Orlando Thomas died Sunday night of complications from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was 42.
“This was a devastating way for it to happen,” said agent Mark Bertelstein, referring to the amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease. “But it was inevitable.”
Bertelstein said Thomas showed incredible courage while bedridden for the past few years.
“To watch what he went through since he came down with this disease,” Bertelstein said, “never showing an ounce of self-pity. He never wanted to talk about his plight.”
Thomas played for the Vikings from 1995-2001. His former teammate, Jake Reed, tweeted, “I am devastated and saddened about the passing of one of my best friends. He’s in a better place now.”
A statement released by the Vikings read, “Orlando was an outstanding player for the Vikings for seven years, but more importantly, he represented the franchise and the state of Minnesota with the utmost dignity and class. While his outgoing personality made him a favorite among his teammates, Orlando’s involvement in the community made him a favorite outside of Winter Park.”
The team noted how Thomas fought his illness “with tenacity and optimism. Throughout his difficult battle, he refused to allow ALS to define him, instead putting others’ needs in front of his and focusing on making those around him smile.”
Drafted out of the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now Louisiana-Lafayette) in 1995 in the second round, the 42nd overall pick, Thomas quickly earned a starting spot and led the league in interceptions with nine.
The 6-1, 225-pounder started 82 of 98 career games for the Vikings, intercepting 22 passes. He scored four touchdowns, two on fumbles and two on interceptions.
Thomas was set to join the Arizona Cardinals coaching staff of former Vikings coach Dennis Green in 2004 as an intern when he started experiencing symptoms of ALS. He helped coach the team’s defensive backs through training camp, but became weaker and was diagnosed by doctors in September of that year. He was unable to return to the Cardinals in 2005.
Thomas eventually lost his ability to speak, relying on his wife, Demetra, and blinking letters to communicate with others, Bertelstein said.
“He loved being a Viking,” the agent said. “He was such a big part of that run they had, those teams,” most notably the 1998 and 2000 teams that reached the National Football Conference title game.
Said Vikings coach Mike Zimmer: “He battled a terrible disease and I know that everybody here, myself and our team, our thoughts go out to him and his family.”
Orlando and Demetra Thomas had three children and, in a 2007 story in the Star Tribune, Demetra said: “With the love that exists in our family, the kids don’t see Orlando like other people see him now. They see their dad. They see someone who loves them. They see someone who smiles when they walk in the room. They see someone who never complains.”