Former Vikings safety Orlando Thomas led the NFL in interceptions with nine as a rookie in 1995.
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — As ALS began to destroy his body, Orlando Thomas lost his ability to move.
Then he could no longer speak. His wife, Demetra, guided him through every painstaking word.
"She’d have to go through the entire alphabet, and he’d blink his eye. The only muscle that worked was his eyelids, so he would blink at the letter," said Mark Bartelstein, the former agent for the free safety who led the NFL in interceptions as a rookie for the Minnesota Vikings in 1995. "Sentences would take forever."
The effort was worth it for friends and family of the beloved Thomas.
He died Sunday at 42 in his hometown of Crowley, Louisiana, after fighting the fatal amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the neurodegenerative disease commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, for more than 10 years. The death was confirmed Monday by the Vikings, Bartelstein and Glenn Boullion, the director of Geesey-Ferguson Funeral Home in Crowley.
The Vikings issued a statement expressing their sadness and condolences to his family.
"He represented the franchise and the state of Minnesota with the utmost dignity and class," the team said. "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."
Thomas played seven seasons for the Vikings.
"We use great hyperbole or drama, but there’s no way I could even properly describe his courage and his class and his selflessness, just the way he’s handled everything," said Bartelstein, who represented Thomas throughout his career. "All he ever worried about was everybody else. Never self-pity. Never woe is me. It was always, ‘How are you doing? How’s your family? How are your kids?’ He never wanted to talk about what he was going through."
Thomas went through a lot. The average survival time, according to the ALS Association, is three to five years. He more than doubled that.
"He was so tough, and that’s what allowed him to fight this thing for so long," Bartelstein said.
A hard-hitting overachiever who played for the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns, then known as Southwestern Louisiana, Thomas was drafted in the second round by the Vikings. He picked off nine passes that year in 1995 and finished with 22 for his career. He scored four touchdowns on returns and was a key player on two Vikings teams that reached the NFC championship game, after the 1998 and 2000 seasons.
But that punishing playing style produced a number of injuries, keeping him out of a total of 13 games over his last three years in the league. It also likely paved the way for the onset of ALS.
"I don’t have any doubt that there’s a correlation to it," Bartelstein said. "But at the same time I also know that he loved the game so much, and he got so much from it. It took everything from him, but it also gave him so much. That’s sort of the tough thing to get your arms around."
Medical research has shown deaths from Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s diseases, when combined, have occurred in NFL players at about three times the predicted rate for the general population.
In a 2010 study by Boston University neurology professor Dr. Ann McKee, toxic proteins were found in the spinal cords of three athletes who sustained head injuries in competition and were later diagnosed with ALS.
The disease attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.
As part of a concussions lawsuit settlement between the NFL and former players, those who develop Lou Gehrig’s disease, dementia or other neurological problems believed to be caused by concussions sustained during their careers have been slated for financial relief.