Former Vikings safety Orlando Thomas, who played for Minnesota from 1995-2001, died Sunday of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) at the age of 42.
Thomas, who had 22 career interceptions, including 9 in his rookie season to lead the NFL in 1995, revealed to the Minnesota Star Tribune’s Mark Craig he was dealing with ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) in June of 2007, though he was diagnosed in September 2004. ALS is “a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord,” according to the ALS Association, with 30,000 Americans dealing with the disease.
In the piece by Craig, Thomas was revealed as a person that looked at every day as a “holiday”, according to teammate Robert Griffith, a safety that played alongside Thomas for the Vikings his entire career. By the time the story was written, Thomas was unable to be interviewed for it, but made sure to thank Vikings fans, and was shown to still not believe in bad days:
Thomas, whose ALS was diagnosed in September 2004, is paralyzed above the waist and has only limited movement in his legs. He can’t walk or sit up on his own and is unable to chew or swallow. He’s fed through a tube and needs his throat cleared regularly by suctioning. He also lost his speech recently, although Demetra said his overall physical decline has slowed the past month or so to a point where she considers him “stable.”
Like most people with ALS, Thomas’ mind remains as sharp as it ever was. Yet somehow, even though he understands his condition is terminal, Thomas still doesn’t believe in bad days.
“I used to think that Orlando was just real carefree,” Demetra said. “But I’m learning so much from him now. He can’t walk into a room and bring on the excitement or bring out his favorite quote – `Every day is a holiday!’ – like he used to. But he’s showing that, regardless of what’s going on in your life, if you live from the heart and you have love, joy and peace, there’s nothing greater than living from that place within.”
“He’s still OT,” former Vikings coach Dennis Green said. “He still has his opinions on everything. Still wants to know how you’re doing as opposed to how he’s doing. He’s an amazing man. And Demetra is an amazing woman.”
Demetra said that through it all, Orlando has never asked, “Why me?” In fact, she said the entire family “feels blessed.” The couple has a 13-year-old daughter, Philamisha Davis, who is Demetra’s from a previous relationship; a 10-year-old daughter, Alexis Thomas, who is Orlando’s from a previous relationship; and their 6-year-old son, Orlando Jr.
“With the love that exists in our family, the kids don’t see Orlando like other people see him now,” Demetra said. “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.
“Our son said to me, `Mom, Dad’s going to walk again.’ It’s not false hope. They are well aware of the disease and the diagnosis. But we have instilled in them that there is a God. They understand faith, so they don’t see us as any different than any other family going through life’s journey.”
The perseverance that Thomas showed through his battle to the disease is similar to that of former Saint Steve Gleason, who played eight seasons (2000-2007) with the Saints as a special teams ace and blocked a punt that was returned for a touchdown in the team’s return to the Super Dome after almost 21 months away from the stadium on September 25, 2006. In 2011, Gleason revealed that he was dealing the disease, and established the Team Gleason foundation to help find a cure for ALS.
Teammates of Thomas in Minnesota have expressed their thoughts on his death, and the team released a statement as well.
#42 Orlando Thomas R I P Viking4life
— Randy Moss (@RandyMoss) November 10, 2014
— Jake Reed (@JakeReed86) November 10, 2014
— Cris Carter (@criscarter80) November 10, 2014
“The Vikings are deeply saddened by the loss of Orlando Thomas. 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.
Since 2007, Orlando fought this disease 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.
Orlando will always remain a member of the Minnesota Vikings family. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife Demetra and their family.”
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