The NFL player appears along with Saquon Barkley, Cam Heyward, George Kittle, Tony Gonzalez and Steve Young in two ads for the NFL's Character Playbook that will air during the 2024 Super Bowl
By helping to shine a light on mental health awareness, Solomon Thomas is tackling something greater than his own grief.
The 28-year-old New York Jets defensive lineman lost his older sister, Ella, to suicide in 2018.
“Ella was my best friend,” Thomas tells PEOPLE. “Ella is my best friend forever. Just my protector, just growing up, just always had my back no matter what.”
The bond that Solomon — who friends and teammates call “Solly” — shared with his big sis was an uncommonly close one. They were two years apart, but sibling rivalry was practically non-existent amid frequent moves during their childhood for their dad’s work which took the family from Chicago to Australia, Connecticut to Dallas.
“She just kind of was my life coach and we bonded together,” Thomas says. “I knew if I needed anything, I could go to Ella. And she was just always there for me, just always taking care of me. So she taught me how to dance, taught me how to laugh, told me which music to listen to, taught me how to talk to girls, everything. She was my teacher.”
And even through her death, Ella taught the former four-star Texas football recruit and Stanford University alum something more.
In the days after Ella’s suicide, Solomon and his parents Martha and Chris Thomas were reeling.
Solomon’s star was on the rise, playing for the San Francisco 49ers — where he was drafted third overall in the 2017 NFL Draft — but the devastation he felt in the wake of his sister’s death proved overwhelming, he said.
“It was really hard for me,” Thomas tells PEOPLE about publicly speaking about Ella. “It's not something I originally wanted to do. I definitely didn't want to talk about my feelings. That's something that I refused to do at the beginning. When I first started talking, the only thing I would talk about is Ella, what Ella went through and just a little bit of the pain and the sadness that we felt from that, and the start of the grief journey.”
He continues, “After Ella died, it was such, the grief journey started so weird and so hard. We got the most amazing love and support from everyone, from the Niners, from our community, from our family in the area, friends all around the world. There's so much love and support, but there was this emptiness around it. Like Ella's dead, but why is Ella dead?”
Solomon says he realized at the time that “nobody” was talking about suicide or mental health.
“What is suicide? What is mental health? Nobody talked about it,” he says. “And they wouldn't even bring it up because people didn't know how, people didn't have the language to, people were afraid to, people thought it was something you couldn't talk about or you shouldn't talk about. And it just left us so empty. And so we felt alone and we stayed alone and we didn't talk about our grief and or sadness much or depression. I didn't talk about it at all. And my mom really was the only one at all brave and strong enough to be able to do so. And we were just kind of lost. And so we found a way to keep going and live through the mundanity of life.”
Thomas and his parents started their foundation, The Defensive Line, whose mission is “to end the epidemic of youth suicide, especially for young people of color, by transforming the way we communicate and connect about mental health.”
And in the six years since Ella’s death, Solomon has evolved into an outspoken leader, sharing his private story — and vivid memories of Ella’s life — in hopes that it might resonate with others who struggle with their own mental health.
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Thomas worked with the NFL for two ads that will air during the 2024 Super Bowl on Sunday, where he appears along with NFL stars Saquon Barkley, Cam Heyward and George Kittle. League legends Tony Gonzalez and Steve Young are also featured, promoting the NFL’s Character Playbook, an anti-bullying initiative that highlights character building and mental wellness.
“NFL players have a unique platform, and we are so proud of Solomon and others within the NFL family for using theirs for good by sharing their own experiences and vulnerabilities related to mental health,” Alexia Gallagher, the NFL's Vice President of Philanthropy and Executive Director of the NFL Foundation, tells PEOPLE.
Thomas, the Jets’ nominee (for the second year in a row) for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, calls his latest means of speaking out about mental health a “no-brainer.”
“The fact that they're putting mental health at the front of the Super Bowl, it means the absolute world to me and just to our world,” he says. “It's so needed.”
Jan. 23 marked six years that Ella lost her battle, the anniversary a reminder to Solomon about his sister’s grace and courage, which he channels in through his own outreach.
“I've gotten closer to her and it's made me want to live more like her because Ella lived honorably,” he says. “Ella was someone on Twitter talking about her anxiety and depression at times. And before this ever was cool, before it ever was a thing that's okay to do. And I just wanted to find a way to connect with her and live more like her.”
He adds, “And it has changed the way that I live my life and to live a vulnerable, genuine way, unapologetically Solomon, however he comes, whether he's sad, angry, depressed, feeling weird, feeling awkward, whatever it is, and this is going to be the way I live my life.”
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741741 or go to 988lifeline.org.
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