The bottom-line business of the NFL can sometimes forget there are people beneath those shiny helmets. Fans are wrapped up in numbers and production, often omitting how real life gets in the way of football.
Which is why 49ers defensive lineman Solomon Thomas was wiping sweat off his brow and speaking quickly during his scrum with reporters Tuesday. As the No. 3 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Thomas is forced to deal with tough questions about his low sack total and why he hasn’t lived up to the sky-high expectations coming out of Stanford.
“I had probably the worst season ever in my life last year and I’m the most confident I’ve ever been in my career like right now. And that says a lot,” said Thomas. “And I’m just ready to move forward and to show everyone who Solomon Thomas is, who I am, and what I’m about to bring to the table for this team.”
It’s an awkward dynamic, particularly when human subjects are broached in a game played by millionaires.
Thomas has been dealing with something that could overwhelm anyone – the death by suicide of his older sister, Ella, early in 2018 at the age of 24 – that has eaten away at his life and has affected his football career.
The word “bust” is sometimes thrown around in regards to Thomas. He has just four sacks in two seasons, including just one in 2018. The pass rush has been considered a significant weaknesses of San Francisco’s defense – and he was drafted to help solve it. The 49ers again tried to bolster their pass rush this offseason, adding defensive ends Dee Ford and Nick Bosa to offer upgrades toward playoff contention.
And while the defensive line is now considered a strength thanks to those additions paired with star defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, Thomas has been an afterthought, largely because his production hasn’t lived up to his draft status.
But he’s eager to change that. He said he’s “mentally healthy” entering his third season, after taking on the impossible task of dealing with the death of his sister, whom he considered his best friend. Thomas, who calls himself an “over-thinker,” indicated football was no longer fun because his mind was elsewhere in 2018.
“I’m a perfectionist,” said Thomas. “I want to be perfect in everything I do. And if not, I over think and I get in my head. That’s my biggest fallout, one of my biggest weaknesses. And that’s what I work on a lot, just going, just letting loose and just having fun.”
Thomas mentioned the idea of resetting mentally and physically while regaining his confidence.
“Find a good balance of work and fun – and make it not a job anymore, but just something you get to do every day that you love,” he said. “That’s what it’s been for me, and that’s what’s been working for me recently.”
Thomas has since become a champion for mental health awareness. He penned an emotional essay for ESPN that included the horrific details of his sister’s death and outlined how he wants to help. He raised money and walked for the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention, which he honored late last season with custom cleats for the “My Cause, My Cleats” initiative.
Thomas was open and expansive Tuesday while discussing the troubles he’s gone through, while many athletes avoid those subjects publicly (though Thomas hopes he can help change that, citing the work done by Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozen of the NBA). He said seeing a therapist improved his state of mind dramatically after he initially struggled with the unimaginable tragedy.
“The first year was really hard for me,” he said. “All the phases, the anger, depression, the sadness, guilt, grief, all that kind of stuff. … (It was) hard for me to get healthy. And once I was, I was a different person.
“It was like I was light on my feet, I could finally walk and move again. But it took a while, seeing a therapist, being open with my emotions and everything. But, just finding a way to find a new outlook on life. Life won’t get easier, but find a way to adjust with it and keep moving.”
Adding to the rough patch of Thomas’ personal life was a trade rumor that popped up during the week of the draft last month, right before the 49ers took Bosa with the No. 2 selection. General manager John Lynch quickly shot down the report, which indicated San Francisco was trying to move on after two seasons with Thomas. He met with Thomas to let him know where things stood.
“John pulled me in his office and we just had a good, nice, organic, healthy talk,” Thomas said. “I respect and love John. He’s been nothing but amazing to me. So has Kyle and this whole organization. ... (We talked about) how we’re excited about this new scheme, how it perfectly fits how I play and how we’re excited for this next year to go.”
The plan for 2019 is work Thomas more predominately as a defensive tackle rather than on the edge, where he struggled to provide a much-needed punch during his first two campaigns. That will be up to Ford and Bosa, allowing Thomas to rotate with Buckner, Arik Armstead, D.J. Jones and Sheldon Day along the interior on passing downs.
Thomas’ renewed mindset hasn’t been lost on others in the organization. Coach Kyle Shanahan said he’s noticed Thomas’ re-invigoration.
“I’ve totally seen with my own eyes,” Shanahan 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. We all know grieving can be as hard as it gets and takes people a long time, but you can see he’s doing better.”
Added Richard Sherman, a fellow Stanford alum: “He’s got a lot more pep in his step. He’s smiling, he’s walking around, he’s working. He’s got an energy about him, an infectious energy on the field. He’s relentless.”
The 49ers are rooting for Thomas, not only because reaching his goals will help the team improve, but because it will help him deal with the loss of his best friend, which is far bigger than football.