Hilarious. Great laugh. Animal lover. Loved harder than she could breath. A best friend. Made life go.
There’s a watercolor painting in Solomon Thomas’ Las Vegas house — a sunflower, each leaf dotted with a different word or phrase.
A family friend made the painting with words from Thomas’ eulogy at his sister’s funeral in 2018, using her favorite flower as the template.
Ella Thomas, 24, died by suicide on Jan. 23, 2018. Her death rocked the usually optimistic and energetic family as Solomon Thomas navigated the beginning of a career in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers.
This May, the Thomas family started The Defensive Line, a nonprofit that aims to reduce stigma around mental health and reduce suicide in young people, especially young people of color.
“We’re really trying to do this right,” said Thomas, 26, now a defensive tackle for the Raiders. “We’re trying to save people, we’re trying to educate people, and we’re trying to end the stigma against mental health so we can continue to make big strides in this world.”
Contagious smile. Tough. Kind. Compassionate. Silly. Made you feel loved.
Solomon and Ella’s parents are Martha, a schoolteacher, and Chris, a recruiter and manager in the consumer goods and products industry, whose work took the family around the world.
The kids were born in Chicago, but the family spent time living in Australia, Connecticut and finally Coppell, Texas, a suburb northwest of Dallas.
Ella and Solomon were best friends. Martha Thomas’ proudest feat as a mother was her kids’ great relationship, she said.
Solomon was a football superstar, growing from the 3-pound baby born several weeks early to a nationally ranked high school recruit in Texas. He picked Stanford University over offers from other major schools.
He almost chose the University of Arkansas, but not really for its football program. Ella was a student there.
The 6-3, 280-pound defensive lineman earned All-Pac-12 honors and declared for the draft after his sophomore season. The 49ers took him third overall in the 2017 NFL draft.
Healing as a family
Honest. A gift to my life. Strong. Joy. Taught me to be myself. Peace.
Ella Thomas died after Solomon’s rookie season. The family didn’t know much about suicide at the time, unsure how to process feelings or seek answers about what had happened.
“There’s just no way to describe watching people suffer like that,” said Rei Horst, Solomon’s cousin who now serves as executive director of The Defensive Line.
The most brutal part, Martha said, was watching Solomon during games.
“I could see how he stood on the sidelines,” she said. “He just didn’t, he didn’t — he used to stand like he was ready to go at any second. And it was kind of like he was almost lifeless.”
Solomon’s on-field performance was slipping, but that was the least of the family’s worries. He was experiencing depression and anxiety in a way he’d never felt before.
“It all felt like the same hurt, same sadness, same depression, same anger,” Solomon said. “It felt heavy. It felt like the weight of the world on my shoulders at all times. Couldn’t go to the grocery market without someone looking at me, judging me for my performance, I couldn’t go on social media without getting attacked and bullied by randoms all over the world.”
Martha could see him struggling. She reached out to 49ers general manager John Lynch. He asked Solomon if he needed help and let him know that there were resources available and people ready to listen. It’s a conversation that potentially saved Solomon’s life.
Solomon’s father, Chris Thomas, recently texted Lynch and 49ers CEO Jed York with a simple message: “Thank you for saving our son.”
The family started going to therapy together and slowly started to heal. Part of that process was an improved understanding of suicide, and what they learned made them want to give back in the community.
Family members started speaking more openly about Ella and their own mental health journeys. Solomon routinely does interviews and speaks about his family.
“It’s tough being vulnerable because you’re putting your life out there,” he said. “I’m putting my feelings out there, I’m putting my depression out there, I’m putting my darkest days that I’ve ever had in my life out there. It’s just hard. It’s just a risk.”
He stops for a second.
“But it’s a risk I’m willing to take, because I know people out there are struggling like me, or have struggled like me. I know they need to hear this so they know they’re not alone in this fight and that there’s a light in the tunnel they’re going through, that there’s a reason to keep pushing forward, that it’s okay to feel how they’re feeling and they’re going to be fine.”
A blessing. Hope. Beautiful. Perceptive. Loving. Always with you.
Solomon tore his ACL during the second game of the 2020 season, and that was the last time he played for the team that drafted him. He signed a one-year deal with the Raiders this year, and he’s emerged as a key part of the defensive line rotation.
He has 3½ sacks on the season, an important number because he’s pledged to donate $8,000 to The Defensive Line for each sack this season. That amount will be matched by another donor.
“What’s been incredible is how much people have demonstrated interest and belief in this idea,” Horst said. “People really want to work together. It just generally feels like there’s this camaraderie across the board of people who want to rally around this cause and be in it together.”
The nonprofit, which launched in May, is working with school districts and groups in Las Vegas and Dallas, the two places the family has major ties. In January and April, The Defensive Line will offer a series of training sessions for teachers in the Clark County School District, with the goal of educating teachers, coaches and other officials about warning signs and ways to connect with students in need.
The Thomas family took Ella’s ashes to Australia, back to Pebbly Beach, about four hours south of Sydney, where they’d gone camping when they lived there.
They timed it so they could place her ashes on the sand when the tide was out. No one else around except the three of them, praying, crying and telling stories.
Usually, the beach was dotted with kangaroos near the bushes away from the water.
“I’m so sorry the kangaroos aren’t around,” Martha said to Solomon.
Finally, the tide came in and washed the ashes out to the sea. The three of them turned around to see about 50 kangaroos hopping down toward the water.
“It’s like she had gone through the bush and said, ‘You can’t let them just sit here and cry,’” Martha said, her voice breaking.
“An incredible moment,” Solomon said.
Contact Jonah Dylan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TheJonahDylan on Twitter.
Where to find help
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-8255, provides access to trained telephone counselors, 24/7. The Crisis Text Line is a free, national service available 24/7. Text HOME to 741741.