Freddie Solomon, 59, dies after nine-month battle with cancer

Freddie Solomon made a name for himself as a quarterback for the University of Tampa’s now-defunct football team. He finished 12th in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1974.
Freddie Solomon made a name for himself as a quarterback for the University of Tampa’s now-defunct football team. He finished 12th in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1974.
Published Feb. 14, 2012

TAMPA — Freddie Solomon was called by many endearing names during his remarkable football career. As the lightning fast option quarterback at the University of Tampa, he was Fabulous Freddie. As a two-time Super Bowl champion receiver with the San Francisco 49ers, teammates referred to him as Casper the Friendly Ghost because of the way he seemed to disappear from the pile, leaving defenders tackling air.

To the young people he mentored for more than two decades, dispensing advice about life as part of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office outreach program, he was Coach Solomon.

But to everyone he met, Mr. Solomon was simply a friend who put others first.

Mr. Solomon died Monday after a nine-month battle with colon and liver cancer. He was 59.

He had been undergoing chemotherapy until complications required him to be hospitalized Feb. 4 at South Florida Baptist Hospital in Plant City.

"It is with a heavy heart that we announce the passing of Freddie Solomon, a beloved family member, friend, community leader and coach," the family said in a statement released from Dee Solomon, his wife of 34 years. "We would like to thank those who have supported him throughout his life. We appreciate all the love and prayers during this difficult time."

Former 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo Jr., whose close friendship with Mr. Solomon spans more than three decades, said he never met a man who cared so much about others.

"I am deeply saddened by the passing of my dear friend Freddie Solomon today," DeBartolo said. "My heart goes out to Dee, his family, the 49ers football family, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and football fans everywhere. Freddie and I have been friends for 35 years, and he was one of the most gentle and best men I have ever met in my life. Scores of generations will remember Freddie through their children and the youth he's helped over all these decades. I have never met a man who cared so much about the human race, and there will never be another Freddie."

Mr. Solomon, DeBartolo and the Sheriff's Office organized an annual Christmas party for foster children, who unwrapped presents while their grateful parents opened envelopes filled with hundreds of dollars in cash.

"Our Sheriff's Office family is saddened by the loss of Freddie, but we are so proud to have the privilege to call him a friend and a colleague," said Sheriff David Gee. "That will never change. He worked for us for 21 years teaching children about sports and about life. His legacy will live on in the hearts and minds of countless boys and girls, some of whom are now adults.

"Freddie never stopped fighting his illness despite debilitating pain and fatigue, and he kept his smile until the end. He leaves us all with lessons about humility, and caring and loving others. Those timeless traits are what defined Freddie Solomon."

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Mr. Solomon was honored Nov. 30 at a fundraiser at UT's Vaughn Center called "Freddie and Friends," to endow a $200,000 scholarship there in his name.

"Love means doing everything for someone else's benefit," said Mr. Solomon's former Spartans teammate, Vin Hoover. "It means making every decision with the other person's well-being in mind. That was Freddie Solomon. I think I speak on behalf of our Spartan family that playing football with Freddie was an honor and privilege, but being Freddie's friend was more of an honor and privilege."

Drafted by the Dolphins, Mr. Solomon was traded to the 49ers in 1978, winning two Super Bowls while serving as one of the primary targets for Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana.

"Freddie Solomon was a dear friend and a great teammate," Montana said. "There was no one who gave more on and off the field than Freddie. The kindness he demonstrated was inspirational to all that knew him, and a joy to be around. The warmth of his smile will be forever imbedded in my mind and heart. Jennifer and I have been blessed to have him in our lives. We will miss you Freddie!"

In January 1982, the 49ers beat Dallas for the NFC championship. With the 49ers trailing, Mr. Solomon played a key role in their final drive, running a reverse for 14 yards and catching a 12-yard pass from Montana with a minute and a half left. Dwight Clark later caught the winning touchdown on one of the most famous plays in NFL history as the 49ers won 28-27.

The 49ers went on to win Super Bowl XVI over Cincinnati. San Francisco later beat the Dolphins 38-16 in Super Bowl XIX in January 1985.

"Freddie was very influential to me and my career, and taught me about work ethic and professionalism," said Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice, a teammate of Solomon's with the 49ers. "He inspired me to go out there every day and emulate him."

In addition to his wife, Dee, Mr. Solomon is survived by his mother Bessie Ruth Solomon (Sumter, S.C.); brothers Richard, Oneal and Roger (Sumter, S.C.); mother-in-law Mae Jeffers; nephew Godfrey Robinson (wife, Christine, children Jasmyn and Trey of Tampa); and brother-in-law Lanness and Patricia Robinson (Austin, Texas).

A cobbler's son, he grew up in Sumter, S.C., where he played baseball and football and idolized Jets quarterback Joe Namath. He practiced throwing the football in the back yard of the Jehovah Baptist Church.

After academic ineligibility kept him from playing at South Carolina, Mr. Solomon chose UT, which offered the chance to play quarterback. Mr. Solomon dazzled at UT where as a 6-foot, 170-pound freshman he was reported to have run the 40-yard dash in an electrifying 4.25 seconds.

Dolphins coach Don Shula converted him to receiver and his pro career flourished two seasons later after he was traded to the 49ers. He finished his 11-year pro career with 381 receptions and 48 touchdowns.

"Freddie was a great player but he was a better human being," former 49ers and Raiders Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott said. "His stand for helping the less fortunate and the voice he shared for making people do what is right and good was truly remarkable. This will always inspire me and others to achieve greatness for others and to be humble in our journey."

So humble was Mr. Solomon about his football career that many whom he helped were unaware of it. He never sought attention and refused to let anyone help him walk or climb stairs even after surgery to reconstruct his colon and 12 rounds of chemotherapy weakened him.

By his side in the final months, taking him to chemo treatments and providing companionship in his final days at the hospital, were Dee and DeBartolo.

Two months ago, at the "Freddie and Friends" tribute, Mr. Solomon vowed to keep fighting and said he was not afraid. But his message that night was to encourage those in attendance to continue his work and help others.

"In closing I'd like to share a verse from one of my favorite song writers," Mr. Solomon said. "He would tell us, never forget the life we live is all so beautiful and you've shown your beauty and prayers and your faith and it means everything to me. And all of us got more work to do.

"What I would like to say is that not only pray for me, but pray for all the other cancer victims."

A memorial service is planned for St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Tampa. Details will be announced in the coming days.

Times researcher Caryn Baird and staff writers Andrew Meacham, Greg Auman and Jodie Tillman contributed to this story.