San Francisco 49ers defensive linemen Solomon Thomas graced the Lincoln Center stage on May 7; and as he stood at the podium, he summoned the strength to speak.
“Ella Elizabeth Thomas was my best friend, my sister, and my protector," he said. “I wanted to be like her in every way. She taught me everything.”
The speech was difficult for a grieving Thomas, who was accepting the Survivors of Loss Award at the 31st Annual Lifesavers Gala. When he began telling Ella's story, a deafening silence fell over the crowd. It was a stark contrast to the screaming and yelling he hears on Sundays.
“It took me a while to realize I can cry," he continued. "And it feels good."
After Ella died by suicide at the age of 24, Thomas began to comprehend “it’s okay not to be okay” — a phrase often discussed when talking about mental health. Unfortunately, not everyone shares that same sentiment, particularly in football culture.
"We have this old school, archaic and toxic perception of mental health as a society," Thomas said. "We’re told to be a man, be tough or just get over it. First off, depression is a disease, it’s not just something you can get over. Second of all, to be a man is to be a damn good person. That’s it. To be strong means to be vulnerable."
Thomas has routinely displayed vulnerability since Ella’s passing by penning open letters, organizing runs and traveling across the country to speak about the stigma and stereotypes surrounding mental health.
”Some guys won’t sit at the same lunch table with our therapist, because they are like, I don’t want anyone to think something's wrong with me," Thomas said. “People are still afraid of therapists, still afraid of getting help, because they don’t want anyone to know what’s wrong with them.”
Others have joined him, including wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who spent time with the Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints last season.
Fright and terror are perhaps compounded the most in a sport like football where the assumption is a player has to be tough and masculine no matter what. For proof, look no further than former Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck.
Luck embodied the Colts organization for roughly eight years, serving as the team’s unquestioned leader both on and off the field. But when he shockingly retired in the offseason, he was called soft and selfish for choosing to prioritize his well-being over the sport.
It is that type of ignorance that creates a toxic situation for players. Yes, they are paid to go out and win football games, but they aren’t just puppets for entertainment — they are humans, prone to the same issues we deal with daily.
With the instability, heavy scrutiny and physical torture NFL players endure, it’s only natural they struggle with mental health issues. It’s a struggle that should be recognized and understood, not silenced.
Thomas, the third-overall pick in the 2017 draft, has yet to live up to his draft status — and others have made sure he knows it. The added negativity surrounding his play serves as an extra brick on top of an already stacked house, and many athletes must deal with similar pressure in addition to their pre-existing illnesses.
The only way for fans and media to begin to understand is, not surprisingly, to the player's burden. Even when they courageously step forward, like Thomas, and open up about their mental health struggles, it can be overlooked — a footnote in their career.
”It’s unfortunate that you don’t really realize how big a deal mental health is until it affects you personally," Thomas said.
Fortunately, activists like Thomas have been brave enough to try to tell their own stories to bridge the gap.
Philadelphia Eagles Brandon Brooks has been open about his debilitating anxiety in November. The All-Pro offensive guard often vomits for hours before he hits the field because of his panic attacks.
Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Tyler Lockett has also shared his own mental health experiences, using both his poetry and social platform to explore the struggles of depression.
With the help of these athletes, even the NFL has started to take action.
Research on the correlation between CTE and mental illness has increased dramatically. In 2018, the Carolina Panthers became the first NFL team to hire a readily available mental health clinician. By 2019 it became a requirement for every organization to have a behavioral health clinician on staff to spend up to 12 hours a week at the team facility.
While the number of hours a week should ideally be higher, especially with the NBA already more educated and proactive on the topic, but it is the beginning of a long and necessary conversation in football.
In a league infamously known for its outdated policies, it's not a bad start.