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Jets' Solomon Thomas is driven by the memory of his sister and an ever-present call to help people

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Solomon Thomas was lost, stuck in a dark place mentally while desperately trying to overcome the anxiety, depression and sadness that gnawed at him. He needed help. He wasn't sure if he could overcome it all.
Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) is sacked by New York Jets defensive end Solomon Thomas (94) during the second quarter of an NFL football game, Friday, Nov. 24, 2023, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Solomon Thomas was lost, stuck in a dark place mentally while desperately trying to overcome the anxiety, depression and sadness that gnawed at him.

He needed help. He wasn't sure if he could overcome it all. And he didn't know where to turn.

Thomas’ older sister Ella died by suicide in January 2018 at 24 years old after dealing with her own mental health issues. Thomas, who had just completed his rookie NFL season with San Francisco, grieved with his family, but those dire thoughts never left his mind — until he started talking about them.

Long chats with therapists helped him and his family move forward. So did a few media interviews, which resulted in the surprising realization he was not alone.

“There's a stigma about suicide and mental health,” said the 28-year-old Thomas, in his second season with the New York Jets. "We started to speak and started telling Ella's story and we started helping people. We saw the impact of just talking about it.

“About a year later when I kind of found myself again, went to therapy and was mentally healthy-ish, I was able to understand, hey, this helped me heal, but also helped me understand the world better, people better and myself better.”

Their personal tragedy resulted in Thomas and his parents Martha and Chris creating The Defensive Line in 2021, a nonprofit focused on raising awareness of youth suicide and trying to end it by encouraging communication and education about mental health.

“I saw this space that needed so much attention and so much support that wasn’t getting it,” Thomas said. “So it’s just been a mission and a passion of mine.”

He tells anyone struggling with their mental health to “hold on” and "keep pushing" because they're not alone.

“There are people who love you and who want you here," Thomas said. "But also they have to understand it's OK to not be OK.”

Thomas, who has a career-high four sacks this season, is the Jets' nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award — which honors a player’s commitment to philanthropy and impacting their community — for the second straight year.

“Solly’s always got a smile on his face,” Jets edge rusher Jermaine Johnson said. “His stance in the community definitely gives me something to strive for because it just reminds you it’s not all about wins and losses all the time.”

Last Monday night, Thomas received the Heisman Humanitarian Award for his work with The Defensive Line. Thomas spent the next night with several teammates treating 25 students to a shopping spree at a sporting goods store.

“There’s a lot of people struggling in this world and I truly believe that you don’t live this life for yourself,” Thomas said. “There’s so much more to this life than yourself and so much more to why we’re on this Earth.”

He also recently met with Chelsea Clinton to discuss mental health issues. Thomas also regularly collaborates with several other charities throughout the year, heeding an always present call to help.

“He’s an amazing example of how to treat people, first and foremost,” defensive tackle Quinnen Williams said. “He finds a way to change somebody’s life every single day. And, man, that’s an inspiration to me."

Thomas said the importance of service was instilled in him at a young age while growing up in Texas, where he and his family often donated their time to homeless shelters.

“I grew up very fortunate,” Thomas said. “My parents always had food on the table, we had a nice house. But my parents made sure we understood, hey, this is not normal. We have a good life, but not everyone has that.”

Thomas carried that with him to Stanford, where he was the No. 3 overall pick by the 49ers in the 2017 draft. He had three sacks as a rookie, but never truly lived up to expectations, and a knee injury cut short his fourth season in San Francisco.

After one year with Las Vegas, Thomas signed as a free agent with the Jets in 2022. He was a productive backup in New York and re-signed last offseason.

“When we had the opportunity to get him here, he stands for everything you want." said Jets coach Robert Saleh, who was the 49ers’ defensive coordinator when Thomas was there. "He's an unbelievable human off the field. He’s unbelievable on the field.”

Thomas still speaks to a therapist once every two weeks or so, likening it to having a coach or mentor for his emotions.

Sometimes it's just to vent, others to learn more about himself. And other times, it's about making sure he's using the right coping techniques if he feels his mind wandering into that “dark place.”

“Everything I’ve gone through has led me here, my seventh year (in the NFL), really finding myself, loving myself and believing in myself,” Thomas said. "And that took a while to do. But it’s been a really cool journey. I don’t really regret anything. The only thing I wish is that my sister was still here. But through it all, I’ve been able to find myself and understand who I am.

“And the more I’ve understood who Solomon Thomas was outside the game, the better I have become in the game. So it’s something I’ve learned and something I preach to the guys around me.”



Dennis Waszak Jr., The Associated Press