Childhood photos of Solomon Thomas, the 49ers' starting defensive lineman, have a theme. There's Thomas sitting on a sofa or playing at the beach. And right beside him is his sister, Ella, with her arm around her little brother.
"She was my best friend," Thomas said on Wednesday. " … She always lit up the room. You always knew Ella was there."
That changed on Jan. 23 when Ella Thomas, who had struggled with depression in recent years, took her own life in their Texas home town. Now her younger brother has made it his mission to let others who are dealing with mental health issues know that they aren't alone, that they're valued and loved, and that there are resources to help.
Thomas will take part in the Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk in Dallas on Saturday along with his parents, friends and members of the 49ers organization. The walk benefits the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and Thomas said he, the 49ers and others already have raised about $27,000 for that cause.
"I'm walking for all the people who suffer around the world," he said Wednesday. "It's really easy to fake a smile and put on a face. It's really easy to tell someone you're fine. But it's hard to tell someone how you feel and all those feelings inside you. There are so many more people who suffer than we know. I'm walking for them. I'm walking for other people who have been affected by it, who are going through it."
Thomas, the No. 3 overall draft pick last season, asked that no cameras be present when he met with reporters and spoke about Ella, older than him by two years, for about 15 minutes.
Like most little kids, he said, the two were rivals when they were little. But about when Ella entered high school, they became very close. They watched movies together, shared the same inside jokes and finished each other's sentences.
At about that time, the brother of Ella's best friend died. Thomas remembers his sister being stirred by the event.
"And she came up to me and was like, 'Solly, we never know when our last day is and I want us to make sure we (stay) best friends and love each other as hard as we can for the rest of the rest of our lives,'" he said. "That will always stay with me and it's a lesson I'll pass on to other people."
Ella was 24 when she died. She attended six of his games last year and the family was able to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas together in the Bay Area. Thomas now wears a purple wristband with her name and the date she passed on his left arm.
Their intimacy has made her death doubly difficult for Thomas. He and his parents knew about his sister's depression, were available to help her and openly discussed it with her. That's left him wondering what he could have done differently.
"How could we have handled this?" he said. "Should I have reached out at this time? Because me and my sister were extremely close. We were always talking, we were always there for each other."
He's concluded that mental health issues are a disease like any other and need to be addressed as openly as cancer prevention or heart disease or any other affliction.
"It's something that we want to share," Thomas said of him and his family. "We want people to know that people need help and this is a serious thing that a lot of people go through that people don't talk about."
When Thomas' mother, Martha, took to social media earlier this month looking for donations as part of Saturday's fundraising walk, 49ers general manager John Lynch responded with a tweet that said the team would pledge $5,000 in Ella's name.
Thomas said that kicker Robbie Gould, defensive end Elvis Dumervil, CEO Jed York and York's sisters, Jenna and Mara, went to Texas for Ella's funeral service.
"I felt so much love with them coming out," he said. "That meant the world to my family so deeply."