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Legend of Freddie Solomon gets spotlight treatment at University of Tampa

Joe Montana was telling the story about Fast Freddie Solomon and the way the yard lines blurred beneath his feet.

It was January of 1983, a San Francisco 49ers conference championship game against the Washington Redskins. At the time, the Redskins had cornerback Darrell Green, who was widely acknowledged to be the fastest player in the NFL, and perhaps out of it.

"Everyone was talking about how fast Darrell was,'' Montana says. "Then I hit Freddie with a little pass, and he just took off. Eighty yards or so (76). Darrell couldn't catch him.''

Looking at it, it seems as if a replay is on fast forward. The 76 yards seem to take about five seconds to cover.

"We always called Freddie fast, but no one knew how fast he was,'' Montana said. "He was as fast as he had to be.''

• • •

The stories are flowing now, the funny ones, the serious ones, the touching ones.

Everyone has a Freddie story.

As it turns out, there has never been a better time for the telling. For that matter, there has never been a finer time to appreciate the caring soul of Freddie Solomon.

Solomon, 58, the face of the University of Tampa program in the 1970s, has had a tough time of it lately. Cancer has spread from his colon to his liver, his weight has vanished, his energy has faded. The chemotherapy treatments are relentless. But the smile is still there, and the test results have gotten better, and Solomon hasn't gone anywhere yet.

Tonight, those who love Solomon will gather at the University of Tampa's Vaughn Center to celebrate the player, the person, the teacher, the mentor, the champion, the community leader. "Freddie and Friends," they are calling the night, as if there was a place big enough to hold all Solomon's friends.

"This isn't a memorial,'' said former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo. "It's a testimony and a tribute to one of the finest gentlemen in this city. It's important that Freddie knows how much he's loved and what respect everyone who has ever met him says.

"Freddie would do anything for anybody. If he had $100 billion, he would end up with a dollar. He can't help enough people. I put him right up there with Lee Roy Selmon and Reggie White. There aren't many people in that category.

"I have never met a man who cared so much about the human race. There will not be another Freddie.''

DeBartolo pauses. Something seems to catch in his throat.

"If he just would have had a damn colonoscopy, just a stupid colonoscopy, this would have all been averted,'' DeBartolo says.

The message is clear. If you are a man of a certain age, perhaps you should schedule one.

In the meantime, why shouldn't Solomon's friends share the stories? The one about the game against Youngstown State on a day temperatures were so hot that the opposing mascot, a penguin, died of heatstroke. Or the one about the Super Bowl when Bill Walsh had the trainer wrap Solomon's knee with thick gauze to play head games with the Bengals. Or how Solomon was the first option on the play that led to The Catch that made Dwight Clark famous.

It's a terrific idea, really. Why not embrace an old friend? Why not lift a glass? Why not celebrate?

Why not say thanks?

• • •

Ronnie Lott was telling the one about his first week in the NFL. As he remembers, he spent it in Freddie School.

"I remember him beating me on a route,'' Lott says. "Then he turned to me and said, 'I'm going to teach you how to cover.' And he did. From then on, I became a student, not only of how to play defensive back, but how to understand how to help people.''

• • •

The disease struck Solomon as quickly as someone hitting a switch. One day, he was fine. A few days later, he saw someone else in the mirror.

Three days and his weight went from 197 pounds to less than 150 (it would bottom out at close to 130). Four more days and the doctors were talking to him about a blocked colon and cancerous tumors in his liver and pondering which to attack first.

"Bam, bam, bam, bam,'' Solomon says. "It was that fast.''

As quickly as that, everything changed for Freddie Solomon.

He is a soft-spoken man, Solomon, and he chooses his words carefully. He sits in a green chair in a green room at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, where he works with the outreach program, his long fingers tented in front of his chin.

"It's not scary,'' he says. "It's a part of life. I'm not the only one who has faced this problem. It's like another football game. You study, you get ready, you train, and you go line up.

"I don't have a genie or a miracle. But I don't worry. I don't dwell on this. I don't want people to worry about me. I don't want to be the reason they're sad or sorry or they worry. Don't worry. There is still fight left in me.''

So far, so good. Solomon has completed reconstructive colon surgery and 10 of his 12 chemo treatments. After No. 6, doctors told him a scan said 70 to 80 percent of the lesions and the tumor had been destroyed. His weight is headed in the right direction. His energy is better.

