Thomas and other members of the 49ers organization took part in the "Out of Darkness Walk" for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“Ella’s Sunflowers” congregated in Fort Mason on the evening of Saturday, June 8. The group, comprised of Solomon Thomas’ family, friends and a large contingent from the San Francisco 49ers, all donned the same white long sleeve shirt featuring a sunflower on the left breast.
Thomas’ mom came up with the catchphrase as a way to honor her late daughter (Thomas’ sister) Ella, who took her own life in the spring of 2018. The Thomas family has been to hell and back in the year-plus since her death. Now their mission, in Ella’s memory, is to create as much awareness as possible regarding mental health.
“Ella’s Sunflowers” was one team among thousands of people in attendance at the bi-annual “Out of Darkness Walk” put on by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“That’s what makes the walk so special, because you’re around so many people who share a common struggle,” Thomas said. “You feel so much more comfortable because you know everyone understands, at least to some extent, what your pain is.”
Everyone who participated was given beads to signify their reason for walking. There were different colors for those who’d lost a parent, a sibling, a child, a friend or for those who were in attendance as an ally to help raise awareness.
The walk doesn’t represent leaving your grief behind, but rather signifies that it’s possible to walk with it. The Thomas family, along with countless others around the world, endures the relentless struggle of learning to live and move forward despite the torture of a void that can never be replaced.
Thomas is more comfortable sharing his story than he was a year ago. He spent time on the walk discussing his relationship with Ella – how they were the best of friends and spoke on a daily basis. Thomas also lent an ear to strangers and listened to their stories.
Maybe the most powerful moments of the night were when Thomas broke away from the group to be with his own thoughts. Overcoming grief and tragedy is like learning to walk all over again. Progress comes in baby steps. Still, in those internal moments, Thomas couldn’t help but feel proud of how far he’d come.
“I feel like a totally different person – emotionally, mentally and physically,” Thomas said. “I had to reevaluate everything and start over again. I had to find that passion and find my values and what I care about. I had to really learn how to love myself and learn how to build myself in order to be happy again.”
But it was an arduous process to get there. Thomas’ rock bottom lasted several months. His enthusiasm for life had vanished. He dreaded each day and the only goal, proverbially speaking, was survival.
This stretch coincided with Thomas’ second season in the NFL. He didn’t record a sack until the 49ers ninth game of the season. Fans groaned as he failed to live up to expectations as the third-overall pick in 2017. But that didn’t matter to Thomas. Nothing did.
“If I did good on something, I wouldn’t care. If I did bad on something I wouldn’t care,” Thomas said. “I really didn’t want to be around anyone. I’d say whatever I could to get through the day. It was a dark hole, and it took me a long time to get out of it.”
What’s wild is that Thomas’ teammates were naïve to the magnitude of his suffering. With a smile here and a laugh there, Thomas accomplished his mission of disguising his own depression.
Thomas’ recent offseason transformation exemplified the stark contrast between where he was in 2018 and how much progress he’s made. He spent the winter in Dallas with a regimen that balanced training, treatment and time with friends. Thomas arrived to the 49ers offseason program noticeably “rocked up” (Dante Pettis’ words) with a markedly improved disposition.
“I thought he was always smiling last year, but now he’s really always smiling,” said Pettis, who took part in the walk with Thomas. “It’s the true him. When you talk to him, you can feel the more upbeat Solomon. It’s pretty cool to see.”
Thomas didn’t feel himself turn a corner until John Lynch approached him just before the 49ers bye week in 2018. San Francisco’s GM suggested to Thomas that the team would be happy to help him find a therapist to speak with. Thomas agreed and began to see immediate results.
It became evident that discussing his feelings and embracing his emotions was the only way through the darkness. It remains how Thomas gets through the hard days (there are still plenty of them). He attempts to instill that approach in others who are currently suffering from grief, mental illness or both.
“It’s OK to not be OK,” Thomas tells them. “Whatever you feel is perfectly normal. Try to be your authentic self. If you honor yourself and honor your emotions then you’re going to see a change in your life.”
In May, Thomas delivered a poignant speech to reporters about his renewed passion for football and his eagerness to reach his potential. The confidence and conviction in Thomas’ voice was unmistakable.
“I know what I can do. I know what I’m going to do. I believe in myself, and I know who I am,” Thomas said. “I’m getting ready to ball this season. I feel athletic and explosive again. I’m ready to be violent and wreak havoc. Now I’ve got to perfect my technique. That’s going to make me a game-changing player.”
The rest of the 49ers locker room anticipates a breakout season from the clear-minded Thomas.
“He showed a lot of courage, and I think he’s very inspirational,” Pettis said. “If you’re not rooting for him, there’s something wrong with you.”
But Thomas will always be defined by more than the game of football. His dreams and expectations as a player will never get in the way of his duty as one of “Ella’s Sunflowers.”
He knows he has a platform, and he will continue to utilize his voice to speak up and raise awareness regarding mental health. Ella, Thomas says, left an impression on each person she met with her vibrant yet selfless personality. In her honor, Thomas knows he can change lives just the same.
“I want to live how she did. She had intent with everything she did,” Thomas said. “She wanted to impact other people. She made whoever she was talking to feel like the most important person in the room. That’s how I want to live.”