By Mark Craig, Star Tribune
Last update: June 10, 2007 – 11:39 PM
Orlando Thomas never had a bad day. Oh sure, life would knock him down sometimes. But friends, former teammates and relatives say their beloved "OT" always got back up with a smile and five words that will forever define this 34-year-old former Vikings free safety:
"Every day is a holiday," said former Vikings strong safety Robert Griffith, repeating his friend's favorite mantra and chuckling at a headful of memories from playing next to Thomas from 1995 to 2001.
"He'd say it probably once a day. Sometimes three or four times. Even when he'd be hurt and standing on the sideline, you'd hear him yelling, 'C'mon, Griff. You gotta make that play. Get your name in the paper. Remember, EVERY DAY IS A HOLIDAY!' "
Thomas still says those five words. Only now, they're barely a whisper, mumbled by a bedridden man to his wife, Demetra, in words only a soul mate can decipher. Married Feb. 27, 1998, only two months after their first date and five months after first meeting at Cheese Car Wash in north Minneapolis, Orlando and Demetra have spent the past three years side by side coping with the fact that Orlando, a father of three young children, is dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.
A "progressive neurodegenerative disease that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord resulting in muscle weakness and atrophy," ALS, according to the ALS Association's website (http://www.alsa.org), eventually destroys the motor neurons necessary for voluntary movements. Patients might become totally paralyzed and experience trouble even swallowing and breathing.
Only 30,000 Americans will have the incurable disease at one time. But that's in part because the average life expectancy following diagnosis is two to five years, according to Dr. Lucie Bruijn, science director and vice president of the ALS Association.
Thomas, whose ALS was diagnosed in September 2004, is paralyzed above the waist and has only limited movement in his legs. He can't walk or sit up on his own and is unable to chew or swallow. He's fed through a tube and needs his throat cleared regularly by suctioning. He also lost his speech recently, although Demetra said his overall physical decline has slowed the past month or so to a point where she considers him "stable."
Like most people with ALS, Thomas' mind remains as sharp as it ever was. Yet somehow, even though he understands his condition is terminal, Thomas still doesn't believe in bad days.
"I used to think that Orlando was just real carefree," Demetra said. "But I'm learning so much from him now. He can't walk into a room and bring on the excitement or bring out his favorite quote -- 'Every day is a holiday!' -- like he used to. But he's showing that, regardless of what's going on in your life, if you live from the heart and you have love, joy and peace, there's nothing greater than living from that place within."
Thomas was unable to be interviewed for this story. But, through Demetra, he was able to say, "Tell all the Vikings fans that I said 'Thank you,'" and, "Tell them Minnesota had a good draft this year ... definitely!"
Thomas still follows the Vikings closely. Still watches sports. Still wants to know how former teammates and coaches are doing.
"He's still OT," former Vikings coach Dennis Green said. "He still has his opinions on everything. Still wants to know how you're doing as opposed to how he's doing. He's an amazing man. And Demetra is an amazing woman."
'Something is wrong'
Thomas stood 6-1 and weighed 225 pounds during his playing career. A second-round draft pick out of Southwestern Louisiana (now Louisiana-Lafayette) in 1995, he led the NFL in interceptions (nine) as a rookie. He started 87 of 98 games for the Vikings, intercepting 22 passes along the way, before retiring following the 2001 season.
Thomas was big and strong by NFL safety standards. He also was tough, often playing through nagging injuries. He suffered common ailments, such as cranky hamstrings, and uncommon trauma, such as breaking both shoulder blades toward the end of his career.
Three years after he retired, with a future in coaching ahead of him, Thomas' shoulders began sending him signals of what was to follow.
"It was in January 2004 that he began to complain of muscle twitching and shoulder weakness," Demetra said. "Something was wrong."
Thomas went to see a doctor a few months later, about the same time that Green invited Thomas to join his new Arizona Cardinals coaching staff as an intern.
"He did a great job working with our defensive backs," Green said. "His spirit, his intelligence, his knowledge of football came through. He loved coaching.
"One of the reasons he always said 'Every day is a holiday' is because he grew up in a tough area down in [Crowley,] Louisiana. He didn't go to LSU or Ole Miss. He went to a small school and had to battle for everything he ever got. I have no doubt he would have been a great coach."
Thomas' internship with the Cardinals lasted through training camp. That fall, he returned to Louisiana and worked as an assistant coach at Comeaux High School. His muscles still twitched. His shoulders grew weaker.
"He had gone to a few doctors," Demetra said. "Finally, in September, they were able to diagnose it."
Not wanting to upset his mother, Thomas didn't tell her until Thanksgiving. Thomas' father died at a young age, and he simply couldn't stand adding to his mother's pain.
Thomas' physical decline was slow at first. He coached the 2004 season at Comeaux and was scheduled to return to the Cardinals' coaching staff in 2005.
"With Orlando, you didn't know how his health was because he never complained and was always so upbeat," Green said. "But about May or June that year, he called and said his strength would not allow him to coach that year. He just couldn't do it."
Thomas' upper body strength was the first to go. His speech was the most recent decline. He still has some movement in his legs, but he is unable to get out of bed and needs someone to clear his throat regularly. Demetra, a nurse, and her sister, Dinelle Boyd, provide around-the-clock care in the family's home in Youngsville, La. The good news is Thomas' weight is up to about 160 or 170 pounds, about 40 more than it was before a feeding tube was inserted.