And here's the thing. Freddie hasn't stopped being Freddie.

For two decades he has worked with the Sheriff's Office. He has mentored kids, taught them about computers, taken groups on trips, made Christmases better. As much as anything, he has been a friend to anyone who needed one.

Some people get famous for their charitable work, and good for them. Then there are people like Solomon, who stay in the shadows.

"I was never trying to market Freddie Solomon,'' he says. "The little bit of stuff that I do, I hope it will help some kid be a little bit better and his family a little bit better.''

Not long ago, after completing a chemotherapy session, Solomon asked his old friend (and former University of Tampa teammate) Vin Hoover to stop by the field at Nuccio Park. The men sat in the car, watching the kids, when a kid came down with his pants plunging halfway to his knees.

Solomon beckoned the kid over. "I'm an old man,'' Solomon said. "Explain this to me. Are you going to be one of those kids on the corner? Or the president of the Bank of America?''

"The president,'' the kid responded.

"Then pull your pants up,'' Solomon said.

And the kid did.

"Here he is, in the fight of his life, and he's still teaching,'' Hoover said. "That's Freddie.''

• • •

Hoover was talking about the pass that might have ended Solomon's career long ago.

The two were still at the University of Tampa, where Solomon was busy making defenses look foolish. To this day, Hoover insists Solomon would have won the Heisman if he had played for Oklahoma or Nebraska.

Tampa had another player at the time, a hard-hitting linebacker named Willie Ray Jones. "If he hit you with his forearm, you thought he had hit you with a crowbar,'' Hoover says.

So one day at practice, Solomon came streaking around end, and Jones clotheslined him, and Solomon went down hard. As Hoover remembers, Jones talked a little after the play.

A few seconds later, Solomon rose from the ground, aimed the football and fired it into the back of Jones' helmet.

"Freddie stood up to him,'' Hoover says. "And Willie Ray respected him for that.''

And if he hadn't?

Hoover laughs. "That might have been the end of Freddie Solomon.''

• • •

He was a fine, fine football player. That may surprise a lot of people who have been around Solomon.

He doesn't talk about it. He doesn't flash his two Super Bowl rings. It pleases him that many people don't know that UT had a football team, or that he was the face of it.

"I'd rather they know me as Coach Solomon,'' he said. "I'd rather they know me for who I am instead of what I did.''

Those who were around the University of Tampa? They know. Those who were with the 49ers when they built their dynasty? They know.

"He was instrumental as far as changing the culture,'' Lott says. "He was one of the guys who set the tempo. You have to have someone who knows how to make great plays. You have to have someone who can play underneath the bright lights.''

Sometimes you have to have someone who can make you laugh.

The old 49ers remember this, too. Solomon could loosen up a clubhouse in a heartbeat.

For one thing, there were the nicknames. Montana was Papa Smurf. Lott was Bo-Bo. Clark was Hercules. Roger Craig was Catfish. DeBartolo was Caesar, or Mario, or Unc. To this day, Solomon refers to Hoover as Mayfield, after singer Curtis Mayfield. Hoover refers to Solomon as Superfly.'

On the 49ers, Solomon was Casper or Ghost. Montana teased him that he was so good in college, they shut the program down because they knew they would never have a better player.

"He was a character,'' Lott says. "He was a cross between Muhammad Ali and Fred Sanford.''

There was a serious side to Solomon. Even then he worked with young players to help make them better.

"He didn't have to do that,'' Montana says. "But he did.''

That was always the essence of Solomon. He helped. He took time. He made things better.

"Freddie Solomon has been lucky,'' Solomon says. "I've been blessed in many ways to have the journey I've had. I'm lucky I've traveled from where I came from to where I am.

"The hand I have been dealt, I'm going to live with it. I'm not going to back down.''

As far as his friends? Maybe they can schedule another reunion a few years from now.

.FAST FACTS

Freddie and Friends

What: A tribute to former University of Tampa and San Francisco 49ers player Freddie Solomon.

When/where: 5:30 tonight cocktails, 7 showing of NFL Films' The Legend of Freddie Solomon; University of Tampa Vaughn Center, ninth floor.

Tickets: $100; proceeds go to a scholarship endowment in Solomon's name.

Legend of Freddie Solomon gets spotlight treatment at University of Tampa 11/29/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 30, 2011 7:36am]

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