Former Minnesota Vikings player Orlando Thomas passed away Sunday night in his hometown of Crowley, LA from Lou Gehrig’s disease, a.k.a. ALS. He was 42 years old. Thomas played for the Vikings from 1995 – 2001, leading the NFL in interceptions as a rookie in 1995. Drafter out of the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now Louisiana-Lafayette) in the second round, he was the 42nd overall pick, earning a starting spot on the Vikings and starting 82 of his 98 career games. At the height of his career in the NFL, Thomas stood 6’1″ and weighed 225 pounds. Thomas retired in 2001 at the age of 29. In 2004 he planned to join the Arizona Cardinals coaching staff with Dennis Green, a former Vikings coach. It was then he began experiencing early symptoms of ALS. Despite the difficulties, Thomas did help coach the team’s defensive backs in training camp, but the symptoms finally became too much for him and he was diagnosed in September of that year with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.
Mark Bartelstein, Thomas’ former agent, said in a statement:
“This was a devastating way for it to happen. But it was inevitable…To watch what he went through since he came down with this disease, never showing an ounce of self-pity. He never wanted to talk about his plight…He loved being a Viking. He was such a big part of that run they had.”
Adding that in interviews even after being stricken with the disease, Thomas always found the blessings in life.
The Vikings remembered Thomas in a statement Monday:
“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.”
In a 2007 story in the Star Tribune, his wife Demetra talked about the struggle with the disease:
“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.”
Thomas had had to depend fully on his wife in the last years of his life, even depending on her to communicate for him when the ALS took his ability to speak. The former 225 pound NFL star weighed just 70 pounds when he died.
Twitter blew up with condolences for the family and touching words from fans and friends alike. Kevin Seifert tweeted:
@SeifertESPN 10:47AM 10 Nov 2014
“Did not know Orlando Thomas well, but @markcraignfl story resonates. ‘Every day is a holiday,’ OT would say as he suffered from ALS.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, ALS is a “progressive disease that attacks the nerve cells that control voluntary movement.” The brain continues to function normally while the physical body eventually stops responding to the brain’s commands. The cause of the disease is not known and there is no known cure. Many in the sports industry believe it has something to do with those who play professional football since one in four NFL players are likely to end up with dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other like impairments. According to Forbes, evidence has been found that football players are four times more likely to have the disease than the general population.
ALSa.org explains the disease this way: ALS affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. When the motor neurons from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body die, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost. As motor neurons degenerate, they can no longer send impulses to the muscle fibers that normally result in muscle movement. Early symptoms of the disease include increasing muscle weakness, especially involving the arms and legs, and difficulty with speech, swallowing or breathing.