This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Oct 1 Gaming Issue. Subscribe today!
Devastated by the suicide of his older sister earlier this year, 49ers defensive end Solomon Thomas opens up about his loss -- and shares his newfound dedication to fighting America's mental health crisis.
Ella was born in April of 1993, and I was born in August of '95 -- and she let me know she was my big sister from day one. She came into the room after I was born and wanted me to play with her, but I was sleeping. So she got frustrated and started screaming "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." That was Ella. She was the light of my life from day one.
We were always close growing up. My dad's job meant that we moved a lot -- from Illinois to Australia to Connecticut then finally to Dallas, where we went to high school. Even though we were two years apart, she was three grades ahead of me in school. She was young for her grade, and I was old. Later, when I became a football player who people kind of knew, she was always known as Solomon's sister. But for the one year we went to high school together, I was known as Ella's little brother. I loved that. That's how I always saw myself anyway -- as Ella's brother.
She was an athlete too, and she was strong and feisty and tall and beautiful. Nobody could mess with her. It always seemed like she could conquer anything ... including her younger brother! By third grade, I was close to 200 pounds, but she could still get the best of me when we would wrestle and roughhouse. There's a saying that you have to be a little mean to play football. I'm kind of a soft-spoken guy, so one day when I was at practice at Stanford, my D-line coach asked where I got my meanness. I stopped and thought for a minute, and told him that, honestly, I got beat up too many times by my sister! I don't know that I'd be playing football without her. I certainly wouldn't have been taken third in the draft in 2017. She was always the inspiration for my toughness.
At the same time, Ella had the biggest heart. She loved everyone. We went to San Francisco on vacation once and spent hours wandering around because Ella wanted to give a dollar to every homeless person she saw. She forgave every boy who broke her heart and every friend who did her wrong. On the day she took her own life, a police officer handed me her phone and told me that the last texts she sent before she died were to two friends struggling with depression. She was trying to help them.
Ella always had anxiety. She was constantly putting pressure on herself to do well, or maybe she was trying to impress somebody. When I was in eighth grade and Ella was in 11th, her best friend's brother died from a drug overdose. I saw her go through it. I watched her grieve and go to a really dark place. It was a turning point for us. After that, she said, "I want us to take advantage of our relationship and be the best we can be to each other." From that day on, we never bickered again.
Her anxiety got really bad when she went off to college in Arkansas. At first she was doing great. But by her sophomore year, in 2012, she was struggling in school. She was always very smart -- it was never a question of that. She just started getting bad grades because she didn't want to do the work.
There was also an incident that's really hard to talk about. I've never spoken about it, but I'm just going to say it: She was gang-raped, and she was never the same. She went to a frat house on campus, and there was alcohol involved. She tried to tell people at the school, but they didn't do anything. In the end, she must have felt like it was her fault. She dropped out and didn't tell us why.
Then, almost back-to-back, a close college friend of hers died and two other acquaintances died in a boat crash. Her depression got worse and worse.
Our family is very close. The two of us used to talk all the time before that. But during that period, we would ask her, "Why are you so sad? What's going on?" She wouldn't tell us. She didn't tell our mother about the rape until two years later. She told me three years later.
In early 2017, about a year before she died, we thought things had turned around. She was open with us about her depression. She started seeing a therapist and taking anxiety medication. She said it helped sometimes, but she also said it was still hard. There were times we thought she was getting better. She would seem happy, and things would be going well with friends and at work. But then out of the blue she would get so sad again. She would try to distance herself from family and go on her own path and be a completely different person.
She moved home to Texas last year. Her depression was at its worst at Thanksgiving. She wasn't enjoying her job. She had moved back in with our parents and was upset about it. She stayed in her room a lot. Thanksgiving was tough, but we had a beautiful and amazing Christmas together as a family, the four of us and my grandmother.
In January, I came back to Dallas after the season ended to stay with my parents and train for a bit. Ella was there and we talked every day in her room. About life, about everything.
