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.
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“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.
They still don’t. They are being honored for their individual greatness, but both know there’s a void in their experiences. Both know they never won a Super Bowl. And both tackle the issue as if it were a chubby, slow running back.
“I’m not going to go through the list of quote-unquote mistakes on whether [the team] should have picked this person or that person to get better,” Taylor said. “I’m not going to go through that mess. But I will say, I would love to change that we didn’t win a championship. I would give everything else up just to win a championship.”
Would Taylor, sixth on the all-time sack list with 139.5, give up a chance at the Hall of Fame?
“The Hall of Fame is no guarantee,” he said. “But the Defensive Player of the Year award, I have that. You can have that back. I’ll give you the NFL Man of the Year award. I’ll give you whatever else.
“I won’t give you all 139 sacks, but I’d give you 100 of them. Give me a championship. And I’m not talking about just being on the team that wins a championship, but having a meaningful impact with us in our prime and playing the way we were and have a championship to show for it?
“I’d make that trade.”
Thomas, sitting next to his brother-in-law, nods agreement.
“We’re on the same page on that one,” he said. “It’s why you play the game.”
The game has moved on, and so have the pair. But the last week has been filled with emotion for Thomas and Taylor. Both took a drive to the Dolphins practice facility on Tuesday so they could meet Dolphins coach Joe Philbin and do some interviews.
And the moment they walked in those familiar doors and saw the place where they spent so many days, years, so many years really, the memories suddenly came rushing back.
“This place was like home,” said Taylor after Philbin treated him and Thomas to a tour of the refurbished facility. “I spent more time here than I did at my own house. So you know every crack and crevice. Every place you can go to get a cellphone signal. You learn everything about this place.”
“It relights a fire for sure,” Thomas said in that familiar easy drawl. “I lived up here. And the way they’ve remodeled this place, wow, I would have stayed even longer every day. I would have brought a cot or something.
“To see some of the same people in the operations end of things, that felt good. You really miss those things. It’s not just the games that you miss when you stop playing. It’s about the relationships. It’s good to get back up here. I’m going to have problems when I go home, having to turn that switch off again.”
If a short trip to a training facility does that, imagine how Taylor and Thomas will feel Sunday when they stand at the 50-yard-line of a field they basically owned for so many years and have their names unveiled on the Honor Roll.
That’s the show Sunday.
Yes, the Rams and Dolphins are playing a game. Yes, the home team is trying to get to .500. But game results can fade. This day will never fade for Taylor and Thomas.
“For me, before Sunday, it was a prized moment to look out into the stands and see people wearing my jersey,” Thomas said. “And now, to know that my name is going to be up there, it’s awesome. It means a lot to me. It’ll mean a lot to my family.”
“I had a friend, and it was a very famous guy, tell me that celebrity is fleeting,” Taylor added. “But your performance lasts a lifetime. And that’s what my name being in that stadium will do. It will solidify that my performance for those 13 to 15 years will last a lifetime. And that’s pretty cool to me.
“You know, my kids had a chance to see me play. My two boys remember me playing; they remember guys on the team. They were talking last Sunday about Paul Soliai because they were in the locker room one time and Paul gave them a Gatorade and Randy Starks was throwing the football around with them and Cameron Wake walked by and messed up their hair. These are things my kids remember.
“But one day my kids will go in the stadium and look up and say, ‘My hero was pretty good at football, too.’ ”