SANTA CLARA – Life in the NFL is stressful. High risks. High rewards. Sudden lows.
Compound all that with your sister’s suicide and the 49ers’ Solomon Thomas will tell you how painfully hard life can be.
Thankfully for Thomas — and at least partly because of him — the NFL has begun recognizing mental health as a pertinent issue and has mandated that every team must have a “behavioral health clinician” available weekly at its facility.
“In the NFL, it’s a big problem,” Thomas said after 49ers practice Tuesday. “We’re one of the most masculine sports out there, and we need it bad. We need more conversation about it.
(Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
“I’m trying to spark a conversation and train NFL players to speak up about it. It’s just a huge topic.”
It’s a topic Thomas tragically was forced to address after his sister’s death in January 2018. He’s since done so admirably as a mental-health advocate, both in the community and in the locker room.
“We work so hard,” Thomas added. “We have so much stress inside and outside the building, and we don’t talk about our mental health and how important that is.”
(Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
Thomas said he wasn’t “mentally healthy” until last November, and although he won’t use his personal anguish for his sub-par play on a woeful defense, it obviously impacted him.
Now entering his third year out of Stanford, Thomas is championing a more positive vibe, both off the field and, finally, in the trenches. He calls their new defensive scheme a perfect fit because it gives him the “green light” to get in the backfield – “Not thinking. Just getting off with explosion. That is how I play.”
A clearer mind, as Thomas has learned, can lead to the maximization of a body’s potential.
“I had probably the worst season of my life last year, and I’m the most confident I’ve been in my career right now,” Thomas said. “That says a lot. I’m just ready to move forward and show everyone who Solomon Thomas is and what I’ll bring to the table for this team.”
(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Coach Kyle Shanahan sees a stronger player – and stronger person.
“I’ve totally seen with my own eyes, just being around him a number of times in the offseason at a couple of charity things and things like that,” Shanahan said. “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, he’s got his aura back to him.”
Last month entering the draft, Thomas was mentioned as a trade candidate in an online report. General manager John Lynch quickly disputed that rumor, first to Thomas in a meeting in Lynch’s office and then to the media.
Would Thomas have liked a change of scenery, perhaps to return to his native Texas to be closer to his parents and friends?
“I love this organization, I love being here and I want to finish what I started,” Thomas answered. “I want to show everyone why John and Kyle drafted me No. 3, and just be who I am.
“Inside my head, me being the third pick, that’s not my focus anymore.”
Stanford’s Solomon Thomas, left, poses with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after being selected by the San Francisco 49ers during the first round of the 2017 NFL football draft, Thursday, April 27, 2017, in Philadelphia.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Thomas acknowledges that, as a perfectionist, he gets too hard on himself, starting with his rookie year.
Overcoming those mental hurdles has been a long process. “It took seeing a therapist and being open with my emotions,” Thomas said.
To make sure others in the league can follow Thomas’ courageous lead, the NFL and NFL Players Association announced Monday it will form a comprehensive mental health and wellness committee, available for players, coaches, club personnel and players’ families. Team clinicians must be present 8 to 12 hours each week, as well as give “mandatory” mental health education sessions for players and coaches.
Shanahan likes what he’s seeing in Thomas as organized team activities began this week, and that goes beyond Thomas’ projected role as a 270-pound edge setter on first downs and interior rusher in passing situations.
“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,” Shanahan said. “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.”
Thomas doesn’t want the mental-health conversations to stop. He commended the NBA’s efforts, particularly a public-service announcement by Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan.
“Mental health is an epidemic around the U.S. and the world,” Thomas said. “We need to talk about it, especially in a very masculine sport, so we can set the example for all the other men who watch ‘Monday Night’ or little kids to let them know it’s OK to express our emotions.
“That’s why I want to keep talking this conversation as much as I can.”