Today New York Jets defensive lineman and Coppell High alum Solomon Thomas will take the red carpet in Las Vegas as the Jets’ nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award. It is the league’s highest honor, given to the NFL player who best marries excellence on the field with community work away from it, and one that the 28-year-old did not earn consideration for on his own. That’s why his parents—or “arm candy,” as mother Martha jokes—will escort him to the ceremony.
But the Thomas family will be missing one member. Solomon’s older sister, Ella, won’t be there. And that’s why Solomon, Martha, and father Chris will be.
Ella Thomas died by suicide in 2018. She was 24. In the wake of her death and Solomon’s own subsequent suicidal thoughts, the three Thomases created a Texas-based nonprofit in May 2021 aimed at raising awareness about mental health education and suicide prevention. Fittingly, it’s named The Defensive Line. Solomon also works regularly with related organizations.
Yet maybe Ella will be there in Vegas.
“There are days when I feel her around me,” Solomon says. “I’ll forever keep her alive with me.”
The Defensive Line’s goal is “to end the epidemic of young suicide, especially for young people of color, by transforming the way we communicate and connect about mental health.” Solomon’s father, Chris, is Black; Martha is White. “The suicide rates for young people of color have been rising so dramatically, and their access to the resources isn’t the same,” Martha said during a recent workshop that she and Chris held for Dallas-area school personnel in conjunction with the United to Learn nonprofit at Pegasus Park. “We’re just trying to help make sure that the resources are available to everyone.”
Even if Solomon doesn’t win the award, there will be a direct connection with last year’s honoree. Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott also works toward mental health awareness following the suicide of his brother, Jace, in April 2020. Thomas and Prescott worked together to push Congress to pass legislation that created the 988 text number for national suicide prevention.
“We’ve done panels, interviews together,” Solomon says. “Dak does amazing work, and he’s all over the road doing it.”
For the Thomases, the work begins close to home. The Defensive Line holds workshops for local nonprofit groups and school personnel. Their training programs are tailored to that day’s audience, not implementing new curriculum but instead enhance what that group is already doing. They use existing crisis-response protocol to remind attendees of the resources that are already available to them and how to access them. Sometimes the work is as fundamental as language choices. The Thomases, for instance, do not use the phrase “commit suicide,” because of the connotation that verb has to crimes.
All of this traces back to Ella. As a youngster, she was diagnosed with anxiety and depression; her parents say she was on medication and receiving therapy. She thrived on the basketball court, playing for Coppell High before enrolling at the University of Arkansas in 2011. It was there that she suffered a different level of trauma. She was raped at a fraternity party during her sophomore year, although her family didn’t learn of it until 2015. Her mental health took a downturn. Her anxiety skyrocketed, and she struggled with insomnia. According to Solomon, she blamed herself for what happened. Ella moved back home in 2017 at her family’s request. She’d skipped some therapy sessions just before her death.
Ella’s suicide happened in what had otherwise been such a joyous time for the Thomases. Solomon was the third pick in the 2017 NFL draft by the San Francisco 49ers after his junior year at Stanford. His big sister beamed when general manager John Lynch phoned the landline at the family’s table at the draft; she couldn’t help but tug at her brother’s right arm in excitement.
Ella attended Solomon’s games, and she appeared so happy. That didn’t last, but even at her lowest, she never lost her heart for other people. After she died, a police officer on the scene showed Martha the last texts on her daughter’s phone.
“Two of her friends were struggling with depression,” Chris says. “She was helping them save their own lives.”
Her parents and brother were left with so many questions.
Chris says through tears: “What did I do wrong? What did we do wrong? Why did she take her life? Why was the pain so much that she felt like she had to leave this place? Why did she feel she was better off not here? I miss her every day.”
“My heart hurts all the time,” Martha says.
Solomon returned to San Francisco but couldn’t get his sister out of his head or his heart. “I didn’t want to go back to life,” he says. “I didn’t want to be without Ella. I just wanted it to all be over.”
Martha noticed the emotional changes in him and alerted 49ers management. “I went to my son’s place of work—pretty dicey,” she recalls with a smile. “I got people to notice.”
Lynch approached Solomon in the team cafeteria and urged him to seek help. “That conversation could have saved my life,” he says. “Him giving me that permission and taking that weight off my shoulders helped me get the help, which—therapy ended up saving my life.”
Now he and his parents hope to save others. When the nonprofit was started, Chris had a career in sales and marketing while Martha was a middle school teacher. They tried to continue in their professions but soon discovered, as Martha puts it with a laugh, “it takes too much damn time.”
Solomon’s involvement with The Defensive Line isn’t confined to the offseason. He typically speaks to groups in person or by Zoom at least once a week during the season, a ritual that has transcended moves from San Francisco to Las Vegas to play for the Raiders, and then joining the Jets in 2022.
“I understand how little time we have this platform,” he says. “It’s different when an NFL player’s talking to you. … You kind of rip open a Band-Aid sometimes when you do this work, but people need to know it’s OK not to be OK for whatever they’re going through. It’s saving lives.”
Near the close of the recent workshop, Martha repeated something that Chris had mentioned earlier. The session was being held on Tuesday, January 23. Ella took her life on Tuesday, January 23, 2018.
“It is Ella’s home-going day,” Martha said, her voice cracking, “and we couldn’t think of a better thing to do than by doing this program.”
It’s essential, exhausting work, the sort they wish they never had such an immediate connection to. But that connection will be with all three of them in Las Vegas. A part of Ella always is.