TAMPA — Vin Hoover said as big and benevolent as Freddie Solomon's heart is, his friend and former University of Tampa teammate has never asked for anything in return.
But Solomon, 58, a former star quarterback for the Spartans and later a 49ers receiver, was paid back in a big way Wednesday night, with about 500 friends and family coming together from all over the country in an emotional tribute. As special as Solomon was on the field, including being a key part of two Super Bowl-winning teams, he was celebrated for the kind of man, mentor, teacher and selfless giver he has been to so many, even as he continues his battle colon cancer.
Solomon said he was thankful for "a dream that I'll always cherish the rest of my life" and vowed to fight his illness "with all I've got." Having helped kids through the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office for nearly two decades, Solomon appreciated the night's biggest gift, a scholarship in his name at UT, started with a $200,000 donation.
"We give what we can," Solomon said. "Give from our hearts."
Solomon has done his share, with former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. calling him "a mini Mother Teresa."
"If you don't love Freddie Solomon," former Bucs assistant Wayne Fontes said, "you don't love America and apple pie."
DeBartolo said Wednesday's event was put together quickly, with friends and colleagues brainstorming six weeks ago. Hoover said people would reply: "I'll do anything for Freddie Solomon."
"I don't think there's another person who is so revered, loved by every single person that he has had a chance to know," University of Tampa president Ron Vaughn said.
Before the Legend of Freddie Solomon film was played at the David Falk Theatre, friends shared Solomon stories.
Sheriff David 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."
There was Fontes, who recalled then-Bucs coach John McKay telling him before a game against the 49ers, "If Freddie Solomon catches one pass, I'm going to fire you!" Fontes said they "beat up" Solomon with double coverage. But Solomon had the last laugh, returning a punt 86 yards for a touchdown.
There were his 49ers teammates, such as quarterback Joe Montana, who laughed on a taped video as he played the theme for Casper the Friendly Ghost, Solomon's nickname for being so fast he'd "disappear" on the field.
Tight end Dwight Clark said Solomon always made them laugh and unselfishly mentored him and Jerry Rice, who was drafted to take Solomon's job. "I think as great a player as he was," Clark said, "he is an even better person."
Hoover said Solomon had one request for the tribute: don't make it long. "(Solomon said), 'You know what would be the worst thing? If you had something like that done for you and people got tired and walked out.' "
On Wednesday, nobody left until after Solomon spoke at the end of the 90-minute ceremony. When he was done, Freddie's Friends stood and cheered.