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Freddie Solomon service draws former teammates

TAMPA — Jerry Rice watched with keen interest as a parade of emotional speakers reflected on his fallen friend, while a police honor guard stood majestically near the church's altar, with local dignitaries sitting in the pews.

By the end of the 90-minute service honoring former University of Tampa and 49ers star Freddie Solomon, who died Feb. 13 at 59 after a battle with colon and liver cancer, Solomon's Hall-of-Fame teammate had a new appreciation for him.

"I heard about all the work that he was doing, but when you see all these policemen out here and the lives that he touched, I (said), 'You know what? Freddie was large!' " Rice said. "I didn't realize the lives that he was touching."

Later, Rice added, "I heard about his college career, that he was a great athlete. Then I had a chance to witness that in San Francisco. Now I see the other side, and it's much bigger than his football career. … I really learned a lot today."

So much of Monday's memorial service for Solomon at St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Tampa focused on his post-football career, even if it was attended by former 49ers teammates such as Rice, Joe Montana, Roger Craig and Dwight Clark. It was, really, one last chance for a community to which Solomon gave so much to show its gratitude.

He spent two decades after retiring from the NFL investing time and energy in the lives of the area's youth while working for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office outreach program.

That part of Solomon's life, which meant more to him than any football-related feat, was celebrated Monday.

"When you gave him something," Solomon's brother, Roger Solomon, said, "he never asked for anything in return."

It was that quality that drew former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo to Solomon. The two had an unconventional owner-player relationship, as DeBartolo did with many of his players. Their bond grew much deeper when both moved to the Tampa Bay area.

"On paper, Freddie and I couldn't have been more different," DeBartolo said. "We came from different circumstances, different backgrounds. We had vastly different personalities. Seemingly, once football was over, we didn't have much in common.

"But with each passing year, we became much closer, and by the time he left us last Monday, he'd become closer to me than anybody else in my life. People scratched their heads about our friendship. They just couldn't figure it out. But Freddie was simply the finest human being I'd ever encountered in my life."

While talk of Solomon's endeavors in the community and giving nature dominated the service, it was his football prowess that initially brought him into our consciousness — even if many of the youth he served never knew he played the game (he famously never wore his Super Bowl rings).

Solomon was an electrifying, athletic quarterback at UT in the early 1970s, then was drafted by the Dolphins, with whom he spent three seasons. After his trade to the 49ers in 1978, Solomon flourished, helping the club win two Super Bowls and making memories along the way.

Montana was a part of many, and they've all come flashing back in the past week.

His most memorable play involving Solomon? That came in a 1983 game against Washington, when Solomon displayed his renowned speed.

"We were playing the Redskins, and they had a defensive back who was supposedly one of the fastest guys around," Montana said. "I hit Freddie on a little short pass and he didn't even come close to Freddie. Dwight (Clark) was always saying, 'We just don't know just how fast Freddie really is.' "

DeBartolo recalled Solomon as, "The fastest man on every football field he ever walked on."

Solomon finished his 11-season career with 371 catches for 5,846 yards and 48 touchdown receptions.

His career was nearly even more historic. Clark, the recipient of "The Catch," the touchdown reception against the Cowboys that sent the 49ers to the Super Bowl in the 1981 season, recalled how the play — Sprint Right Option — was originally intended to go to Solomon. He slipped on the messy field and Montana threw to Clark.

But, as usual, the conversation circled back to Solomon's good nature. Clark said Solomon "took me under his wing and taught me the ropes," after Clark's arrival. It was atypical for a veteran in those days to help a junior player with whom he was competing, something Montana often pointed out to Solomon.

But Solomon's generosity was a staple of his personality, even when it might not have been in his best interest. That was why so many people loved him and packed the church to show it, one last time.

"You have given my brother so much love," Roger Solomon said, "and he left here knowing that so many people loved him."

Freddie Solomon service draws former teammates 02/20/12 [Last modified: Monday, February 20, 2012 9:20pm]
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