Zach Thomas believes the best moment of his career came at the beginning.
“It sounds like a good story or corny or whatever, but before I stepped out on the field my first NFL game, I knew I had my opportunity of a lifetime against the New England Patriots in 1996,” Thomas recalled this week. “They’re doing the national anthem and I got teary-eyed because I just knew I had already won. I knew the only thing that could stop me from having an NFL career at that point was an injury.
“I knew I already had my position. I knew I had an opportunity. I knew I wasn’t going to take anything for granted. I knew I was going to hang on to it all.”
Jason Taylor believes the best moment of his career came at the end.
“There were a lot of good times, but for me it was being carried off the field my last game,” Taylor said after listening to Thomas and thinking back to the 2011 season-finale against the Jets.
“It was nice to come off with a win. And being carried off and not really wanting to be up there and fighting it a little at first … it felt a little awkward at first. But then it started feeling good. It felt right. That was special. That was pretty cool.”
Ironic isn’t it? Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas, bonded so tightly they are family, enjoyed their finest moments at the polar opposite ends of their excellent careers.
Those disparate experiences serve as bookends to what was 15 memorable years in Dolphins history. The duo represented what was great about the franchise in those good times — and there were many of those, including playoff berths from 1997 to 2001. They also showed what was classy about the franchise in tough times — including that 1-15 season in 2007.
Thomas and Taylor were the franchise’s signature players to a generation of fans that no longer had Dan Marino to root for. And that’s only one reason on Sunday both will be added to the team’s Honor Roll.
These guys were often the best players on their team. They were among the finest at their positions around the league. But they didn’t really look the part early in their careers.
Thomas was a too-short linebacker drafted in the fifth round by Jimmy Johnson in 1996. My first conversation with him was 20-minute exchange in which the rookie talked of finding a barber in South Florida.
“I got to talking with the guy and told him I’m a football player,” Thomas said. “He asked me what high school team I play for.”
My first long chat with Taylor came in 1998. He wasn’t a rookie third-round pick anymore, but he was still trying to find himself. He talked of trying to please people who said he was too skinny. He talked of worrying about having a string of games in which he did not get a sack.
And then he made this announcement: “You know what, I’m trying to disconnect from all that crap. At some point I have to accept that I’m 242 pounds. At some point I have to accept I may go a game or two or three without a sack. When it’s all said and done, if I do what I’m supposed to do, years from now I don’t think those things will matter.”
Most of today’s Dolphins don’t talk like that. They’re too worried about upsetting a coach or motivating an opponent or simply not fitting a mold. Thank God Thomas and Taylor didn’t fit molds.