The 'Super Rooks' arrive in '95
On Day 1 of the 1995 NFL draft, the Vikings selected Ohio State offensive tackle Korey Stringer in the first round (24th overall) and Thomas (42nd) and Florida State cornerback Corey Fuller (55th) in the second round.
The three of them became friends immediately. Thomas and Fuller could be heard long before they were seen. Thomas and Stringer were roommates at training camp in Mankato and on road games. Stringer died Aug. 1, 2001, after collapsing because of heatstroke on the field in Mankato the day before.
"We called Korey and Orlando the 'Super Rooks' because they came right in and made an impact from Day 1," said Griffith, who was signed by the Vikings as an undrafted rookie the year before.
Griffith paused. At 36, he outlived Stringer and is two years older than Thomas. Yet Griffith intends to sign with a team this summer and suit up for a 14th and final NFL season.
"It's so sad," he said. "It's sad because it seems like it's always people like Korey and Orlando who go through things like this. They were the same exact type of guy. Everyone loved them."
Griffith remembers Thomas always talking about the latest movie, the newest hit song, the joke he had just heard. He interacted with offensive linemen as easily as defensive backs. He moved around the locker room, laughing, talking, making friendly wagers, setting up the next Boo Ray card game at Cris Carter's house or organizing a night out at the movies.
"You'd show up at the theater looking for OT, thinking it was just the two of you," Griffith said. "And then you'd see 30 teammates there looking for him, too."
It's hard for some teammates to see their beloved OT in his current physical condition. They're mostly afraid of weeping in front of him. Former Vikings receiver Jake Reed isn't one of them. He visits his friend regularly, and just spent five hours with him on May 27. They smiled a lot. Laughed. And really cracked up when Reed reminded Thomas "how much money we used to take off poor [teammate] Chuck Evans, who wasn't exactly the best card player in the world."OT asked a lot about Cris Carter, and I talked to Cris afterward and we're going to go see OT [this] month," Reed said. "Cris hasn't seen him in a while. It's tougher on some guys. It kind of overwhelms them. They hear that OT is sick, but they don't have experience with how terrible Lou Gehrig's Disease is. They're thinking, 'This is big, strong OT. He's young. He can't be that sick.' But this disease doesn't care who you are, how much money you made or how famous you are."
'She's Orlando's Angel'
Demetra said that through it all, Orlando has never asked, "Why me?" In fact, she said the entire family "feels blessed." The couple has a 13-year-old daughter, Philamisha Davis, who is Demetra's from a previous relationship; a 10-year-old daughter, Alexis Thomas, who is Orlando's from a previous relationship; and their 6-year-old son, Orlando Jr.
"With the love that exists in our family, the kids don't see Orlando like other people see him now," Demetra said. "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.
"Our son said to me, 'Mom, Dad's going to walk again.' It's not false hope. They are well aware of the disease and the diagnosis. But we have instilled in them that there is a God. They understand faith, so they don't see us as any different than any other family going through life's journey."
It was fate that led Orlando and Demetra to each other. As they waited for their cars to be washed back on Sept. 12, 1997, Orlando, of course, started a conversation with the beautiful young woman sitting across from him. Demetra didn't know he was a Vikings player. But she knew he had an injury, and she had a job selling natural herbs, so maybe -- even back then -- she could help him.
"Our cars were done," Demetra said, "but we sat there for another three hours talking."
Demetra refused to go out with Orlando a couple of times, telling him she had just ended a bad relationship. But Orlando was persistent. By their third conversation, he told Demetra that she was the woman he would marry. She agreed to go out with him.
"A couple months later, he tells me, 'I'm getting married,'" Reed said. "And I'm like, 'What? Already?' But, you know, she's Orlando's angel. I left their house [May 27] and I turned to my wife and said, 'Baby, if I ever get sick, that's how I want you to take care of me.' That's some serious love."
Time in front of the TV
Thomas sleeps until 10 each morning. Demetra said there's a split second every morning when Orlando opens his eyes that he forgets he has ALS. But he adjusts quickly because he has a list of television programs he wants to watch.
"Dallas" starts at 10. Court TV is from noon until 2 p.m. "Dr. Phil" is followed by Oprah, then over to ESPN, back to the local news and on to "Wheel of Fortune." Then, depending on the day or season, it's "American Idol,"America's Next Top Model," or another popular prime-time show.
Reed said although it's tough initially to see Orlando in such a weakened state, he said the old "OT spirit" still shines through.
"I live in Dallas and my wife's from Louisiana, and we drive right past Orlando's exit when we go back and forth visiting," Reed said. "It gets tougher and tougher each time to see him, but I care about him so much, I can't help but stop and show my love for him. We decided the next time, my wife and I are staying overnight so all of us can sit up and tell stories about Minnesota and laugh all night."
Demetra has seen the look of shock on many a visitor's face as they have arrived over the past several months. But, so far, she also sees a completely different look when they leave.
"If you were to come to our house, you would see God's presence," Demetra said. "Whether you live in a cardboard box or on top of a hill, it doesn't matter as long as you have that in your home. People who come and spend time with Orlando leave with something from him they didn't expect."
Perhaps it's a sense that in their own lives, every day really is a holiday.
OT was one of my favorite Vikes players, it's sad to see him with such an illness, especially considering his incredible character. Nice to see he is in good spirits. I'm hoping for a miracle here, but it seems he is in real rough shape. Hopefully they do a follow up to this.