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CANTON — Members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2023 were being driven to a photo session Friday afternoon when Zach Thomas noticed maybe 30 Dolphins fans lining the route to the photo shoot.
Thomas asked the driver to stop the car so he could get out. He wanted to meet the fans and was fine with walking if that’s what stopping meant.
And for the next few minutes, Thomas signed autographs and posed for photos with those fans.
That’s Thomas showing love and appreciation to the fans who made him perhaps the most popular player on the Dolphins during the early 2000s.
And Saturday was about Thomas articulating that appreciation.
Zach Thomas Gives Emotional Induction Speech
It was indeed supposed to be a Thomas day here in Northeast Ohio. This was the day Joe Thomas, who played up the road for the Cleveland Browns, was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But this day was also about the Miami Dolphins linebacker’s enshrinement, as Dolphins No. 54 jerseys were easily the second-most worn attire in the crowd at Tom Benson Stadium.
The place was simply abuzz as Zach Thomas took the stage first for his induction stage.
“To all my passionate and loyal Dolphins fans, you mean the world to me,” Thomas said.
He began noting that 27 years ago to the day, then Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson told Thomas he’d be the team’s starting middle linebacker. And now, here he was.
“This is a dream come true for this small town country boy to be standing on this stage with all these legends behind me,” Thomas said. “My football career has come full circle from August 5, 1996 when Jimmy Johnson gave a kid a chance to August 5, 2023 being forever enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame!”
Zach Thomas Sends Out Thanks
Thomas’ speech was a grand thank you to all the people who affected his career from 1996 to 2008. He spoke of the love and support from his wife Maritza, who he’s been with for 20 years. He spoke of coaches and family and teammates. And he spoke of fans, both of the Dolphins and those who rooted against Miami.
The speech nailed it.
He thanked outstanding teammates, such as Sam Madison, Patrick Surtain, Trace Armstrong, Larry Izzo, Jason Taylor and Dan Marino.
He noted defensive tackle Tim Bowens, who ate up double-team blocks to allow Thomas to roam free, was special and underrated.
“You’re a bad man, Timbo,” Thomas said. “There was nothing more reassuring than seeing your big butt in front of me on Sundays.”
Thomas described how dirt roads affected his life. He was only two years old when he was playing in the driveway of his home and he got run over by a pickup truck.
“You know what saved me that day?” Thomas asked rhetorically. “Dirt. If I was on concrete or pavement, I wouldn’t be standing here right now.”
Thomas made the point that his career took a lot of dirt roads to get to the stage in Canton — in Pampa, Texas, where he played in high school and in Lubbock, Texas, where he played at Texas Tech.
“I left those dirt roads for Miami, and there’s no place I’d rather call home,” Thomas said.
Some Things He Wanted To Add
In the days leading to Saturday’s enshrinement, Thomas joked about becoming emotional during his speech. He did just that when he spoke of his family, particularly his brother Bart, who competed with him constantly as a boy.
“You’re my hero, man,” Thomas said as he fought back the emotions. “We battled at everything and you won everything. Your pursuit of greatness led me to do the same.”
Thomas also struggled cutting his speech. And some things didn’t make it because the Hall of Fame limits the speeches for television time.
Among the things Thomas had in early drafts of his speech that he never got to say to the national TV audience:
“I was a longshot. I just wanted to make the team,” Thomas wrote. “I never fit the mold of a middle linebacker. You’re supposed to have a Ray Lewis, Dick Butkus, Brian Urlacher type look. As you can tell, that’s not me. And, so, I over prepared, and that gave me the confidence that I needed. It allowed me to approach every game knowing that I belonged out there, and that I could get it done.
“I want to give hope to other athletes or to people in any walk of life who also don’t fit the part, who are undersized or who are told that they simply don’t have the tools needed to reach their dreams. If you’re too small, who cares?
“Outwork your competition. If you’re too slow, who cares? Outthink your opponent. I never went into a game unprepared. I’m living proof that regardless of what your physical makeup is, you can end up in the Hall of Fame.”
One thing Thomas was careful to keep in his speech was a tribute to Junior Seau, who committed suicide in 2012 after playing in the NFL from 1990 to 2009:
“HIs poster hung on my wall in college and he was everything I wanted to be as a football player,” Thomas. “Though he’s not here physically, he’s here in spirit … Love you, buddy.”