Those who knew Orlando Thomas remember his sheer willpower.
“You knew every week that he was going to be ready to play,” former University of Louisiana at Lafayette teammate Jeff Mitchell said. “And he was going to make sure that you were ready, too.”
“It was just his will, his spirit,” high school coach and lifetime friend and mentor Lewis Cook said. “He was vocal on the field, but he backed it all up. If he had never said a word, he would have still brought out the best in everybody.”
Cook is convinced that Thomas’ inner strength made him reach a milestone three weeks ago when he turned 42 — the number he wore throughout a stellar Cajuns football career and for much of his seven-year All-Pro career with the Minnesota Vikings. He was also the 42nd player picked in the 1995 NFL draft.
“I think he wanted to live to 42,” Cook said Monday, one day after Thomas died from complications brought on by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. “I wondered how does someone not just give up, but I knew he never would.”
Thomas, one of the Cajuns’ all-time top defenders and the NFL leader in interceptions during his rookie season with the Vikings in 1995, died Sunday night after battling the crippling disease for more than a decade.
Most friends and acquaintances didn’t think he would live that long, especially after his disease became public in 2007. Ronald “Big Cheese” Gunner, who played with Thomas at UL-Lafayette from 1992-94, was part of the coaching staff at Comeaux High with Thomas in 2003. He remembered the pounding Thomas gave to opposing ball carriers, both in college and in the professional ranks.
“He was just absolutely reckless out there on the field,” Gunner said. “This guy would just fly in there and lay his body into you.”
It was while on the Comeaux staff that Thomas began noticing the effects of the then-undiagnosed disease. Not long after, he had to turn down a planned coaching internship with the Arizona Cardinals, who were then headed up by Dennis Green, Thomas’ coach while with the Vikings.
It wasn’t long after that Thomas was bedridden, and he eventually lost his ability to speak and could communicate only through wife, Demetra. A strapping 6-foot-2, 225-pound safety during his NFL career, Thomas’ body was wracked by ALS and was a shadow of his former self for the past several years.
“Nobody’s ever fought a battle like Orlando fought, with so much dignity,” long-time agent and friend Mark Bartelstein said. “I never saw anything like it. 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 issued a statement Monday expressing deep sadness at Thomas’ death.
“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,” the statement read. “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.”
Thomas is also permanently a Cajun, with his name emblazoned on the east side of Cajun Field as one of only seven players to have his jersey retired.
UL-Lafayette began awarding the Orlando Thomas Courage Award earlier this year during spring game activities. Football operations director Troy Wingerter, who also played with Thomas, said the award goes to “the person who embodies the spirit of a Ragin’ Cajun and who is a beacon of intestinal fortitude.” Thomas was the first winner, the award presented by another former teammate, ex-Cajuns, Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints quarterback Jake Delhomme.
Cook, who accepted the award on behalf of Thomas, coached the Crowley native four years in high school and again for three years after joining the UL-Lafayette staff.
“Everyone always asked me if I knew what kind of player he was going to become,” Cook said. “He came as a freshman at age 13, and he weighed 98 pounds in the ninth grade. He’s the last guy you would have picked out. He walked in my office after his sophomore year, he was maybe 120 pounds by then and said he was going to play college ball. But he knew what he wanted, and he did everything he could to get there.”
Thomas was a second-team UPI and third-team AP All-America — the first major-college All-American in school history — as a junior in 1993, when he led the nation in interceptions (nine). That year, the Cajuns finished 9-3, after going 2-9 the previous year, and won the first of two straight Big West Conference titles.
“It was just uncanny what kind of leader he was,” Gunner said. “He didn’t care who was watching or how corny something sounded. He was just a leader. He was loud, and it sounded like he was bragging, but he was just proud. He knew he could win ... I’m going to miss that about him.”
Funeral arrangements are pending.
“Everybody’s at a loss today,” said Mitchell, now a Louisiana State Police trooper and on the detail with the Cajuns squad for both home games and on the road. “You wanted to see him ... but having seen him with all the life in him and to then see him bedridden, I don’t know if I could have handled it.”
“I’ve talked to so many people today, so many that we played with, trying to come to grips with this,” Gunner said. “When I did that ALS ice bucket challenge, that cringe you get when you get that water dumped on you, they told me that’s how Orlando felt all day long. It’s sad that we lost him, but at least now the suffering is over.”