Memories from Freddie Solomon tribute
As dazzling a player as Freddie Solomon was on the football field, from his days at the University of Tampa to the two Super Bowl rings he won with the 49ers, he’s remembered just as much as a teacher, a giver, a fighter.
Solomon, who died Monday after a nine-month bout with colon and liver cancer, was beloved in the Tampa Bay community, where he selflessly helped kids with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department the past two decades.
“He’s the most unbelievably gifting person I’ve met in my life,” former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo once said. “He’s like a mini Mother Teresa.”
Said former Bucs assistant Wayne Fontes: "If you don't love Freddie Solomon, you don't love America and apple pie."
I met Solomon, who many call “Fabulous Freddie,” back in December when there was a tribute put on for him at the University of Tampa. Dubbed “Freddie and Friends,” the event drew about 500 people, and raised $200,000 for a scholarship in his name at the school.
Solomon has never sought attention, but said that night he hoped the event would help spread the word about the importance of giving back. Visibly moved, Solomon made people laugh, and likely cry, in a 10-minute speech, where he was thankful. He vowed to fight, but appeared at peace.
“What I would like to say is that not only pray for me, but pray for all the other cancer victims,” Solomon said then. “For they need just as much prayer, or even more, than Freddie Solomon do. You’ve given me the will to stand up and fight, and I’m going to fight it with all I’ve got. I’m not afraid. It’s another game. I must prepare myself to take on that challenge.”
DeBartolo called the “Freddie and Friends” event a testimonial, not a memorial. But everyone had their stories.
Solomon, growing up in Sumter, South Carolina, remembered being the only Jets fan in a neighborhood filled with kids who rooted for the Cowboys, Colts and Dolphins. “I wanted to be a football player – I wanted to be Joe Namath.” But Solomon credited high school coach Steve Satterfield for being “man enough to stand up and give me a chance,” to be quarterback in the 1970s. Satterfield said Solomon won the starting job for good in an unforgettable scrimmage.
“Two series, we don’t gain 10 yards,” Satterfield said. “Freddie said, ‘Let me go in there coach.’ Well, you can’t do any worse. He runs for five touchdowns, they almost didn’t even touch him. My assistant coach looks at me and says, ‘Looks like we have a new QB.”
While many colleges didn’t give African American quarterbacks a chance to start back then, Solomon got his shot at the University of Tampa, where he was an electrifying option quarterback. Former teammate Vin Hoover said if Solomon would have played for Oklahoma or Nebraska, he would have won the Heisman Trophy, “hands down.”
Solomon, a second-round pick by the Dolphins in 1975, played for two Super Bowl champions in San Francisco. His 49ers teammates, like Hall of Fame lineman Fred Dean, who recalled in December playing dominoes and smoking cigarettes with Solomon in a broom closet in the practice facility, with Debartolo even joining in on occasion. In a taped video, Joe Montana laughed as he played the theme for “Casper the Friendly Ghost,” Solomon’s nickname for being so fast he’d “disappear” on the field.. Safety Ronnie Lott thanked Solomon in a video for giving him so much courage, while encouraging him to fight cancer. “Like you always said to me, ‘Be great. Be great.’”
Tight end Dwight Clark said Solomon unselfishly mentored him and Jerry Rice, who was drafted to take his job. And Solomon should have got the credit for “The Catch,” the legendary leaping grab by Clark to win the 1984 NFC Championship game. Solomon was the first option on the play, but lost his footing in the mud. “If Freddie doesn’t slip, Freddie is the guy who makes ‘The Catch,’” Clark said.
But Solomon never needed the fame, or fanfare. Hillsborough County sheriff David Gee thought back to when Solomon came to him 18 years ago, asking for a job where he requested no money, just a chance to help kids.
“You’re greatest asset and greatest legacy is you’re a teacher,” Gee told the crowd in December. “You’ve taught so many about what it means to have good character.” Gee read an excerpt of a letter from one of Solomon's friends in his hometown of Sumter, S.C., "Even the ones who never met you claim to be a lifelong friend, because they just want to be a part of you."
Solomon’s wife, Dee, said in a video tribute she was very proud to be “Mrs. Freddie Solomon.” “He gives from the heart,” she said. “And doesn’t expect anything in return. I think he’s touched a lot of lives.”
And Solomon’s message that December night appeared to be of hope, that many would do the same.
“Hopefully, this will help us to reach within ourselves and get a little bit better and make Hillsborough County better,” Solomon said then. “We’re lucky and blessed to be here with the sacrifices the forefathers made. …We give what we can give from our hearts. We give from the knowledge we attain. A person who wants help, we should be able to provide help.”
Or, as Solomon put it later in his speech, "As I kneeled before the throne of Solomon, the King of Kings said unto me, 'There is more work to be done.'
-- JOE SMITH