LAFAYETTE — A helmet decal was not enough for the Louisiana-Lafayette football program to adequately honor the memory of former star safety Orlando Thomas, who died Sunday after a lengthy battle with ALS.
That’s why for one game, this Saturday against ULM, Thomas’ retired No. 42 uniform will make one final appearance.
“We just felt that wasn’t enough to honor one of the greatest players here, someone that’s battled what he’s battled and meant what he’s meant,” Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth said. “We are breaking out of retirement, for one game, No. 42.”
Wearing that uniform will be senior safety Sean Thomas, who was surprised by Hudspeth in front of his teammates with the news after Wednesday’s practice.
Sean Thomas’ connections go beyond sharing a last name and a position with the late Orlando Thomas — his father, Quentin Thomas, coached Orlando during his freshman season.
“It’s an honor, and I hope to wear it well,” Sean Thomas said.
Quentin Thomas, who graduated from then-USL in 1986, was a graduate assistant coach working with defensive backs during Orlando’s freshman season. Orlando’s death brought old memories floating back.
“When I sit back and I think about this whole week about Orlando, it’s been a lot of reflections based on when he first got started at USL,” Quentin Thomas said. “I had an opportunity to work with him and watch him develop.
“I told him back then, ‘Just keep working hard. You’re going to be someone special playing this game, because you’ve got it in you to really do great.’ ”
Quentin’s had conversations with his son in the past about the type of person and player Orlando was. He’ll make sure to rekindle those conversations leading up to Saturday.
“For you to be out there wearing that number on Saturday, believe me, Orlando is going to be with you in a special way,” Quentin Thomas said.
The idea to bust Orlando’s uniform out of retirement for one game can be credited to Lynn Williams, who runs the team’s equipment staff. Like plenty of great ideas, it hit Williams when he was in the shower Wednesday morning.
“I’m in the shower and I’m saying, ‘Man, what can we do with this No. 42 jersey?’ ” Williams said.
Before Williams approached Hudspeth about his idea, he called Orlando’s widow, Demetra Thomas, to make sure the Cajuns had the family’s blessing. Getting through, at first, was difficult because of the outpouring of support the family has received.
“If you call her number, there’s a voicemail where she’s thanking everybody for the condolences,” Williams said. “The phone line has been extremely busy.”
Once he got the green light from Demetra, he called Hudspeth, and Hudspeth loved the idea.
Forty-two was significant to Orlando Thomas. It was with him his entire career and served as a sort of milestone for him during his fight with ALS.
“The whole deal with the 42 is that he played in 42 when he was here, he was the 42nd draft pick in the NFL draft, he played for the Vikings in No. 42, he just turned 42 this past month,” Williams said. “It was like all the stars were lined up. Why not?”
Sean Thomas said he’s not going to try to do too much on the field Saturday because of what and who he is representing.
“I don’t really see it as an extra weight,” Sean Thomas said. “Just keep doing your job and just give it all. Play for your teammates and play for him as well and his family. That’s how I see it.”
But that doesn’t mean others won’t take a second to think about all that’s transpired recently after seeing the No. 42 uniform with “Thomas” stitched above it making plays on the field.
“It’ll be No. 42 with ‘Thomas’ on the back,” Hudspeth said. “So obviously Orlando’s spirit will be out there on the field with our team.”