Former Minnesota Vikings safety Orlando Thomas, who earned an All-Pro selection as a rookie in 1995, died Sunday after a long battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. His agent, Mark Bartelstein, confirmed the news to ESPN's Adam Schefter.
He was 42.
"Nobody's ever fought a battle like Orlando fought, with so much dignity—I never saw anything like it," Bartelstein told Schefter. "It's just incredible. He never had a sense of self pity, never felt sorry for himself, he was always worried about everyone else. He was just the most incredible person I've ever been around."
The Vikings also released a statement on the team website:
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.
A second-round pick out of Louisiana-Lafayette (then called Southwestern Louisiana), Thomas emerged as a star during his rookie season. He led the NFL with nine interceptions and made 41 solo tackles despite starting only 11 games, earning an All-Pro berth as one of the few positives on a shaky Minnesota defense.
Over the next half-decade, he became a fixture in the back of the Vikings secondary, though his career peaked early. After intercepting 14 passes in his first two NFL seasons, Thomas picked off eight over his last five.
He retired following the 2001 campaign while still only 29 years old. In 98 career games (82 starts), Thomas had 22 interceptions and 350 solo tackles. He is one of seven people in Louisiana-Lafayette history to have their number retired.
Three years after his retirement, he was diagnosed with a disease that would abruptly change his life. He spent the last decade battling ALS, a debilitating degenerative disease that slowly takes away motor and communication functions. By this past August, when Tim Buckley of The Advertiser profiled Thomas, he was unable to communicate without the help of his wife, Demetra, and was being kept alive by a ventilator.
"There can't be a more-maddening disease than this," Bartelstein told Buckley. "Because your mind moves perfectly, and everything else just slowly, slowly comes to a stop."
Bartelstein told Schefter that at the time of his passing, Thomas weighed nearly 70 pounds less than his 225-pound playing weight. Louisiana-Lafayette has created the Orlando Thomas Courage Award, which is awarded to "the person who embodies the spirit of a Ragin' Cajun" and is a "beacon of intestinal fortitude," per Buckley's conversation with football operations director Troy Wingerter.
Thomas is survived by his wife and their two children.
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