SANTA CLARA — From confronting the overwhelming grief that came with his older sister’s death to a severe slump in his second season as a member of the San Francisco 49ers, Solomon Thomas’ 2018 was, he said this week, one of the hardest years of his life.
Entering his third year with San Francisco, however, Thomas also says he’s ready for the best season of his career. By addressing the issues within his personal life, which included his own mental health, Thomas is ready to prove his worth within the organization.
“Physically you can be the best you can ever be but if you’re not healthy mentally, your body’s not going to work,” Thomas said, standing in the media work room after 49ers OTAs on Tuesday at Levi’s Stadium. “I had probably the worst season of my life last year and I’m the most confident I’ve ever been in my career right now. I’m just ready to move forward and show everyone who Solomon Thomas is.”
In 2017, the 49ers took a chance by drafting Thomas, the 6-foot-3 defensive tackle out of Stanford, in the first round of the NFL Draft. Undersized for his position, Thomas had done enough as a Cardinal — earning First-Team All Pac-12 recognition and winning the Morris Trophy (for the best defensive lineman in the Pac-12) — for the 49ers to use their No. 3 overall pick on him.
“I definitely felt pressure,” Thomas said. “I’m the hardest person on myself that I know.”
In his rookie year, Thomas began to look the part of a top-five pick, racking up 41 tackles (10 for loss), four sacks, 11 quarterback hits and one fumble recovery in 14 games. Although the 49ers finished the season with a 6-10 record, Thomas’ future looked bright on a San Francisco defensive line in desperate need of production.
On Jan. 23, 2018, though, the Thomas family suffered a tragedy: Thomas’ sister, Ella, 24, was found dead with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.
“Looking back on everything, I’m like, ‘How did I miss this?’” Thomas told ESPN last year. “How did I miss my sister being so sad?”
In 2015, Ella revealed to her family that she had been gang raped during her sophomore year at Arkansas while attending a fraternity party. This traumatic event triggered a severe bout with depression that she was eventually unable to overcome.
“[You go through] all of the phases,” Thomas said. “Anger, depression, sadness, guilt, grief and all of that kind of stuff.”
While he and his family tried to pick up the pieces in their lives at home, Thomas’ play of the field began to suffer. In his first two games last season, Thomas recorded just three tackles. And three days after the 49ers 30-27 win over the Detroit Lions, he penned an essay reflecting on how Ella’s death was affecting him.
Thomas finished his 2018 campaign only 31 tackles (three for loss), just three sacks and six quarterback hits. It was an underwhelming effort, especially for a former No. 3 overall pick.
It took Thomas nearly 10 months to get past the heartbreaking loss by way of therapy sessions, according to the now 270-pound lineman. By tending to his own mental health and addressing these emotional issues, Thomas began to see changes in November last year.
“In the NFL, it’s a big problem,” Thomas said of the issue of mental health. “We’re one of the most masculine sports out there, and we need it bad. We need more conversation about it. I’m trying to spark a conversation and train NFL players to speak up about it. It’s just a huge topic.”
The league itself has begun to recognize that mental health is an important issue, and has mandated that every team must have a “behavioral health clinician” available weekly at its facility.
Through addressing his own mental health head-on, Thomas has lifted the once debilitating fog that surrounded him for almost a year.
“I was a different person. It was like I was light on my feet,” Thomas said. “It was like I could finally walk and move again.”
Head coach Kyle Shanahan saw the difference over the course of the offseason.
“Being around him a number of times in the offseason at a couple of charity things and things like that, just talking to him, you can tell he’s, and we all know what he went through and stuff, but you can see he’s got a little more,” Shanahn said. “He’s got his aura back to him. You can see it in his eyes, you can feel his energy a little bit better and it definitely seems like he’s in a better place.”
This offseason, Thomas’ name showed up in reports of possible trades, and it was reported that the 49ers had begun to shop his name around ahead of the 2019 draft, where they held the No. 2 overall pick.
San Francisco had also been reported to be looking at former Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams at that spot, effectively putting their faith in Thomas in question, but by selecting former Ohio State Buckeye, Nick Bosa, with the pick, though, the 49ers quickly put the speculation of moving on from Thomas to bed.
This year, the 49ers are expected to deploy a new defensive scheme, which is expected to allow their defensive linemen to let loose and get up field and into their opponents backfield. That style suits Thomas’ game perfectly, according to general manager John Lynch and Shanahan.
“I had Solly up in my office today, and we just talked exactly where he is,” Lynch said after the first day of the draft. “He’s a big part of our team right now that we’re extremely excited about moving forward with him.”
With the vote of confidence from his coaches and front office, Thomas says that he’s ready to put the past behind him and finally focus on football. He gave his sister credit for giving him the courage to play.
“I have a new outlook on life,” Thomas said. “Life’s not going to get any easier but find a way to adjust with it and keep it moving and get better every day. That’s what I’ve been able to do.”