Solomon Thomas wanted to die. Now, he wants to live. (And help you)
Our look at mental health in the NFL continues with this 2017 third overall pick. Thomas is a free agent this spring and "hungry" as ever to restart his career. But, first, he had to reset his life.
There’s no sugarcoating his state of mind: Solomon Thomas wanted to leave this earth.
Honestly, it’s as simple as that.
Six weeks into the 2018 season, Thomas reached his point of no return. Why? Day-in and day-out, he felt… nothing. Absolutely nothing. No joy. No purpose. Only sadness in a state of depression that cut deeper and deeper and, well, it’s understandable. Earlier that year, Thomas’ sister committed suicide .
Now, the hulking San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle was coasting through life in the physical sense only. Mentally, he was gone.
Suicidal thoughts began to creep in and one person could tell something was wrong: his boss. Inside the team cafeteria, general manager John Lynch approached Thomas and convinced him to get help, to see a therapist, ASAP.
“That was one of the darkest moments in my grieving process,” says Thomas, looking back. “That really changed my life. Understanding it’s OK to get help. I was afraid to get help. I thought I had it all together. I thought I had to be strong for everyone. That truly changed my life. It saved my life.
“I was not going to be able to keep living the way I was living.”
Now? You’d be hard-pressed to find another professional football player who loves life more than Thomas.
We’ve been taking a look at mental health in the NFL at Go Long this week, in light of all of the horrifying unknowns surrounding the death of Vincent Jackson. Because, frankly, this is a topic that still is not discussed nearly as much as it should be in pro football. What if Lynch doesn’t approach Thomas? What if he never seeks help? He could be dead. And, sadly, he is not alone in wrestling with such thoughts. More players cope with depression than fans would ever imagine. So, Thomas should be heard. Thomas should be propped up as a beacon of inspiration. His climb from the abyss can absolutely be used as a roadmap for NFL players — hell, any human being period — struggling.
On the surface, this 6-foot-3, 280-pound defensive tackle is the free agent you stopped caring about a long time ago. He’s a trivia answer, a dude from Stanford the Niners inexplicably chose third overall in 2017 ahead of Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. On the surface, he’s a disappointment who has only produced 73 solo tackles and six sacks in 48 career games and — for good measure — also happened to tear his ACL in Week 2 of last season.
But viewing this 25-year-old through such a lens is lazy, simplistic, dead wrong. He’s so much more.
Thomas, right now, is in a fantastic mental space.
Thomas is a new man.
“I feel I am more motivated than I’ve ever been,” he says. “I really feel like I haven’t even started yet. I feel like I’ve been figuring out who I am and what kind of player I am. I’ve had some down years. I’ve had some weird years. I’m just trying to figure it all out. I’m more confident than ever. I know I’m going to be a great player. I know I’m going to have a great career.
“I’m excited to show everyone what I can do. And it’s going to happen. I’m just hungry. Every day I wake up hungry to work. Hungry to do what I can do.”
Because Thomas’ growth as a human being cannot be neatly quantified on a career stat line. His confidence is soaring. He doesn’t look back at anything in his past — personal tragedy, lack of production, injuries — and get upset. It’s all made him the pro he is now, someone with an extremely positive outlook.
Be it life. Be it football.
Solomon Thomas has a lot to give.
“My career has not gone how I’ve wanted it to go at all,” he says. “Anyone can see that. But I wouldn’t change it for the world because it’s made me dig deep and made me learn. It’s made me question things and made me work harder.
“I feel great. I’m excited. I’m just hungry.”
First, he lost his sister. Ella took her life on Jan. 23, 2018 and all Solomon felt was pure rage. He wasn’t just Ella’s brother. He was Ella’s best friend. Shouldn’t he have done… something? Known… something? Seen a sign? They talked about everything, from sports to politics to boys to girls to, yes, her battle with depression. He always knew what she was going through and Ella, he believed, was in a good place the day before.
On Jan. 22, Solomon even helped her land an internship in Dallas and he knew it was her goal in life to help others cope with depression.
She sounded perfectly fine then. She even asked her brother if they could grab lunch the next day.
