IRVING, Texas – Amid the clutter of linebacker Zach Thomas' locker is a stack of three notebooks, the type with a couple of hundred sheets of college-ruled paper. The pages are filled with Thomas' small, neat notes and diagrams about the Dallas Cowboys defensive scheme he is furiously trying to learn.
"That's not all of them," Thomas said with a self-deprecating grin, opening a shoulder bag filled with three more. A couple of them are leftovers from his 12 years with the Miami Dolphins. Even so, in less than three full months with the Cowboys, Thomas has four notebooks filled with information.
To say Thomas is a football junkie is like saying Sid Vicious and Bradley Nowell had a couple of issues with heroin. Thomas' brain scans register in Xs and Os, not a contiguous line.
At the same time, Thomas doesn't want to put too much emphasis on his football smarts.
"Don't get all caught up in that," Thomas said. "When you say that, everybody starts thinking I'm some overachiever and all that, that I'm not an athlete. That gets annoying, man."
Fair enough. No one lasts in the NFL this long without athletic talent, and Thomas has a strong resume even if he has a body built by Flintstone. Start with seven Pro Bowls and then throw in 17 career interceptions. He has returned four for touchdowns. Only three linebackers in the history of the league have returned more picks for scores.
But here's the cruel part of Thomas' journey from the Dolphins to Dallas, where he signed a one-year deal with plenty of incentives: The very brain he has depended upon during his career is the one thing that may end his career. Thomas has never told anyone how many concussions he has suffered, but those close to him estimate the number is at least double figures. That includes two last year, the second coming after he got into a fender bender.
Thomas was placed on injured reserve after playing only five games last season when the last symptom wouldn't go away. Thomas said the feeling of pressure on his brain at the bridge of his nose, which is one of the residual effects of a concussion, was later diagnosed as the effects of a deviated septum, the result of years of pounding and tackling.
"I was passing all the tests, the cognitive stuff and all that, with flying colors," Thomas said. "The doctor took care of (the deviated septum) … Look, if there was any fear that I could really hurt myself bad (from further concussions), I wouldn't be out here. I wouldn't do that to my family."
Still, there are constant reminders of the impact of repeated concussions. Fellow linebacker Dan Morgan, who Thomas got to know when Morgan played at the University of Miami, retired Monday when he couldn't overcome the effects of all the concussions he has suffered.
"I know, but people start to overanalyze all this stuff, especially when I was down in South Florida," Thomas said. "They were all saying stuff like, 'Man, he has that glassy-eyed look now,' or 'He's talking real slow.' Look, I've always been slow when I talk. I've always been slow, period. Man, I was held back in kindergarten because of that."
Maybe so, but Thomas is no dummy. He has played tricks with his brain throughout his career, whether it's the constant study to recognize formations (in college he once called out a draw play before the offense was set) or by looking for motivation.
"I used to read stories and turn them around to make it seem like people were talking bad about me for motivation," Thomas said. He was so desperate for motivation one time in Miami that he questioned a reporter who wrote that he might be rusty after having missed a few weeks because of injury.
"Did somebody on the coaching staff say that about me? Are they doubting me?" Thomas asked the reporter.
Said the reporter: "Zach, you were the one who said you might be rusty, don't you remember?"
"Oh yeah, I did say that," Thomas replied.
It's all part of the mental game Thomas still plays after all the years of accomplishment. The three linebackers with more touchdowns returns on interceptions are former Kansas City great and Hall of Famer Bobby Bell, current Tampa Bay great and former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Derrick Brooks and 15-year veteran and later NFL head coach Jack Pardee.
And as far as athletic grace goes, there's the backflip he did as he returned an interception against Tennessee in the 2001 season opener, putting an exclamation mark on his 34-yard return for a game-clinching touchdown that night.
"I can't do that anymore," the 34-year-old Thomas said.
There's also the private respect Thomas has gotten from the likes of New England coach Bill Belichick, who has privately called Thomas the best linebacker of this generation. When Thomas was let go by the Dolphins in February as they began their rebuilding process, Belichick immediately called Thomas and asked him to join the Patriots.
"Couldn't do it," said Thomas, who still considers himself a Dolphin in many ways. "They paid me my respect in Miami when they let me go, so I have no bad feelings. They didn't need to throw me no parade or anything. I knew what they were thinking and they were straight with me."
Just to further the point, Thomas is wearing 55 with Dallas and won't wear the 54 he wore in Miami.
"I want people to think of me as 54 with the Dolphins, that part of my career. I want it to be fresh here in Dallas, that's why I'm 55 here," Thomas said.
If Thomas plays like he has shown in practice so far, the Cowboys will let him wear any number he likes. Thomas made a startling read. Two or three times earlier in the day, the Cowboys offense had faked a reverse. Thomas never bit. Finally, when the offense ran the reverse, Thomas was there to stop it for a two-yard loss, getting in the proper position to make the "tackle."
"You don't see inside 'backers make a tackle for a two-yard loss on reverses," Cowboys coach and defensive devotee Wade Phillips said. Phillips said in all his years with great "instinct" linebackers such as Donnie Edwards, Seth Joyner and Karl Mecklenburg, he'd never seen that.
"He can play now, he can find the football," Phillips said in the kind of glib assessment that speaks volumes when coming from an experienced coach.
"When you can figure out plays like that, figure out what the offense is trying to do to you, it's still such a rush," Thomas said. "It's not as much like it used to be. You really look for that in a game. But it still gets you hyped."
It has to for someone like Thomas, who has spent so much of his time trying to learn the game. Thomas has likely forgotten more about football than many coaches in the game have ever learned. During his time in Miami, Thomas would come to work before dawn and leave after dark so many nights after studying video. He was so devoted to his craft he lived only eight minutes from the Dolphins' training facility.
Yes, he timed it. These days, the 6:30 a.m. commute from downtown Dallas to the Cowboys complex can run 22 to 24 minutes.
"I'm still trying out new routes to find the fastest one … I'm losing time. I should hire a driver so I can watch more video on the way over," Thomas said, jokingly.
Or was he?
Still, the respect Thomas craves most is about him as a player, the simple recognition that he's more baller than brainiac. He's starting to get that in Dallas after only a short time.
"Zach is a beast," nose tackle Tank Johnson said as he walked by his new teammate. "He is a BEAST!"
The satisfied look on Thomas' face was telling.