My first conversation with Zach Thomas happened in the summer of 1996, days after Jimmy Johnson recognized remarkable ability in a pretty unremarkable looking player. Johnson graded Thomas in his first preseason game and promptly cut veteran Jack Del Rio because the coach simply knew Thomas was the Miami Dolphins future at middle linebacker.
That move prompted my initial 20 minute talk with the rookie. When it was over I still had no clue whether Thomas would become a great player or not, whether he'd reward Johnson's confidence or not. I had no clue if Thomas would become a starter or a special teamer.
But I realized Thomas was a special guy.
During that first talk, Thomas told me he was still getting used to South Florida and that he had finally found a barber he liked. "I got to talking with the guy and told him I'm a football player," Thomas said. "He asked me what high school I played for."
Thomas then made a couple of other jokes about "having no neck," that made me laugh and then we got serious and I asked what his days were like.
He basically recounted how he was showing up at the training facility around 6 a.m. and leaving around 9 or 10 p.m. "Football is a job for me now," he said, "and if it takes me coming to work earlier and leaving later to be a success, that's what I'm going to do every day of my career."
Thomas was just being himself. But eventually he would be inexorably tied to NFL excellence for the next 14 years.
Despite a promising future, it wasn't until the regular-season opener in 1996 that Thomas finally believed he had arrived.
"We were singing the national anthem," Thomas said. "It was the best feeling in the world. I remember it like it was yesterday, playing the Patriots, Bill Parcells was on the other sidelines and it was a good win. Just knowing that I made it, it’s all kind of like a fog to me now, but I enjoyed the whole ride and what is special to me is really the relationships that I made and like I said and I know that I am repetitive but, to play a game and get paid for it I was grateful."
Thomas knew within himself he had arrived during the national anthem. He announced that arrival to everyone else by knocking wide receiver Shawn Jefferson out cold on a bone-jarring hit that reverberates through time in franchise history.
"I think I gave a concussion that day, and I am not trying to brag, because I got my own, but I gave some too," Thomas said, the old competitor peeking through his business suit. "I am not trying to boast over that, because you never like to see anyone hurt and you never try to hurt anybody, but I felt like that was making a statement saying, ‘Hey here is 54.' "
Fifty-four won't necessarily be retired by the Dolphins. Doesn't matter. We don't need a number to go away for the exploits of the player who wore the digits to live on.
I'll remember that hit on Jefferson. And that goal-line stop of Jerome Bettis. And the day he stole the signals from the New England Patriots and caused Tom Brady to complain.
I'll also remember the Zachisms.
He would talk of his defensive unit "getting rattled," on certain downs during certain games. He would hate to lose because losing could, "contaminate your mind." He would get cold sores on his lips because he worried so much about upcoming games.
And there were the eccentricities, too.
He got in the habit of taking tapes home before other Miami players did. He bought a Hyperbaric chamber and slept in it because he swore it made him recover faster. He wore magnets because he was told they drew blood to certain parts of the body and that made that part heal faster. He went on diets that were matched to his particular blood type.
It was all done to get an edge, to be the best he could be.
"I don’t think that I ever viewed myself as having God-given ability, but I knew I would get that edge somehow," Thomas said. "I have seen a lot of talent come in to this team and out real fast because maybe of work ethic or being lazy -- things like that. It doesn’t really matter, talent if you are on the field, even if you run a 4.2 forty, if you can’t read or recognize a play, or if you are a receiver and can’t catch the ball, it’s a whole different game on that field.
"And that is the one thing that, when I was on that field, I felt fast. When I got out there on the forty sprints, man, the D-lineman were out-running me most of them were. At the combine, I mean it was, I just knew that wasn’t the game of football. The combine, I didn’t even touch the opening height on the vertical jump. There were so many things that upset me because of all the hard work that I put in at college, but those don’t really measure up to what you can do on the field. It has nothing to do with it. But that is why I feel like they always put me as an overachiever.
"But when I was on the field, I didn’t feel it, I felt confident on the field. I might have been insecure for sure during the week, but on game day I was confident.”
Thomas often made fun of his own speech pattern. He said it got slower over the years because of all the hits to the head he endured.
This guy was sly as well as wise. When he negotiated his first big contract -- a five-year, $22.5 million deal that included a $4.5 million signing bonus and made him the highest-paid Miami player ahead of Dan Marino -- Thomas told me he made sure the deal wasn't backloaded.
Tim Bowens had signed a backloaded deal and was at that time in danger of not collecting that last big year of pay because he was injured and his play had declined. Thomas made sure his deal paid well up front as well as at its end.
And Thomas delivered at both those ends. He made his first Pro Bowl in 1999 and his last in 2006.
"I remember when Zach first showed up as a rookie, I thought he and Larry Izzo would make pretty good special teams players," Dan Marino said. "I was right about Larry, but wrong about Zach. He wound up being much beter than that. He used his determination, grit, and love for the game to become one of the best players on our team.
"He was a great teammate. He never took a play off, not even at practice. and his enthusiasm for the sport was contagious throughout the locker room. I'm glad I got a chance to play with him, and I'm happy that he's able to retire as a member of the team he cared so much about."
Thomas kidded that whenever he intercepted a Marino pass in practice, he would call friends to tell him about that thrill. Typical Zach.
In his final minutes as a Miami Dolphins before retiring Thursday, Thomas thanked his family, his coaches, former teammates, trainers, equipment manager Tony Egues, and current and former club media relations people. He also thanked the media.
But mostly Thomas thanked you, the fans, for cheering him on, for wearing his jersey, for being in his corner.
"As for the fans, it has been a great ride," Thomas said. "We have had our ups and downs, but I really feel like you have showed unconditional love for me for the whole time I was here. I am sorry we couldn’t bring you a Super Bowl ring.
"Now that I am fan like you guys, I know that I am excited -- not just because they let me come here and retire, but I know they are on the right track and it is a process and I like what they are doing. I feel like they are going to bring us a Super Bowl ring. Even if I am not involved with the team, I will be a fan and I will be celebrating with these guys. I'd like to thank you for all of your loyalty over the years to me. If I had a bad game or a good game, you always had my back. So I want to thank everyone for coming out today. I appreciate you and go Dolphins."