Or take the day early in camp last summer when he was getting a haircut at his Fort Lauderdale barber shop. His barber was asking how practice was going when a customer broke in.
"What high school you play for?"
The barber winced. "He doesn't play high school," he said. "He plays for Miami."
"Get out of here! You play for the 'Canes?"
Zach winced. The barber's scissor hands drooped to his side. His face reddened.
"No," said the barber. "He plays for the Miami Dolphins."
"Ohhhhh." Then the customer gives Zach the old doubting Thomas kind of look that he has seen his whole football-playing life, the kind that says, "Well, I'd ask for your autograph, but I know you're not going to be around long."
Unfortunately for 11-year veteran and Pro Bowl linebacker Jack del Rio, whom the Dolphins cut during training camp to make room for their surprising rookie, Thomas is still around. In fact, draft pick 5C for Miami is showing up in film rooms all over the league. "That guy," says Dallas Cowboys coach Barry Switzer, "is just a rolling ball of butcher knives."
He's one of the last players out of the Dolphins' practice facility by a good hour almost every night; he watches film until 7:30, when most guys are gone by 5:30 or six. As a result, in games he's usually already at the ball when the guys with the 4.5 speed are just recognizing the play. Somehow he has turned his shortness and his slowness into his biggest assets. He flies under the radar. "I'd rather be five-four than six-five any day," he says. "If I'd been six-five, I wouldn't be nearly the player I am because I wouldn't have had to try so hard. This way, I can get under all those fat linemen."
Says Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson, "I've never had a rookie linebacker like this. He has the finest instincts of any middle linebacker I've been around." And all for about $3.17 million less per year than the guy Thomas is making Miami fans forget: Bryan Cox, who signed a $13.2 million free-agent deal with the Chicago Bears last February.