PLANT CITY - He was a Tampa Treasure and one of Sumter’s Favorite Sons. And if you had the fortune to know him, he was a friend forever.
Freddie Solomon Jr., a football star at all levels who captured attention and records wherever he went, passed away on Monday, Feb. 13, 2012. This time his opponent was cancer and it proved too powerful. He fought it for 10 months, accompanied by countless prayers from friends and strangers alike.
Freddie was 59. He died peacefully at South Florida Baptist Hospital in the company of his beloved Dee, his wife of 33 years, and family. It was a solemn close to the final chapter of a life spent so often on the public stage.
“Freddie was the absolute joy of my life,’’ said Dee. “I am comforted in knowing that he touched so many lives and that they loved Freddie, too. Freddie opened his arms to embrace the Lord and that gives me peace.’’
A lot of people knew Freddie as simply Freddie, a jovial yet formal first name that befitted his personality: happy but determined; competitive but humble. Others knew Freddie as “Coach.’’ It would come to be his adopted surname. It was even monogrammed on his polo shirts.
But coach was more than a moniker. It was who he was and wanted to be. He was Coach with a capital "C'' to countless children through the years, teaching them skills on the field and in life. It was what made him the happiest - to see a child’s smile at achieving something that once seemed too far to grab. Maybe it was catching that long pass. Maybe it was learning to play by the rules. Maybe it was the glow of pride in being part of a team.
Perhaps Freddie, who came from humble beginnings in South Carolina, saw a bit of himself in all of those boys who donned hand-me-down football pads and helmets and laced up worn cleats with a dream to maybe one day run into the limelight - or at least let them pretend.
He was Coach, too, to friends and colleagues. He taught us - in his own unassuming way - about loving God, caring for others, doing something good for someone because it was the right thing to do. And to take care of our children.
Eddie DeBartolo, former owner of the San Francisco 49ers and one of Freddie’s closest friends who was with him in his final hours, praised him as genuine and gracious.
“Scores of generations will remember Freddie through their children and the youth he helped through the decades,’’ DeBartolo said. “His legacy will live on in those children. I have never met anyone who cared so much about his fellow man. There will never be another Freddie.’’
Freddie, the boy from Sumter, South Carolina who left home and family to find fame 500 miles away on a football field at the University of Tampa, is gone. He came to the Sunshine State to shine. It all seems to fit now, like it was meant to be. He wore his name on his jersey but his heart on his sleeve – on and off the field. Humble, quiet, whit-leather strong and greased lightning quick. All in one.
At the University of Tampa, Freddie set records. Folks can remember his godly skills, making cuts like a razor on the field or hurling a spiral for a touchdown. Fast Freddie. Yes sir, he was going places. But not just in sports.
After graduating, Freddie was drafted by the Miami Dolphins as a wide receiver. He then joined the San Francisco 49ers, a place where he would secure a name for himself. In a way he really did leave his heart – and soul – in San Francisco, something so many are so glad he did.
Freddie made people take notice, on and off the field. On the turf he starred. Out of uniform he cared. And it was working with children, mainly underprivileged through the United Way in California, where he excelled. He donated time and money to Special Olympics and March of Dimes and others. And people noticed. He was voted the 49ers Man of the Year in 1982 for his civic work.
Freddie never sought the limelight. It found him. And it shone on a most humble man, who shook off the stigma of stuttering like he did so many tackles. In 1982, in Sumter, South Carolina, one of its favorite sons came home. It was “Freddie Solomon Day,’’ a chance for all to set eyes on a Super Bowl champion. He got the key to the city and the prideful stares of small town America. Ever gracious with a sincerity that could not be faked, he smiled and told the crowd that day: “Sumter went to the Super Bowl also.’’ It was pure Freddie.
Freddie left the 49ers in 1985 with two Super Bowl rings and a cache of friends and fans who would never forget him. 49er great Joe Montana said he and his wife Jennifer were blessed to have had Freddie in their lives.
