UCLA football’s Thomas Cole shares why he attempted suicide

(A warning: This story discusses self-harm and suicide.)

The smile that split Thomas Cole’s face on video chats with his parents couldn’t hide the darkness that had overtaken his life.

His mother noticed that he was always lying in bed. The blinds were invariably drawn.

Thomas shrugged it off as not being able to easily fit his 6-foot-6, 270-pound frame into his desk. He said it was easier keeping the blinds closed.

“He always had a justification,” his mother, Kelli, said, “but for me they were red flags.”

Thomas never mentioned his intractable burden: He woke up every day wanting to kill himself.

He pushed through the torment only because his schedule demanded he get moving. There was football practice. Position meetings. Classes. Everything that came with being a college freshman.

“You’ve got stuff to do,” he said. “You’ve got boxes to check.”

Anyone watching from afar would have considered his future promising. The offensive lineman from San Luis Obispo was the most coveted high school prospect from his area in 20 years, picking UCLA from a lengthy list of suitors. His size and talent made him a potential savior for the Bruins at offensive tackle in the years to come.

In his mind, Thomas was never good enough.

Even though his grades were fine and he was trying his best in practice, he felt like a failure. After months of anguish, he was ready to give up the charade.

Thomas put on his favorite music, Johnny Cash and Zach Bryan songs filling his apartment bedroom. He wrote goodbye letters to his family and friends. He downed every pill he could find.

Then he lay down to die.

They were the All-American family.

David and Kelli Cole met as college athletes at Cal Poly and owned a Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram dealership in San Luis Obispo that had been in David’s family for three generations. Their daughter, Katie, wrote for the high school newspaper before going on to study child development in college.

Like his parents, Thomas was a gifted athlete. Already towering over his classmates, he played varsity basketball as a high school freshman. He also starred on the football team, first as a defensive lineman and tight end before switching to the offensive line because of his massive frame.

During his final season, Thomas helped the Tigers win a league title in football for the first time in 17 years.

But nothing felt satisfying. Thomas would have a great game and dwell on a missed tackle or a blown assignment.

“He was always really hard on himself,” David said.

Self-punishment would follow. Thomas stayed after practice to run extra sprints. He lingered in the weight room for additional reps. All of it was an attempt to prove to himself that he was good enough, leading only to more doubt and an endless loop.

After his parents noticed he was having trouble remembering football plays, Thomas was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder the summer following his freshman year. The disorder is known to contribute to low self-esteem and places its sufferers at increased risk of mood complications such as depression.

Those who watched Thomas closely considered him a people-pleaser. When his basketball coach addressed the team while sitting in a timeout huddle fraught with tension, Thomas circled behind his coach, rubbed his shoulders and told him it was going to be OK.

The gentle giant also won admirers by coming to the defense of younger classmates who were bullied and constantly checking in with teammates about their welfare. When Jeff Brandow stepped down as San Luis Obispo’s athletic director and basketball coach, the first text he received each time was from Thomas.

Thomas Cole (55) played for San Luis Obispo High.

Thomas Cole (55) played for San Luis Obispo High.

(Owen Main)

Looking back, there were signs of distress. A dislocated finger suffered in a basketball game sent Thomas to the hospital, the bone sticking out of his skin. Disregarding the sympathy that flooded his room, Thomas was beside himself. His reasoning? He no longer could help his team.

“He was like, ‘Coach, I’m not going to be able to play, I feel like I let you guys down,’ ” Brandow said. “I’m like, ‘Dude, you broke your finger. You’re out for the rest of the year. It’s OK. We love you still.’ But he was worried about letting people down.”

Thomas enrolled at UCLA in January 2021, skipping his final high school football season to take part in the Bruins’ spring practice while also getting a head start in the team’s strength and conditioning program.

There was no pressure to play immediately with veterans Sean Rhyan and Alec Anderson entrenched at tackle. The focus, for the first season, would be improvement.

At first, Thomas lived alone in a dorm room. Interaction with teammates was limited by design amid the COVID-19 pandemic, players grabbing to-go bags of food and eating by themselves. Classes were remote. Despite every protective measure, Thomas contracted COVID-19 at the start of spring quarter, leading to more isolation.

His parents factored all of this into their calculus of his early college months.

“When we started realizing that things were not going well,” Kelli said, “part of it was, well, how much is COVID, how much is first-year college depression — missing home. So there were a lot of factors in play.”

A reprieve came every time Thomas interacted with the other freshmen on the offensive line, whom he quickly came to adore. Moving into an apartment in the summer provided the benefit of a roommate in kicker Anthony Waller, another friend.

UCLA football player Thomas Cole is joined by his mother, Kelli; sister, Katie; and father David.

UCLA football player Thomas Cole, center, is joined, from left, by his mother, Kelli; sister, Katie; and father David.

(Courtesy of the Cole family)

But their time together was short-lived, with Waller quitting the team and moving out before the start of fall training camp. Once again, Thomas was alone. The daily grind worsened his depression.

“You’d get to workouts, go to meetings, eat as much food as you could put down and then just kind of crawl back into your room and isolate,” Thomas said. “There wasn’t a ton of communication between like how I was feeling with the team.”

Crying fits often preceded those smiling FaceTime sessions with his parents. Thomas began to hurt himself, thinking he deserved the pain. He burned his body with anything that would do the trick — lighters, candles or forks placed on hot stoves. He starved himself, eating once every two days.

“I didn’t think I was enough in school, didn’t think I was enough as a son, didn’t think I was enough as a teammate, so like I just deserved punishment,” Thomas said. “Like, I hated myself.”

He told one teammate and his girlfriend that he was feeling down. He started seeing a therapist in the fall. But he never shared his suicidal thoughts or the fact that he often woke up regretting that he didn’t try to kill himself the previous night.