ATLANTA — Tommy Nobis, a hard-hitting middle linebacker who was never fully recognized for his talents on a struggling Atlanta Falcons franchise that failed to make the playoffs during his long career, died Wednesday. He was 74.
The team said Mr. Nobis, the first player drafted by the expansion Falcons, died at his suburban Atlanta home after an extended illness. He was among hundreds of former NFL players who struggled with physical and cognitive ailments after their careers ended, having played in an era when no one paid much attention to the long-term impact of concussions nor thought twice about groggily going back on the field after taking a shot to the head.
When the Falcons reached the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots last season, his wife told the Houston Chronicle she wasn’t sure if her husband had any idea what his former team had accomplished.
‘‘We’ve told him the Falcons are in the Super Bowl, and we wear red and black,’’ Lynn Nobis said. ‘‘But it doesn’t seem to click.’’
A native of San Antonio, Mr. Nobis starred on both sides of the line at the University of Texas and, despite being slowed by a knee injury his senior season, he won the Maxwell Award as the best all-around player in college football and the Outland Trophy as the top lineman. He finished seventh in the Heisman Trophy balloting — the top finisher among defensive players — and appeared on the cover of Life and Sports Illustrated.
‘‘The best defender in college football,’’ SI declared.
He was drafted first overall by the Falcons and was also picked by his home-state Houston Oilers of the American Football League, leading to a spirited bidding war that drew interest as far away as outer space. While orbiting the Earth in his Gemini spacecraft, astronaut Frank Borman — whose two sons were ball boys for the Oilers — had a message: ‘‘I hope he comes here,’’ Borman said as his spaceship flew over Houston during its 59th orbit.
Mr. Nobis wound up signing with Atlanta, becoming the first player in franchise history and a beloved figure who would forever be known as ‘‘Mr. Falcon.’’ He earned NFL rookie of the year honors and the first of five Pro Bowl berths in 1966. He spent his entire 11-year career with the Falcons. His No. 60 has never been worn by any other Atlanta player, and he was among the initial inductees into the team’s ‘‘Ring of Honor’’ in 2004.
As a rookie, Mr. Nobis was credited unofficially with a staggering 296 solo and assisted tackles — an average of more than 21 per game. It remains the franchise record, and he would lead the team in tackles nine times. The only exceptions were the 1969 and ‘71 seasons, when injuries limited him to a total of nine games.
After retiring, he had a long career in the Falcons front office and also became well known in the Atlanta area for running a charitable organization that provided job training to people with disabilities.
‘‘Tommy’s legacy began as the first Falcons player in team history, was built over 40 years with the organization, and will live on for years to come,’’ team owner Arthur Blank said in a statement.
Former Falcons coach Dan Reeves, who entered the league a year ahead of Mr. Nobis and became his good friend, called him ‘‘the best middle linebacker I ever played against in my time’’ — an era that included Hall of Famers such as Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke.
‘‘Tommy could play the run and the pass,’’ Reeves said. ‘‘Butkus was really good against the run, but Tommy could do both really good. He never came out of the game. Nitschke was good, but he was with a great team.’’
Mr. Nobis had recently been in poor health with physical and cognitive ailments.
‘‘It’s sad what football has done to these players,’’ his wife told the Houston newspaper. ‘‘But I know he loved it more than anything. He wouldn’t have had it any other way.’’