Class Is In Session|
Thomas ranks fifth all-time in school history in career tackles (390)
Sept. 21, 2013
BY NICK KOSMIDER
Zach Thomas doesn't think he's necessarily the best person with whom to watch a football game.
"I still pause and rewind plays like I was watching game film," he says with a laugh during a recent conversation. "I don't know if people would have too much fun watching with me."
But he's wrong, of course. That's because watching football with Zach Thomas or listening to Zach Thomas talk about football is to gather an insight about what it's like to play football like Zach Thomas.
And to play football like Zach Thomas is to understand his position - middle linebacker, command central of the defense - like few, if any, ever have. What wouldn't be fun about that?
"I wasn't the biggest, the fastest or the strongest guy out there," he says. "But I was the most confident guy. I can promise you that one."
The 18-year-old call still reverberates through Jones AT&T Stadium. With 30 seconds left in a tie game against No. 8 Texas A&M in 1995, Thomas intercepted a pass and returned it for the game-winning touchdown to give the Red Raiders a stunning 14-7 victory that still ranks as one of the most memorable in school history.
"The Texas A&M game was No. 1 for me," says Thomas, who turned 40 earlier this month. "They were a great team and had beaten us for a number of years straight.
It's something that's a great memory for me, because we always wanted to beat Texas A&M."
Like many of the huge plays Thomas made during his career at Tech and later in the NFL, this one wasn't borne of athletic greatness but rather from the football acumen built through hours of preparation. Thomas may as well have vacuumed the carpets and cleaned the windows of the Tech football facility, because by the time he'd be done studying film, even the janitors were ready to clock out.
"I always said you win the play before the snap," he says. "That's what the best players do. Even for a quarterback, they see what the defense is in and, shoot, before the ball is even snapped, they automatically know where they're going with it."
Thomas' work ethic only multiplied further in the NFL, where, despite his stellar career at Tech, he wasn't chosen until the fifth round in the 1996 draft.
"I tried to tell them about the kid," Spike Dykes, the linebacker's coach at Tech, once told a reporter. "But if your guy isn't 6-2, they don't want to talk about it." That Thomas was only 5-foot-11, he often says, was perfect. He had no choice but to outwork, out-study, out-everything the competition.
"To me it was always like taking a test," he says. "If you don't study, you're not going to be ready for a test. I was never anxious. I was always confident because I knew I was ready for that test. Once I was in the game, I just reacted."
`I Couldn't have been happier'
That's why, Thomas says, "I couldn't be any happier" to see a fellow alum, Kliff Kingsbury, coaching the program.
"He's exciting, and that's what you want to see on offense," Thomas says. "He attacks you. He understands the game, knows how to put people in the right positions and create mismatches. The guy has experience and the guy is a winner."
Thomas speaks about the game like someone desperate to be around it. But while he does hope to coach one day, his "I could be happier" statement also applies to his life now as a father, husband and businessman, who is still finding ways to challenge himself in his post-football years.
"It's definitely a transition to go from playing a game I played for 28 years straight to not playing it," he says. "You go to a screeching halt, and that's why they always say it's tough for NFL players to transition, but I'm grateful to have found things I really enjoy."
Thomas owns three gyms in West Texas - two in Lubbock, one in Amarillo - with his brother and former Tech player Bart. He is active with numerous charity organizations in South Florida. Most importantly, though, he is thrilled to be home to watch his two kids - 3-year-old Christian and 2-year-old Valentina - grow up.
"Man, it's awesome," he says. "It's all about them now. It worked out perfectly for me because I was so committed to football when I played that I put extreme hours into studying. I wouldn't have ever been home. I'm so grateful for my family. That's what it's all about. If I could go back and do anything different, I wouldn't. I'm just so grateful for how everything has turned out."