Hours later, she was gone. Forever. He’s certain this was an “impulse” decision.
Next, Solomon Thomas started to lose himself. And as Thomas’ depression worsened — as he deteriorated inside — the defensive tackle told no one. Not his parents. Not his closest friends. Certainly not his teammates. Rather, the internal storm built… and built… and, by August, anger gave way to a cold sadness. He did not merely lose his passion for football. He lost his passion for life.
“I was living with a lot of guilt,” Thomas says. “I was living with a lot of sadness. I wasn’t working through it. I was just living a mundane life. I was working hard and doing everything I normally do but there was no passion to it, there was no life to it. It was killing me inside. I really needed to get help. I didn’t really want to be here anymore. I didn’t feel alive. I didn’t want to be alive.”
It’s hard for this Solomon to even recognize that Solomon, but the pain inside of him then was that real. That dangerous. He first revealed this numbing reality when we met two years ago.
Ella’s suicidal thoughts became his thoughts.
Until Lynch stepped in and he got help.
“Sometimes, it’s hard for me to believe I got to that point. A point I never thought I would get to. But that’s what happens when you suppress emotions and you bottle up emotions and you don’t talk and don’t believe there’s help out there. People go through this every day. They continue to suppress and they continue to push down emotions — it bottles up. And it makes it so much worse. You just get tired of living with the pain and get tired of living so sad.
“But it doesn’t have to be like that. There’s help out there. There are ways you can turn it around. I promise to everyone out there who’s reading this: There’s ways to work through it. There’s help. There’s love. You’re here for a reason. Earth is better with you.”
That’s what Thomas started to realize as that ’18 season trudged on. Thomas started seeing a therapist daily. One coping mechanism that worked out of the chute? Walking into an empty room and crying or screaming at the top of his lungs. He could feel all that rage and all that sadness physically leave his body.
Gradually, he healed. Gradually, the guilt subsided.
He inched out of that darkness.
And he explains how for anyone out there in their own darkness.
The battle never really ends. Solomon Thomas doesn’t want anyone to think he is in the clear forever. You cannot view this as a “race” with a finish line, with some ribbon waiting for you at the end.
Mental health is a marathon that’s ongoing.
“For me to say my mental health is perfect, that would be a lie,” Thomas says. “Part of mental health is knowing you’re going to have ups and downs. Just because you work on your anxiety, your depression, your sadness, your anger does not mean it’s going to go away. It’s going to come back but working on your mental health gets you to a point where you know how to work through those things. You know how to cope with your anger. You know how to cope with your sadness. You understand it’s OK to feel these feelings. You don’t get mad at yourself. You understand it’s OK.”
Because Thomas still has “angry days” and “sad days.”
It’s human. It’s normal. It’s life. Only, now, Thomas has a gameplan for coping with those emotions. And this, specifically, was his problem when Ella died, when his emotions were all over the damn place. He refused to own them. No. 1, he says, you absolutely must own and acknowledge your pain. Ignoring the sadness only metastasizes the sadness.
So, nothing is perfect. Thomas still struggles. Thomas expects to grieve forever and, honestly, that’s OK. That’s welcomed. He is in a far better place simply owning all of his emotions while trying to “honor” and “live for” Ella every single day. And he does this by living the way she lived — by loving everyone he can as much as he can.
Thomas says his sister “had the biggest heart.” She was kind to people who didn’t even know her.
So, that’s how he’ll live. He wants to nurture and cherish the relationships in his life.
“My sister was so vulnerable,” Thomas says. “She connected with everyone. She impacted everyone. She was so special. I try to be present. I try to ask people, ‘How are you doing?’ and mean it. I try to be vulnerable with them. I try to live the way she lived and the way she taught me. Her heart. Her vulnerability. How real she was and how she made people feel special. She was always a giver and a giver and a giver. It’s honoring her legacy and telling her story to people — making sure people know who Ella is.
“And just missing her. Missing her is part of keeping her alive. I’m always going to wish she was here. I’m always going to wish I was holding her and could talk to her.”
