A signature Dolphin was smacking pingpong balls Monday night when reality smacked back. Talk about shocking speed."There are so many guys that come in and out of this league so fast," Zach Thomas realized, as he scanned the Seminole Hard Rock Live auditorium.
There so many were, at Jason Taylor's charity Ping Pong Smash in Hollywood. Derrick Rodgers. Kenny Mixon. Troy Drayton. Shawn Wooden. Jed Weaver. Oronde Gadsden. All former Dolphins teammates, some younger than him. All retired from football, as Thomas, at 33, plays on -- for his first and, hopefully, only franchise.
The ruthless nature of that business has many wondering what becomes of Thomas after this, his 11th Dolphins season. Yes, 11. No one he knows, whether friend or family member, can believe that either.
Here's what should happen:
He should play a 12th.
He should play it here.
His cap figure for 2007 is $8 million. While he keeps reiterating his willingness to restructure, and while he has posted the second-largest tackle total in the NFL, he still hears outsiders whisper that his Dolphins days are numbered. South Florida has had few love affairs stronger than the one with its ultimate underdog, but Thomas has seen Junior Seau leave San Diego and Dan Marino leave the Dolphins on other people's terms. He knows the same can happen to him.
If there's any fairness left in football, however, Thomas should not tackle for another.
"I want to finish my career here," Thomas said. "It's awesome down here. I love it. I don't even want to think about going another place."
Nor does he want to finish that career anytime soon. Once he feels even the slightest loss of speed, he will quit, rather than stick around as a sad, sorry shell of himself. He does not feel that loss yet.
"My game has gotten better," Thomas said. "My game is the best it's been."
He credits experience. After seeing thousands upon thousands of plays since his rookie season, he can anticipate just about anything. He acknowledges his season hit a dead spot in weeks five and six losses to the Patriots and Jets, yet blames a diet that dropped his weight to 215 pounds. He began eating liberally again, increasing his energy and his weight to 228. He began making more big plays. The Dolphins began winning. Everything became "awesome" again, especially because he's fully understanding Dom Capers' "awesome" defensive scheme.
Thomas will not experience an awesome ending this season. He has not played in a playoff game since Jan. 13, 2002. He has had four head coaches, but no AFC championship appearances. He remembers when fans would complain about reaching only the second round. He remembers saying he would accept a 1-15 season if it meant stockpiling talent for a future run.
"And I've said some pretty stupid things in my career, but that's the dumbest thing I ever said," Thomas said, recalling the misery of 2004's 4-12 record.
This one will fall between 6-10 and 9-7. He says he doesn't "fret" about his Super Bowl void, because the game remains fun, and he recognizes the preciousness of a spot in the league, on a team.
"It's what I do," he said. "I've been doing it since the third grade. I'd rather do that than be sitting at home retired, and thinking, `Hmm, I wonder if we could have made it.' I just want to have the storybook ending, man, where me and Jason have been fighting so hard, and finally it comes together and we go all the way. That would be the thing where I retire even early."
"Oh yeah," Thomas said. "It might be hard for me to turn the page. I might just sit out during two-a-days and say, `All right, I'm coming back.'"
Thomas' career has come to resemble that of another cult figure, someone who symbolized everything right about a sport and one of its proudest organizations. Don Mattingly's 14 seasons were marked by similar pride, passion, preparation and professionalism, with the first baseman accomplishing everything but a World Series appearance. The season after Donnie Baseball finally retired, the Yankees won their first of four titles in five years.
How would Thomas, Zachie Football, handle such a fate?
"I'll be in the stands, cheering them on," he said. "Or maybe I will watch it on TV, because I probably will turn the page. The closer you get to that field, you know, I might be, like, talking myself into playing."
Don't give No. 54 away, in case. And don't dare give it to anyone else in 2007.