MIAMI -- For a time, Zach Thomas was content with accepting his fate.
The former Miami Dolphins linebacker enjoyed a 13-year Hall of Fame-worthy playing career -- or so many football fans believed. But for nine years after he became eligible for enshrinement, voters decided otherwise.
In 2023, his 10th year of eligibility and fourth straight as a finalist, he got the news.
He was in.
Thomas will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 5, and although the wait was long, it wasn’t necessarily strenuous. In his eyes, he was an undersized, fifth-round pick from a small town in West Texas who was under consideration for the sport’s highest honor. That humble perspective is as much a defining characteristic of Thomas’ legacy as his jarring tackles.
“Once you get into the finalists, and you’re a finalist year after year, you get more of a chance, so I was very grateful for that,” Thomas said after he received the news. “My family, I would let them vent one day if I didn’t make it, and that’s it. Because the game has been so good to me.
“I’m never going to be ungrateful, even if I never made the Hall of Fame, because it’s so good to me.”
Football was good to Thomas, but Thomas was also good for football; seven Pro Bowls, five All-Pro selections and the fifth-most tackles in NFL history (1,734).
The Texas Tech product made an impression on at least one Dolphin teammate before they ever shared a locker room. In 1995, three years after O.J. McDuffie graduated from Penn State and was a Dolphins first-round pick, he watched Thomas’ Red Raiders take on the Nittany Lions.
"He had 20-something tackles," McDuffie said. "I watched every snap of that game, and I said, 'this dude right here.'”
McDuffie remembered when he and former Penn St. teammate Ki-Jana Carter first met Thomas.
“He tried to introduce himself to us, and we were like, 'We know who you are. We know exactly who you are, dude, you tried to beat our team by yourself,’” McDuffie said. “So I knew he was a hell of a player, but then when you get him in camp, a fifth-round draft pick, you saw that hunger, that desire and the speed that he had -- his speed was underestimated."
Thomas, who was just 5-foot-11, 228 pounds, also was quick moving up the depth chart.
In 1996, Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson signed veteran linebacker Jack Del Rio, presumably to start in the middle of the defense. Johnson, a Hall of Fame coach with two Super Bowl titles from his Dallas Cowboys days, was known to allow local media to watch practices from a short distance.
Former Dolphins defensive end Kim Bokamper, who retired in 1985 and covered the team as a television and radio analyst in 1996, remembered one particular drill during the first couple days of practice in which Thomas altered the course of Del Rio's career.
"It was the first or second day of practice, and they're doing an inside drill," Bokamper said. "Some guy tries to go over the top, and Zach jumped over and just hit him in the jaw. I think the next day, Jimmy Johnson made him the starting middle linebacker. And that sent Jack Del Rio to an early search for a coaching job."
Del Rio was cut soon after and joined the New Orleans Saints as a strength and conditioning coach the following year. Thomas would lead the team in tackles as a rookie with 154; safety Shawn Wooden was their second-leading tackler with 67.
Thomas played on several star-studded defenses with players such as Hall of Famer Jason Taylor, Pat Surtain Sr. and Sam Madison. One argument against Thomas' Hall of Fame candidacy was that he was propped up by the players around him.
McDuffie couldn't disagree more.
"It was more Zach than anybody," McDuffie said. "Zach is truly the quarterback of that defense. So it doesn't matter who he's playing with ... Zach orchestrated all those guys, all that talent, have them in the right coverage, had the defensive line where it needed to be.
"So it's a weak argument. All you got to do is look at Zach's numbers."
Thomas will be enshrined along with Ronde Barber, Darrelle Revis, DeMarcus Ware, Joe Thomas, Joe Klecko, Chuck Howley and Ken Riley, and coach Don Coryell. He will be the 10th Hall of Famer to spend most of his playing career with the Dolphins.
"It’s humbling, and I’m just so grateful for everybody that helped me along the way," he said. "Because you’re not self-made, but to look back when I was 8 years old and just to -- it would be a huge dream for me just to make it to the NFL, but to end up being a Hall of Famer is crazy, man. It’s crazy when I think about it.
"We had those great defenses when I played, and I owe it to all those guys. I guess somebody has to get the credit. My D-line did all the work, and I’ll take the credit."