This all was the foundation for his turnaround. Thomas talked himself through it all with his therapist. First, daily. Then, weekly. He realized the guilt did not need to bury him. He could live for her. And, by God, did that give Solomon so much joy. No longer was he consumed by dread the moment he woke up in the morning. He was that ball of energy from Coppell, Texas once again. He knows his turnaround can be your turnaround, too. Thomas says it’s imperative to spend at least 5 to 10 minutes every day working on their mental health.
Consciously setting aside any time at all can totally “reset” your day.
The brain is a muscle and, like any muscle, it can atrophy when neglected.
That’s the root of the problem when it comes to mental health… it sneaks up on people.
“You have to brush your teeth every day or your breath is going to smell, your teeth are going to get yellow and crusty,” says Thomas. “The same with your brain. If you don’t work on your mental health every day, your brain’s going to get crusty. It’s the same thing as football when I run through hoops to work on bending. And D-Line stuff. If I don’t do it, it’s not going to get better. You have to practice that stuff. It might not always be good and you might do a bad job in that drill but you’re still working at it. That’s the point — you always want to be making progress and finding ways to keep getting better.”
Unlike bad teeth or a sore back or a scar across your face, a damaged brain is not necessarily going to be a glaring problem. It’s not outwardly visible.
Loved ones may not be able to detect anything is wrong at all.
“If you let it decay, decay, decay, it’s going to get worse. Your brain will get foggy, get slow. If you don’t work it out, it’s harder to get back to the point you need to be. I know people get intimidated when we say, ‘Work on your mental health,’ because it’s like, where do you start? We’re not taught how to work on our brains. But what I’ve learned is that working on your mental health can be as simple as drinking enough water or getting enough sleep.
“It’s giving yourself 5 to 10 minutes just to reflect on the day.”
Shutting your phone off and going outside helps, but that same phone has tools you can use, too. Thomas points to apps like “Calm” and “Headspace” and “Talkspace.” He uses Headspace — a guided meditation app — himself three to four times per week. The sweet sounds put him in a state of Zen that’s often so deep and so calming he’ll doze off in the middle of the day. As Thomas notes, the app is loaded with specific meditation techniques for specific issues. Anxiety. Depression. Anger. There’s 50-some categories in all.
Thomas loved the app so much that he bought five-year memberships for everyone on the Stanford football team.
He points to journaling. Much like screaming in that room, writing any ‘n all thoughts onto a sheet of paper can release bad thoughts for good. Unburden you. Thomas, a self-described “overthinker,” does this all of the time. (“It helps my brain clear out,” he says.) And he points to something as simple as exercise. Mental health and physical health are far more connected than anyone realizes. Lifting weights is obviously a perfect way to release all aggression. Many days, Thomas’ girlfriend will see he’s in a bad mood and tell him to work out. But Thomas has also learned that specific foods can also make you feel sad, tired or lethargic so he drastically changed up his nutrition.
And, here he is today, thrilled to live.
Into 2019, Thomas became a key rotational player on the 49ers’ vaunted defensive line and, into 2020, truly expected to have a breakout year. Thomas remembers bursting through the line to make big play after big play throughout training camp.
This contract year was going to be his year.
Then, he tore his ACL that second game of the season.
He’s ready for whatever comes next.
He’s a forgotten man at this point. Somewhere along Patrick Mahomes’ 50-touchdown explosion a few years back, Solomon Thomas was dismissed as a bust nationally. Chances are, you won’t hear his name brought up at all when the talking heads break down which free agents could impact which teams. To millions, Thomas is plainly one of nine players drafted ahead of the best player of this generation.
Nothing more, nothing less.
Tell Thomas this and his reaction perfectly reflects his transformation.
“You can’t predict someone’s going to be the best player, a once-in-a-lifetime player,” Thomas says. “That stuff doesn’t bother me. I’m over it. I am who I am. I really don’t pay mind to people who talk like that or people who come at me like that at all, to be honest. That has no weight on my life.”
He means this, too. Thomas could not care less about the burden of expectations.
