 2006), second-team All-Pro twice (2001, 2005), was selected to seven Pro Bowls (2000-04, 2006-07) and named to the NFL's All-Decade Team of the 2000s.
But on Saturday, August 5, Thomas will receive the sport's ultimate individual recognition: a bronze bust and a gold jacket.
To learn more about Thomas' career and his journey to Canton, listen to the Fish Tank Podcast.