Freddie Solomon, 59, dies after battle with cancer
Freddie Solomon was called by many endearing names during his remarkable football career. As the lightning fast option quarterback at the University of Tampa, he was Fabulous Freddie. As a two-time Super Bowl champion receiver with the San Francisco 49ers, teammates referred to him as Casper the Friendly Ghost because of the way he seemed to disappear from the pile, leaving defenders tackling air.
To the youths he mentored for more than two decades, dispensing advice about life as part of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office outreach program, he was coach Solomon.
But to everyone he met, Solomon was simply a friend who put others first.
Solomon died Monday after a nine-month battle with colon and liver cancer. He was 59.
Solomon was undergoing chemotherapy until complications required him to be hospitalized Feb. 4 at South Florida Baptist Hospital in Plant City.
"It is with a heavy heart that we announce the passing of Freddie Solomon, a beloved family member, friend, community leader and coach,'' the Solomon family said in a statement released from Dee Solomon, his wife of 34 years. "We would like to thank those who have supported him throughout his life. We appreciate all the love and prayers during this difficult time.''
Former 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo, Jr., whose close friendship with Solomon spans more than three decades, said he never met a man who cared so much about others.
“I am deeply saddened by the passing of my dear friend Freddie Solomon today,'' DeBartolo said. "My heart goes out to Dee, his family, the 49ers football family, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's office and football fans everywhere. Freddie and I have been friends for 35 years, and he was one of the most gentle and best men I have ever met in my life. Scores of generations will remember Freddie through their children and the youth he's helped over all these decades. I have never met a man who cared so much about the human race, and there will never be another Freddie.''
Solomon, DeBartolo and the Sheriff’s Office organized an annual Christmas party for foster children, who unwrapped presents while their grateful parents opened envelopes filled with hundreds of dollars in cash.
"Our Sheriff's Office family is saddened by the loss of Freddie, but we are so proud to have the privilege to call him a friend and a colleague,’’ said Sheriff David Gee. “That will never change. He worked for us for 21 years teaching children about sports and about life. His legacy will live on in the hearts and minds of countless boys and girls, some of whom are now adults.
“Freddie never stopped fighting his illness despite debilitating pain and fatigue and he kept his smile until the end. He leaves us all with lessons
about humility, and caring and loving others. Those timeless traits are what defined Freddie Solomon, then, now and forever.''
Solomon was honored Dec. 11 at a fundraiser at UT’s Vaughn Center called “Freddie and Friends,” to endow a $200,000 scholarship in his name at the University of Tampa.
“Love means doing everything for someone else’s benefit,’’ said Solomon’s former Spartans teammate Vin Hoover. “It means making every decision with other person’s well-being in mind. That was Freddie Solomon. I think I speak on behalf of our Spartan family that playing football with Freddie was an honor and privilege, but being Freddie’s friend was more of an honor and privilege.’’
Drafted by the Dolphins, Mr. Solomon was traded to the 49ers in 1978, winning two Super Bowls while serving as one of the primary targets for Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana.
“Freddie Solomon was a dear friend and a great teammate,’’ Montana said. “There was no one who gave more on and off the field than Freddie. The kindness he demonstrated was inspirational to all that knew him, and a joy to be around. The warmth of his smile will be forever imbedded in my mind and heart. Jennifer and I have been blessed to have him in our lives. We will miss you Freddie!”
In January 1982, the 49ers beat Dallas Cowboys for the NFC championship. With the 49ers trailing, Mr. Solomon played a key role in the 49ers final drive, running a reverse for 14 yards and catching a 12-yard pass from Joe Montana with a minute and a half left in the game.
The tying touchdown was designed to go to Mr. Solomon in the end zone, but he was blanketed by defenders. Instead, Montana threw to receiver Dwight Clark, who leaped to snare “the catch,” one of the most famous in football history. The 49ers won on the extra point, 28-27.
The 49ers went on to win Super Bowl XVI over the Cincinnati Bengals. San Francisco later beat the Dolphins 38-16 in Super Bowl XIX.
“Freddie was very influential to me and my career, and taught me about work ethic and professionalism,’’ said Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice, a teammate of Solomon’s with the 49ers. “He inspired me to go out there every day and emulate him.”
Mr. Solomon is survived by his wife, Dee, mother Bessie Ruth Solomon (Sumter, S.C.), brothers Richard, Oneal and Roger (Sumter, S.C.), mother-in-law Mae Jeffers, nephew Godfrey Robinson (wife, Christine, children Jasmyn and Trey of Tampa), brother-in-law Lanness and Patricia Robinson (Austin, Texas).
A cobbler’s son, he grew up in Sumter, S.C., where he played baseball and football and idolized Jets quarterback Joe Namath. He practiced throwing the football in the backyard of the Jehovah Baptist Church.
After academic ineligibility kept him from playing at the University of South Carolina, Mr. Solomon chose UT, which offered the opportunity to play quarterback. Blessed with blazing speed, Solomon dazzled in college at UT where as a 6-foot, 170-pound freshman he was reported to have run the 40-yard dash in an electrifying 4.25 seconds.
Dolphins coach Don Shula converted Solomon to receiver and his pro career flourished two seasons later after he was traded to the 49ers. He finished his 11-year pro career with 381 receptions and 48 touchdowns. He was part of San Francisco's first two Super Bowl teams.
“Freddie was a great player but he was a better human being,'' said former 49ers and Raiders Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott. "His stand for helping the less fortunate and the voice he shared for making people do what is right and good was truly remarkable. This will always inspire me and others to achieve greatness for others and to be humble in our journey. God bless his family and his lovely wife.”
So humble was Solomon about his football career that many whom he helped were unaware of his accomplishments on the field. He never sought attention and refused to let anyone help him walk or climb stairs even after surgery to reconstruct his colon and 12 rounds of chemotherapy weakened him.
By his side in the final months, taking him to chemotherapy treatments and providing companionship in his final days at the hospital was Dee and DeBartolo.
Two months ago, at the University of Tampa tribute attended by more than 500 of ‘Freddie’s Friends,’ Solomon vowed to keep fighting and said he was not afraid. But his message that night was to encourage those in attendance to continue to his work and help others.
“In closing I’d like to share a verse from one of my favorite song writers,’’ Solomon said. “He would tell us, never forget the life we live is all so beautiful and you’ve shown your beauty and prayers and your faith and it means everything to me. And all of us got more work to do.
“What I would like to say is that not only pray for me, but pray for all the other cancer victims.’’
Preceeding Mr. Solomon in death were his grandmother Zinker Jones, his sister Shirley Pugh and his father Freddie Solomon Sr. He is survived by his wife Dee of 33 years, along with his mother Bessie Solomon, mother-in-law Mae "Sugar" Jeffers, brothers Richard, Oneal and wife Dorothy, Roger and wife Jean, brother-in-law Lanness and wife Patricia Robinson, brother-in-law William Jeffers, special sister Ida Burns and a host
of nieces, nephews, other special relatives and many friends.
A memorial service is planned for St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Tampa. Details of the service will be announced in the coming days.