No question, Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan completely botched their first draft together. Shanahan may be an X' ‘n O genius but his failure to identify Mahomes and/or Watson as future stars may also haunt him the rest of his career. Same for Lynch who, for good measure, made sure the Niners also drafted linebacker Reuben Foster 31st overall that year. (Gulp.) The 49ers win the Super Bowl with Mahomes or Watson. Period. No, Thomas isn’t letting this cold-hard fact affect his psyche one bit.
Of course, this was not the case for someone else, for someone else written off as a bust: Ryan Leaf.
As the former San Diego Chargers quarterback explained to Go Long, that raw feeling of letting other people down led to anger… which led depression… which led to addiction… which led to a suicide attempt. Leaf still has the scar on his wrist to prove it. It took going to prison for 32 months for this former second overall pick to start getting his life back together. And here is Thomas who has appeared to turn this same corner in life smack dab in the middle of his NFL career.
He’ll be able to sign with any team when free agency begins March 17 and, on the field, Thomas promises total destruction.
He sees 2021 as a new beginning.
“I’m going to wreak havoc,” Thomas says. “I’m going to be in the backfield. I’m going to be disruptive and technically sound and a relentless player who’s going to be 20 yards down the field chasing down a screen or going sideline to sideline. I’m going to make myself heard in every type of way possible.”
He has loved his time with the Niners and, of course, is forever grateful for Lynch. But Thomas also isn’t sure how interested they are in re-signing him.
Possibly, a fresh start elsewhere is best.
Says Thomas: “I keep using the word, ‘hungry.’ But there’s no better way to describe it. I’m just ready.”
He had every reason to be depressed back in September, right? After surgery on his shoulder and ankle in February/March of 2020, Thomas worked. And worked. And had that strong training camp, only to miss all of a contract year. It’s no hyperbole to say that the torn ACL — the result of an awkward collision in which Thomas’ leg was enveloped underneath Jets tackle George Fant — likely cost Thomas millions of dollars. That season was Thomas’ chance to assert himself as true force on the D-Line. And just like that, he was carted off the field at MetLife Stadium. Back to surgery. Back to rehabbing. Back to waiting for his time to shine. In those crutches, Thomas admits there were some dark days rehabbing. He was “super sad and upset and just tired of being in pain.”
But by then, of course, he was prepared for all such emotions.
Thomas is now well ahead of schedule. He’ll start running next week.
Most of all, he’s ecstatic for life itself.
Thomas believes the league is doing more to raise mental health awareness, citing the fact that two years ago the NFL mandated all teams have an on-site therapist or psychologist. He also took part in a roundtable discussion a couple weeks ago with the NFLPA to talk all about this all. Still, it’s football. It’s the most violent team sport on the planet. And it’s the violence, the masculinity, the fact this game is driven by the toughest badasses on the planet that many of us love most about the sport. (Guilty as charged.) With that, comes a resistance to talk about feelings and emotions in general.
That’s where Thomas — a musclebound, crusher of quarterbacks — makes for a perfect ambassador.
He’ll rip your face off. He’ll set a physical tone. But he’ll also be emotionally sensitive to anything you’re going through as a teammate.
“Tough men understand it’s OK to not be OK,” Thomas says. “Tough men understand it’s OK to work through your mental health and get help. We need to change the culture ourselves. We need to stop living this toxic, masculinity viewpoint that our parents lived in. We need to change that and make it normal to talk about our emotions and normalize mental health in a world of strong, tough men who play a violent sport.”
That won’t be easy in a sport that’s forever been a war of attrition, but Thomas felt compelled to speak publicly about his experiences after hearing NBA stars Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan do the same. He also notes that, in the NFL, linebacker Darius “The Maniac” Leonard recently spoke out. Over time, Thomas believes more pro athletes being so honest and admitting that they “don’t have it all together” will normalize mental health.
And, yes, Thomas agrees wholeheartedly with Leaf: The NFL has to do more to help former players, too.
Once players lose their identity, depression can set in. Leaf emphatically stated in our chat that current players simply do not care what former players are going through but, again, that’s where Thomas is rare. Because he does care. He does sympathize. He knows this sport is a “lifestyle” for players from middle school to high school to college to the pros.
