ATLANTA - When the First Falcon, Tommy Nobis, died in mid-December of 2017 at the age of 74, his family was all too aware that something had gone seriously wrong inside the old linebacker’s head.
They had diagnosed a troubled mind a long time ago -- the hard way, suffering his erratic moods, his paranoia, his angry outbursts. While his fans mostly knew Nobis as the genial original face of the franchise and a powerful force for good in the community, there was this other, darker side that those close to him had witnessed far too often.
So late 2018 when they received a pathologist’s report from the Boston-based group that studies football-related brain damage, none of Nobis’ family could be stunned by the findings.
Even when they were told that Nobis had Stage 4 Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) -- the most serious form of the condition -- and that his brain was among the most profoundly damaged of any of the hundreds the group had studied, it did not come as a shock.
“No surprise to any of us when we got the results back,” said his daughter, Devon Jackoniski.
Reconciling the public perception of Nobis with his erratic behavior at home had been a constant challenge for his family. And even the medical confirmation of severe CTE and the knowledge that many of Nobis’ outbursts could be traced to the brain damage only heightens certain regrets.
“That’s what we realized when we got the results back: His kids didn’t know who he was, we really didn’t know who my dad was,” daughter Devon, one of three Nobis children, said.
“I lived a life of anger toward my dad. My brothers, too,” she said. “My mom was angry a lot. When we found out this is what he had, it was just very sad.”
The first first-round pick of the expansion Falcons in 1966 out of Texas, Nobis played with abandon for 11 seasons in Atlanta.
Known for the ferocity of his tackling, he performed at a Hall of Fame level despite never being recognized as such by the Hall. It also was his lot to be tied to a young and consistently losing franchise, never sampling a single playoff game let alone the early days of this extravaganza known as the Super Bowl.
And now the latest twist to his story, told on the week that the Super Bowl has come to the place Nobis called home, is another postmortem testimony to the long-range damage done by football and the sometime sad endgame of glory. This moment of sober reflection amid the Super Bowl hoopla is brought to you by the late Tommy Nobis and his family.
Tuesday the Concussion Legacy Foundation released its findings on Nobis -- CTE can only be diagnosed after death through examination of the brain.
His family had wrestled with the decision about whether or not to donate Nobis’ brain to the study, until shortly before he died when he and his wife talked it out and decided it was for the best.
According to the Boston University CTE Center, CTE is “a degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma.” The resulting death of brain cells contributes to dementia.
In a statement from the center’s director, Dr. Ann McKee, Nobis brain “showed severe loss of neurons and large CTE lesions throughout the cerebral cortex.”
Due to his standing as one of the team’s founding fathers, the never compromising level of his play, his years of work with the franchise after his playing days and his many charitable works, Nobis was known as Mr. Falcon. He was a charter member of the team’s Ring of Honor and devoted to his work with the Special Olympics and the Nobis Center, which still provides job training for the disabled. On all levels he qualified as a beloved figure in Falcons lore.
Looking back decades, though, his daughter can see the effects of CTE on her father, and by extension, her family.
Jackoniski refers to an incident nine years ago, in San Antonio at the funeral for her maternal grandfather, as a tipping point. First, the eulogy Nobis gave was practically incoherent. And at a gathering afterward, a fairly trivial argument with his daughter escalated into an irrational and overheated outburst.
“He was very forceful with all the boys, including my husband,” Jackoniski recalled. “My mom got in the middle. It was just awful. At that moment we thought there is something horribly wrong because he’s taken this into the public, to people he admired and those who admired him. It was like a caged animal had been let out. He had this incredible hate in his eyes.”
“That created this two-year fissure in our family,” she said. “My mom didn’t get to see any of her grandchildren. We didn’t have holidays with them. My mom was alienated.”
And, she notes, there was no shortage of clues of abnormal behavior dating long before then, back when Nobis was in his 50s.
For instance, Jackoniski said her mother and Nobis’ secretary with the Falcons would regularly alert one another as to his mood at the moment.
There were multiple times, she said, when he became so agitated at a restaurant that he’d be asked to leave. Or if he thought someone in the drive-thru line at the bank was taking too long, he’d get out of his car and confront the person.
At Jackoniski’s wedding, just as her father was about to walk her down the aisle, he unloaded on the photographer for being too intrusive. “I was so excited to get to the end of that aisle and start my new life,” Jackoniski said. “It was such a typical thing for my dad to make something really good less good.”
Incidents of paranoia -- Nobis on occasion believed he was being followed and that his phone was being tapped -- only worsened after he cut work ties with the Falcons, shortly after Arthur Blank bought the team in late 2001.
In his last few years, with both his cognition and his health in decline, an attempt to move Nobis into assisted living failed because he was regularly hostile toward the staff.
Asked if her father was physically abusive, Jackoniski only said, “He was scary. He was a big man. He could be very volatile.”
What, then, of the sport that may well have been at the root of such behavior? Jackoniski’s 11-year-old son won’t play it, of that she is certain. Beyond that, reliving the trauma that touched an entire family, not just Nobis, is difficult but necessary, she has concluded.
“It’s hard to release a story about my dad who everybody thought was this charming guy -- and he was a charming guy. But then to see the extreme opposite, the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. (Getting that out) is what has to happen for people to understand what this (CTE) is about. I know there are other players out there who will be facing the same thing.”
When asked if she and her family were likely to watch the Super Bowl, Jackoniski confessed they likely would.
When asked if she resented the game that had been central to her father’s life, she struggled to answer. The contradictions between football’s allure and the toll it may take can be overwhelming.
It wasn’t until the following day, after stewing on the question that Jackoniski attempted an answer.
In an email, she wrote her thoughts on what football ultimately had meant to one family: “It brought discipline and recklessness, self-worth and depression, strength and weakness, determination and fear, teamwork and destruction of relationships, competition and dissension, friendships and loneliness, strategy and brutal honesty, entertainment and subsistence. In the end, it brought humility in every sense of the word.”
This article was written by Steve Hummer, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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