SANTA CLARA -- Second-year 49ers defensive lineman Solomon Thomas entered the media workroom on Wednesday at Levi's Stadium and answered questions for more than 15 minutes about his sister and his best friend.
On Saturday, Thomas will take part in Walk Out of Darkness fundraiser in Dallas, near his hometown of Coppell. He is raising money and awareness for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Ella Elizabeth Thomas, 24, took her own life on Jan. 23.
Solomon Thomas spoke openly about the issues – what he saw, what he did not see – that faced his older sister.
How difficult have the last few months been for you?
”Really difficult on me and my family. It’s just hard to even think about it and understand everything that’s happened. But we’ve been blessed by a lot of amazing people around us. The Niners have been so helpful, and like a family organization to us in reaching out and loving, friends and family from around the world. So it’s special to see all that love and support. But it’s definitely been tough, and we’re just trying to grow through it and be there for each other as we go through this hard time.”
What’s the message you want to get out?
“Saturday I’m walking for a lot of things. I’m walking for my sister, and everything she struggled with and everything she went through – the things I didn’t see, the things I did see – all the tragic events that she went through in her life that led her to this point. And I’m walking for all the people who suffer around the world. It’s really easy to fake a smile and put on a face. It’s really easy to tell somebody you’re fine, but it’s really hard to tell someone how you actually feel and all those feelings inside of you. There are so many more people who suffer more than we all know, and I’m walking for them. I’m walking for other people who’ve been affected by this, other people who are going through it.
"Mental health and suicide aren’t things people want to talk about. Mental health, depression, it’s a disease like anything else. And when you talk about other diseases, people talk about them like, ‘We’ll get you through this,’ whatever. But, then, when you talk about mental health or depression or suicide, people scare away because it’s such a serious topic that you don’t know what to say. You don’t know how to handle it. You don’t want to say the wrong thing and push someone over the edge. But it’s such an important topic, such a serious topic, that people need to start talking about it.
“You just got to think about it as everyone is going through something that we don’t know about. And take things differently than other people take them. You can tell someone something that’s positive and they’ll take it as a negative. You got to be sensitive to people, and sensitive to their feelings.
“You want to be empathetic to their feelings for things you don’t understand, because there will be things you don’t understand. But you have to be there for them. Another thought that’s really been hitting me throughout this time is every conversation you have someone, it should be meaningful. When you ask them how they are or what they’re doing or give them a smile or something because that could change someone’s whole life. You never know what they’re going through that day. That one conversation could give them some light or something like, ‘It’s going to be OK.’
“There was one article I read with my parents, Kevin Love’s article, about men and mental health, and I thought that was huge, because, as a man, you’re taught to keep it down in. 'Everything’s going to be OK. Be a man. Be strong. Be tough.' That’s not how we need to live. If something’s wrong, you need to seek help. You can talk to someone about your feelings. You can have feelings because you’re a man. I feel like that’s something that’s not taught right in our society – hold everything in, be strong and it’s going to be OK. It’s OK to cry. It’s OK to not feel good. It’s OK to be sad and upset and understand what’s going on. It’s OK to talk about it with other people. It’s something we all struggle with – men and women. Sometimes it’s being afraid to be vulnerable, and I feel like that’s when you grow a lot and you can really see the truth in people.
“So I’m walking Saturday with all of my family and friends to raise awareness for mental health and suicide prevention and let people know there are other things out there – there’s help out there and there are people who love them.”
Did you ever have talks with her about anything, in terms of depression?
“My sister was open about her depression. She had depression from a lot of things that happened in her life. And we talked about them a lot. I knew she had depression and we were always there for her. We tried to get her help, and there were some things that just pushed her over the edge. I understand it to a point. But I also didn’t understand it because it hurts.“
How much do you go through your mind about this or that? Has that been part of the grieving process?
