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In Freddie Solomon's passing, Tampa Bay loses a good man

Do not remember Freddie Solomon for the catches he made. Remember him for the lives he changed.

Day after day, child after child, lesson after lesson. For Solomon, that was the sum of a life well spent. He didn't care about the cameras, and he didn't seek out the headlines, and he didn't flaunt whatever celebrity he might have.

He just made his life count.

Every day.

Tampa Bay lost another legend Monday afternoon when Solomon, 59, lost his fight with cancer. As a community, we are poorer for it. Solomon was a good man, and there are not enough of them left. He cared, and not enough athletes do. He made a difference, and what better legacy can a man leave?

This was Freddie, a man who stood up in so many small moments to become a giant. Some athletes help by raising money from the rich, and some help by including the famous, and bless them for it. But Solomon's way was to spend the tiny moments with those who needed it the most. There was something simple about the way Solomon cared, something pure.

He was hands on, and he was behind the scenes, and no one will ever know how many people he affected. He pushed. He cared. He taught.

He mattered.

"He was the most human of beings I've ever met," Eddie DeBartolo, the former 49ers owner who was a close friend of Solomon, said Monday evening. "He was the most gentle soul. All he did was live to help people. He was a special, special person.

"Freddie was just one of the most unbelievable people. He didn't care about himself. He just lived to help children, to make sure they got what he didn't have, what he had to work hard to get. He wanted to train them and to teach them."

As Solomon once said: "We give what we can give from our hearts." Given the size of Solomon's heart, it is no wonder he gave so much.

Monday was an emotional day for DeBartolo, who was with Solomon in his final hours. The two had become close in the late 1970s, when DeBartolo's 49ers traded for Solomon. Solomon became close with DeBartolo's mother — "Mama D," he called her — and soon, the two became friends.

Over Super Bowl weekend, when DeBartolo was among those being discussed for the Hall of Fame, he stayed home to be with Solomon.

"I was so honored to be mentioned," DeBartolo said, "but I was with my friend."

In the end, that defines Solomon perfectly. He was everyone's friend, whether you were 8 or 80, whether you were famous or unknown.

In the end, it is of small consequence that Solomon played football, or that he was terrific at it. He was Tampa Bay's first football hero, back at the University of Tampa, but he never brought it up. He didn't brag about his early days with the Dolphins, or his Super Bowls with the 49ers.

Oh, if you prodded him, Solomon would talk about the old days, about Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott and Jerry Rice and Roger Craig and DeBartolo. He would grin widely, and he would tell a story, and he would cackle at the old memories. But the best part of Solomon is that he didn't let those days define him the way many former athletes do. Solomon was not a former player looking for something to do. He was a teacher who happened to play football beforehand.

Now that he is gone, DeBartolo said, it like there is a hole "from the middle of my stomach and into my heart."

That said, DeBartolo suggests there is one more lesson to be learned from Solomon's passing.

"If anyone can learn from this man's death, you must, must go to get a colonoscopy," DeBartolo said. "This all could be avoided. It's not his fault. It wasn't his way. He didn't want to take the time. But people need to go."

DeBartolo tells a story about the two riding through Montana together and passing a Little League game. Solomon had DeBartolo pull the car over, and the two of them watched the final 45 minutes or so of the game. Then Solomon went out and started instructing, telling kids how to run the bases, how to catch the ball.

"The kids were his friends," DeBartolo said. "He had an ability to make them march the chalk line. He wanted them to be better human beings and better friends. He didn't want foundations. He just wanted to be Freddie, a non-entity among entities. I know people have written about him and his camps and his Christmas Show. But he didn't want that. All he wanted was to be a good person."

For the record, DeBartolo promised Solomon that his camps, and his Christmas Show, will continue.

"His legacy will not end," DeBartolo said.

A good man's legacy never does, after all. The kids who Solomon taught now have kids of their own. Solomon left his fingerprints, and his spirit, in his community. There were thousands of small moments, thousands of important messages.

Today, there should be thousands of voices saying thanks.

Tampa Bay is poorer that he has gone, but it is far better that he was here.

In Freddie Solomon's passing, Tampa Bay loses a good man 02/13/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 14, 2012 7:53am]

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