It was January 2018 when Solomon Thomas’ life changed forever.
Thomas finished his rookie season with the 49ers, who selected him 3rd overall in the 2017 draft. The 6-foot-3, 280-pound defensive end got his feet wet in the league with three sacks, 11 quarterback hits and 10 tackles for loss as a rookie.
It seems that everything happened in his life.
After the season, Thomas visited his parents’ home in Dallas and they made plans to meet his sister Ella for lunch.
It was the lunch that never happened.
Thomas’ older sister, Ella, 24, the light of his life and his best friend, took his life the next morning.
“My mom and I talked to him last night,” Thomas recalled by phone Tuesday. “We all planned to have lunch tomorrow and that lunch never happened. Ella committed suicide that morning. We planned to go to lunch and talk about his work and what’s next for him, told him we love him and went to bed thinking about tomorrow.
Tomorrow took on a much different meaning for Thomas, the Jets’ defensive end.
After taking some time to grieve Ella’s loss, Thomas has made it his life’s mission to raise awareness about mental health and end the stigma of suicide, which no one wants to touch.
Thomas has used his platform as a professional athlete to end the youth suicide epidemic and start the Defense Line Fund, which empowers people to talk about it. Thomas founded with his parents and cousin.
For his unwavering dedication off the football field, Thomas was selected by the Jets for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award – the league’s most prestigious off-field honor.
The award recognizes an NFL player for outstanding community service off the field as well as excellence on the field. Each of the league’s 32 nominees was announced Tuesday. The winner will be announced during Super Bowl week.
“Oh man, it’s such a happy and rewarding feeling,” Thomas said of being recognized as the Jets’ draft pick. “The honor of being named by my peers and colleagues means the world. They see the hard work I put in, they see how much I care about the community, how much I want to give back and what impact I want to make.
“I think it’s the highest honor outside of any game award in the NFL. I have a lot of respect for it.”
Giving back was part of Thomas’ DNA.
“My parents always instilled that in my sister and me,” she said. “Every Christmas growing up in Dallas, we would always wake up at 5 a.m. and feed the homeless at the Austin Street Shelter. That’s what my parents always wanted us to do.”
Thomas said her sister’s suicide “greatly fueled” her desire to give back and focus on mental health.
“Since Ella’s death, I’ve come to realize the huge epidemic of mental health and suicide in the U.S., how big a problem we have,” he said. “My family has done the best we can in many areas, and we believe we did the best we could for Ella. When you learn more about mental health, you always think, ‘Maybe I should have done this. or should have done it’, but so is dealing with suicide because you have all the ifs and ifs and buts.”’
This line of defense is all about helping people with the ifs and buts and letting people know that it’s okay not to be okay.
Thomas was not well after Ella’s suicide and said: “My deepest depression came after I lost Ella, but I’ve struggled with anxiety all my life.”
He recalled Robert Saleh, his current head coach with the Jets and then his defensive coordinator with the 49ers, reaching out to him as soon as news of Ella’s death became public.
“I was depressed and kept it all inside and after Ella passed, Coach Saleh reached out to me and told me if I needed anything, he was here for me,” Thomas said.
Thomas also credited 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch for being a big influence in helping him get through it.
“Coach Shanahan made a generous donation to AFSP in Ella’s honor [American Foundation for Suicide Prevention]”, Thomas said. “John Lynch did the same thing, and he encouraged me to seek help from therapy, which became a big part of my life and saved me.”