Solomon Thomas stands quietly in the EXOS San Diego weight room, fidgeting as he waits his turn on the Bench Press. A neon orange tank top hangs over his massive shoulders, and his well-defined arms sprout out from either side like barrels of twisted lumber. His face carries a curious and carefree expression, as if he had just stumbled upon a $5 bill lying in the middle of the street. His head sways from side to side, observing, and there's an overall calmness to his presence that doesn't exactly jive with the ferocious pass rusher role he played for two years on the defensive line at Stanford.
And then, just for a moment, Thomas's entire demeanor flips. He raises his eyes to meet the wall-mounted mirror behind the bench and gives it a menacing stare. He flexes his arms. He lets the pulsating music from the speakers in the ceiling penetrate his body, and he starts to bob his head like a buoy in the midst of a violent ocean. For a few seconds, Solomon Thomas is somebody else entirely.
And then it's gone. A stillness returns to Thomas's body, his eyes return to their initial carefree state, and he is once again his reserved self. It's his turn on the bench, and he quietly strides over to start his set without a word.
"I've always been taught you have to have that switch, that on-the-field, off-the-field switch, because you can't be the person off the field that you are on the field," Thomas says later. "It might get a little crazy."
Football wasn't a part of Solomon Thomas's life until high school. Born in Chicago, he moved with his family to Australia when he was 2 after his father took a position with Proctor & Gamble. For the six years that he lived Down Under, the only sport he knew was swimming. He joined a swim team, coached by a former Olympic medalist, and got pretty serious about his aquatic pastime. But when the family moved again, this time to Coppell, Texas, where football dwarfs everything else, Thomas exchanged chlorine for grass clippings. If you weren't playing football in small town Texas, well, you weren't doing anything at all.
"It was definitely a culture shock," the soft-spoken Thomas said of his move to the Lone Star State. "I didn't really know much about football. I had never played before. But everyone was like 'You have to play football.'"
So Thomas did. He was large back then, weighing close to 200 pounds as a fourth grader, which he chalks up to a love of video games and fast food. But by middle school the coaches stuck him on the defensive line and waited for him to wreak havoc. He did, but not in the way his coaches had hoped. Instead of clobbering the quarterback, Thomas just kept tackling whatever offensive lineman was in his way.
"I was just tackling the guy in front of me because all I knew about football is that you are supposed to tackle," Thomas said with a grin. "It took [my coaches] a while to really understand what I was doing. So they took me aside and were like, 'Do you understand what you're supposed to be doing?' and I'm like 'No, not really.' It took me a while to get it, but once I got it, I loved it."
As Thomas learned the game, his body began to change. He played football in the fall, but he also took an interest in basketball in the winter, when he was introduced to a private trainer who started working him out one-on-one. Thomas discovered how much he loved being sore and tired after a workout but still having the desire to do more, and that feeling kept him coming back to the weight room. The pounds melted off, replaced by muscle, and soon Thomas had morphed into a quarterback's worst nightmare.
By the time he reached high school, that switch that Thomas likes to talk about was ready to be flipped on. He vividly remembers his first sack, a strip sack combo that helped his team down Mesquite Horn High School. He calls the play one of the most memorable moments of his life. A beast lurked inside Thomas, and he was finally ready to let it out.
"I have this craving for physical competition," Thomas said. "When you get hit and you've got to get up and you feel that pain, you want more of it and you want to put that pain on someone else. You can be your angry self and just let everything out."
Thomas inflicted plenty of pain during his two years at Stanford. In his junior season, he racked up 8.5 sacks, 14 tackles for loss and one forced fumble. He's a bullet off the edge, using his speed to leave the opposing tackle or guard in the dust or bull rush and simply power through him. There are questions about whether Thomas is big enough to play inside as well as on the edge and remain on the field for all three downs, but when you watch him deadlift 600 pounds, those concerns are eased. These days, Thomas is as gifted in the weight room as he is on the field, and during his time at EXOS, he eventually became the heaviest squatter of the entire group of NFL prospects there with him.
"He's not the guy that's going to be all rah-rah and crazy in the weight room, but he's going to be the type of guy that you can feed off his energy just by how competitive he is," said Roy Holmes, EXOS San Diego's strength coach. "If he sees someone put up a good number [on a lift], he's going to go right back over there and try to match or exceed that number."
The switch is off, and Thomas is talking glowingly of his family and how much they've helped usher him through the process leading up the NFL Draft. He calls his father his "motivator," the one who gave him his work ethic and showed him how to handle his business, but he reserves his sweetest words for his mother.
"She's been my backbone," Thomas said. "If she knows I'm stressed, she's like, 'Hey, call me,' and we'll be on the phone for like two hours. I'll just call her at like 12 at night just talking about life. She's always been there for me, and that's been huge."
Thomas is smiling in the same bashful way a child might, and it's not hard to imagine him as a quiet kid in Australia, unassuming and goofy. But when he's asked what else motivates him besides his father, the conversation turns, and you can almost hear the beast within him start to stir. The switch is starting to come on.
"Being from Stanford, people think that we're a little softer because we're smart," he said. "But this game is a passion I have and there's a fire inside my soul that I'm going to let out every day for this game, and I'm not going to stop playing until they pull me off the field."
The switch is on now. The beast is awake. Thomas knows there's another edge rusher in his draft class that seems to be everyone's consensus No. 1 player on draft boards, but he doesn't think teams know about him, or his switch, like they should yet.
"People might not know what they're going to get out of me yet, but whatever team [drafts me], I will be the most serious, most complete and hard-working player I can be for that team," Thomas said. "And if people sleep on me, hopefully I can wake them up."