On Jan. 23, the morning she died, I woke up early to go train at the high school in Southlake. Ella wasn't home, but we just thought she was staying with a friend and weren't too concerned. I came home from my workout around 11, and she wasn't there. My mom texted me asking if I had heard from her. I told her I hadn't. My mom stopped texting me around noon. At 1, my dad called and told me what happened. I was at home alone. I collapsed and fell to the ground, screaming and crying. Ella had a pit bull named Mickey. That moment is still a blur. The only thing I remember is Mickey licking my tears.
I kept calling my dad, who was in New York, and telling him to fly home safely. My mom was at Ella's friend's house, where she died. My dad didn't want me to go, but I had to. I drove over there, hoping and praying it wasn't true. But when I saw red and blue lights flashing, I knew. I saw my mom crying and walked over to her. Then we just hugged and cried and screamed together.
People ask me what my life is like now that she's gone. On the one hand, I'm thankful for each day I get to still be alive. I'm beyond blessed. I have two beautiful parents; I went to my dream college; and now I get to play football for a living. I know how lucky I am. But I'm also struggling every day. Sometimes life just sucks and I go to a dark place. She was my best friend and my only sister, and I won't ever get to talk with her again. I just want her back, and there's nothing I can do about it. The days are hard. The nights are harder.
The one thing I know for sure is that if Ella knew how much her loved ones were suffering right now, she would never have taken her own life. And I don't want her death to be in vain. I want to help other people who struggle like she did and to help other survivors. So many families are going through this right now and suffering in silence. Every day is a fight. There's always help. There's love. There's hope. It's hard to say there's hope because I won't see my sister again. But there is hope.
To families out there going through this: The best thing you can do is stay together. It's always one day at a time. Today you might not be as wrecked as you were yesterday, but your mom might be. So pull together to support her. The next day, she's probably gonna be the one lifting you up. That's how it goes.
I feel like someone out there is reading this right now who doesn't know how they are going to be able to make it through the rest of their life without the person who has just taken their life. Trust me, I know that feeling. But I know it can be done, as painful as it is. You've just gotta keep fighting every day. And to the people who are struggling with anxiety and depression, please do not feel bad about yourselves. Do not feel ashamed. It's not your fault. You're feeling that way for a reason. And there is help. You might not find the right therapist at first, or the right medication, but keep trying, keep fighting. Talk about it. Be kind to yourselves.
I've noticed that when you lose someone to suicide, a lot of people don't know what to say to you. It's human nature to ask what happened when you find out someone young died. But when the answer is that they took their own life, people tend to get quiet and change the subject, out of fear that it's too painful to talk about. I know these people mean well, but I'd rather talk about it than not talk about it. I'm always thinking about it anyway.
Talking helps. There's never a right thing to say, so stop worrying about saying the right thing.
I worry about my parents every day. They are the two most incredible people I've ever met. They show me their love every day, even though they're going through the hardest day of their lives over and over again. They fight every day to live for their baby girl. They have this saying that if you cry it's a good day because it means you let it out.
This summer I did a walk for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and 2,000 people showed up. A lady who had lost five siblings and both parents to suicide came up to me and told me I was being so strong. Me? That blew me away. I met a woman whose son took his own life at age 10. Ten. This has to stop. Suicide is a top-five cause of death in America for ages 13 to 35, and according to the CDC, rates are rising in every state but one.
We have to reach people at a young age and bring awareness to depression and anxiety and take away the stigma. A little kid might be feeling depressed and not even have the language to know what it is. The worst thing we can do is to ignore the warning signs or encourage kids to bottle things up and not cry or talk about what's bothering them.
I'm trying to figure out ways to start something to help fight this national health crisis. I want to go talk to middle schools, because that seems to be when kids start to feel overwhelmed emotionally. I want to tell them that they aren't weird, that feeling sad sometimes is OK, and that if they're feeling bad a lot of the time they should go talk to an adult they trust. And I'll tell them that if they don't have anyone like that, they can come talk to me.
Losing one more person to suicide is one too many. Ella wouldn't want that. I want to live the rest of my life in a way that would make her proud. I want to help as many people as possible.
Solomon Thomas: My sister 'was the light of my life'