“Definitely, you always look back on every situation, like, ‘How could I have handled this? Should I have reached out in this time?’ All of that kind of stuff because me and my sister were extremely close. We were always talking, always there for each other. Obviously, you go back through all of those situations and try to analyze everything and see what happened. But at the end of the day, a lot happened, and it’s just crazy.”
How was the organization supportive of you?
“Jed (York), John (Lynch), Robbie (Gould), Elvis (Dumervil) and the twins (Jenna and Mara York) came to my sister’s funeral. To see them at my sister’s funeral was insane. I felt so much love for them coming out. That meant the world to me and my family – so deeply. Getting texts from everyone on the team. Guys checking up on me. Robbie calling me every now and then, texting me every now and then. Other guys texting me every now and then, guys reaching out, writing cards. Just from the team, just from people who aren’t even players and coaches, you know, people who work in the media and all other sides of the business, and just recently guys helping out, donating, and sticking up for me during the walk and having my back. It’s meant the world. I’m really lucky to be part of this organization. I felt the love.”
Can you tell us a little more about Ella and how close you were?
“Obviously, as brother and sister, you butt heads all the time. And we always butted heads when we were younger. Then, around the time I was in middle school and she was in high school, something just clicked and we were always by each other’s side, watching the same movies, always having the same laughs. We finished each other’s sentences, all that kind of stuff. She was my best friend. We were always open with each other, never had anything bad, always transparent. If you couldn’t go to mom or dad, we were always there (for each other). She always lit up the room. You always knew Ella was there, whether she was just being loud or whether she was just in there trying to talk to people. She was so good with people. She worked in the restaurant industry and so, obviously, she had to be good with people and she always was. She could make a crying baby smile. You always knew Ella was there. She just had this great heart, and she loved everyone as hard as she could, whether they deserved her love or whether they didn’t deserve her trust or whether she just met them, she always loved them. That’ll always stick with me – Ella’s heart.”
Any favorite memories you’d like to share?
“I have a lot of memories. One that sticks home with me for the rest of my life, when we became close and made the big transition, was when – it’s not the happiest memory – but when I was in seventh or eighth grade, her best friend’s brother passed away. And she came up to me and she was like, ‘Solly, we never know when our last day is, I want us to make sure we take advantage of every day and be best friends and love each other as hard as we can for the rest of our lives.’ That always stuck with me, and that’s a lesson I’ll pass along to other people.”
When did you know she was dealing with depression?
“Once she left college (University of Arkansas) probably around my sophomore year of college, around then, is when she started to talking to my parents about it and started talking to me about it.”
Did your family have a discussion that you wanted to be open about her death?
“My mom, actually, we sat down me, my mom and my dad and a preacher from our church. And she said, ‘If people ask, I’m going to tell them that this is what happened.’ It was close to when it happened, and so I wasn’t thinking about it. But it really hit home with me now because my mom and my dad and I have been through all of Ella’s transition from being depressed to when everything happened. It’s something we wanted to share, and we want to people to know that people need help and this is a serious thing that a lot of people go through and they don’t talk about. I think last year 45,000 people died by suicide. Ages 10 through 34, suicide is the second-leading cause for death from those ages. That’s a huge deal. That’s a lot of people who couldn’t get help – a lot of people who need help and a lot of people being affected. It’s more than that who are going through depression and going through all the sadness. There needs to be help for everyone out there. I want people to know they can reach out and be loved.”
Has being back in football been therapeutic?
“Football has been good for me. It’s been therapeutic for me. . . I love this sport and I love being around the guys workingout. It’s been more about being around the team. That’s what’s helped me the most – just being around the guys and being able to feel their love on me or just feel like I’m there with them. That’s been the biggest part.”
Can you tell us more about the foundation for which you’re raising money?
“They work on mental health awareness and suicide prevention, working on getting better resources and information for people. They work on a lot of hotlines and places to call, a lot of places to get help. That’s what I know so far. It’s been fun doing this walk or this fundraiser and seeing everyone’s love and help. I think it’s going to be a pretty special event on Saturday, so I’m excited for it.”