Lose this? Get ejected into a whole new world at age 30? That absolutely leads to problems.
“For some guys, it’s hard to step out of that identity,” Thomas says. “When it’s done, it’s like ‘Who am I? What am I?’ You have no clue. These guys have no help. The NFL does have to do way more with retired players who aren’t in the league. Because those are the ones who are struggling. We definitely have to do a better job of getting them help, getting them therapy, because there are too many stories like that. There are too many players who are struggling out there. … We’ve been doing this for years on years on years nonstop. What’s next? What are we supposed to do? We don’t have a good transition for that.”
No, Thomas isn’t sure what exactly led to the death of former NFL receiver Vincent Jackson but agrees the details surrounding the case are troubling. Something should be done to prevent more Jacksons. As Leaf said, commissioner Roger Goodell hugs you the day you’re drafted and is nowhere to be seen the day you exit the NFL. There’s no smooth transition program into society, no off ramp.
Thomas is right there with Leaf in wanting to search for real solutions. He sees ex-players hurting.
“The league needs to take care of its players,” Thomas says, “who legit put our life on the line every day for the sport and for the entertainment of the people.”
Maybe the NFL isn’t doing enough. It’s abundantly clear Thomas himself could have the same effect Leaf is right now, fielding phone call after phone call. One conversation with Thomas could save a player’s life out there — he wants everyone to know he’s accessible.
And Thomas knows this, too.
He’s going to keep talking.
Great stuff, Tyler. Love this: "He’ll rip your face off. He’ll set a physical tone. But he’ll also be emotionally sensitive to anything you’re going through as a teammate."
...and Thomas's quote following: "Tough men understand it’s OK to work through your mental health and get help. We need to change the culture ourselves. We need to stop living this toxic, masculinity viewpoint that our parents lived in. We need to change that and make it normal to talk about our emotions and normalize mental health in a world of strong, tough men who play a violent sport."
I can see you searching for the balance between sharing the hardship -- the serious despair, the devastating facts -- and the hopeful side, the solutions, the coping mechanisms. I am part of an org called The Stability Network (thestabilitynetwork.org) that teaches people with lived experience of mental ill-health how to tell their stories strategically, in a way that will show that people living with a mental health condition can thrive. There is a rule they teach called the "80-20" rule -- 80% on the hope and recovery side, only 20% on the despair side. The point is to affirm the positive, and to try to refrain from being triggering.
Personally I find this a useful guideline, but only a guideline. I do believe in the power of the positive, but I also know from my own and others' experience that reading about or hearing someone describe, with raw emotion, the depths of that despair, the feelings that creep in, the challenge ... there is a kind of community in that, too. There is a kind of hope in knowing, holy shit, this feels so bad and I thought no one would possibly be able to understand, but others have felt it too. And -- others have gotten through it. Indeed it does get better.
Overall I think this piece does a good job of finding that balance (I say this without really invoking the 80-20 rule one way or another). One thing I would say, if I can... there is some logic in some feelings: people will feel more depressed or more anxious if circumstances don't go their way. For example, it's completely understandable that players may struggle to find their purpose after they get cut, or suffer a devastating injury. It is understandable because it is logical.
But there's another side to mental ill-health that defies logic. It is that, even when things "seem" like they should be fine -- when players are still in the league, or are fully healthy; or in the case of a regular Joe, when love and family and finances and work are all "good" on paper -- mental ill-health can creep in. Depression or anxiety exist sometimes because of circumstances, sometimes despite them, and sometimes both. That nuance is important in this case when someone tells a player, "You're in the NFL, you make millions of dollars, you're jacked and loved and famous, why should you be unhappy?"
It truly is okay not to be okay, regardless of circumstance. None of us knows what it's like to have lived someone else's experiences with someone else's brain. The best we can do is be kind to one another and give people the benefit of the doubt.
Love reading these stories and grateful you are continuing to pursue this topic. Looking forward to more, and thanks for letting me spew out all my thoughts on these comments and in the community threads.
Highly recommend subscribing to anyone out there!