”There was no one who gave more on and off the field than Freddie,’’ said the Hall of Fame quarterback. “The kindness he demonstrated was inspirational to all that knew him. The warmth of his smile will be forever imbedded in my mind and heart.’’
Ronnie Lott, a 49er defensive star and longtime friend, said Freddie will be remembered for his inspiration.
“Freddie was a great player but he was a better human being,’’ Lott said. “His stand for helping the less fortunate and the voice he shared for making people do what is right and what is good was truly remarkable.’’
Freddie and Dee, whom he had met while in college and later married, headed back to Florida. They built a home in Plant City.
In Tampa, Freddie was introduced to Robert Oates, an up and coming commander at the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. The Sheriff’s Office was looking for someone to coordinate a sports-oriented program for at-risk youth. Freddie knew he had found a new team, Oates recalled. He was hired in 1991. Freddie the Coach had found his calling – this time off the field.
Over the years Freddie assembled scores of youth football teams and training camps. He knew the sport was more than just a game, especially to a child who was confronting obstacles. He used the teams, his coaching, his wisdom, and his soft-voice to help children find themselves and see a brighter future. Freddie knew that a child needed to know that people cared.
Freddie, who usually wore a favorite Special Olympics ball cap, wasn’t just about football and sports camps for the Sheriff’s Office. He assembled yearly family fun days for hard-luck families, with food and prizes and soulful joy aplenty. It warmed his heart to see people happy. When they smiled, he smiled.
He also threw Christmas parties for families torn by circumstances. Every year he generated thousands in donations and provided groups of children and their caregivers with presents. Freddie loved to see a child unwrap a smile, at least for one day that year. Through tears he would watch the faces of boys and girls glow with delight.
Freddie, who once served as a judge for the Miss USA pageant in 1982, was flashy as a player but not as a person. That was by design. He was proud to prove his prowess on the field, but always without equivocation. He said he managed to excel because of the team. It was never about him. It was always about others.
When cancer invaded his colon in April 2011, Freddie leaned heavily on his sports upbringing. The insidious disease was an opponent, he said. Dee, his family and his friends were his teammates; his doctors were his coaches. Follow the plays without fail. Stay focused. Listen. Never lose sight of the goal. Dig deep. Go for victory.
But not this time.
The ordeal of surgery and chemotherapy took its toll, and the cancer never backed down. It attacked his liver. Freddie’s stout 5 foot 11 inch frame withered. His stamina sagged. But not his spirit.
Consider: While in the hospital and his life ebbing, he wanted only to know about his youth football team. Did they have good helmets? How were their uniforms? Take care of those kids, he mustered in a subdued voice.
Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee said Freddie leaves a legacy of goodness.
“Our Sheriff’s Office family is saddened by the loss of Freddie, but we are so proud to have had the privilege to call him a friend and a colleague,’’ Sheriff Gee said. “Freddie leaves us with lessons about humility, and caring and loving others. Those timeless traits are what defined Freddie Solomon then, now and forever.’’
Freddie had more friends and supporters than he knew. Sure, he was a star professional athlete with his photograph on sports cards. But it was what Freddie stood for during and after his grid iron glory days that summoned the crowds. On November 30, 2011, hundreds attended a “Freddie and Friends’’ tribute at the University of Tampa. A scholarship in his name was revealed. Former teammates told tales. Best friends shared stories. There were handshakes and hugs and laughter and tears.
And Freddie smiled.
On January 11, 2012, on his 59th birthday, the Sheriff’s Office unveiled a tribute built in Freddie’s honor. A large granite structure showcases a magnificent brass relief, depicting Freddie on one knee as he explains football – or maybe a life lesson – to two boys. The memorial sits outside the sheriff’s building that now bears his name.
At the dedication ceremony, Freddie’s eyes welled up with tears. In his typical quiet tone, softened even more by an unrelenting internal enemy that left him drained, he thanked everyone for the honor. But he would not take the credit. It was never about him, he said. It was about being part of a team. It was about doing something for others. Honor must be shared because it is achieved with help.
And he smiled.
It was classic Coach.
It was pure Freddie.