University of Tampa Hall of Fame football player and former NFL wide receiver Freddie Solomon died on Monday afternoon at the age of 59. His family said the cause of death was lung and colon cancer.
“We not only lost one of our greatest athletes, but we lost our favorite son,” said UT Athletic Director Larry Marfise. “This is an extremely sad day for the University of Tampa. Freddie was a person who exemplified what a true Spartan was, never forgetting his roots.”
Solomon was drafted out of UT in 1975, selected in the second round by the Miami Dolphins. He played three seasons with Miami before spending his final eight in San Francisco alongside Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, cementing his status as one of the greatest athletes and leaders to play football in the Tampa Bay area.
“Freddie was very influential to me and my career, and taught me about work ethic and professionalism. He inspired me to go out there every day and emulate him,” Hall of Famer Rice said, as quoted in a report by ESPN.
Solomon caught 371 passes during his 11 year NFL career to go along with 5,846 yards and 48 touchdowns. His most famous moment on the football field, though, might be a play he never got to make.
During the 1982 NFL Championship game between the 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys, Solomon had six catches in the game for 75 yards and a touchdown. During the final drive though, as the Niners were down six with about a minute left, Montana overthrew Solomon on what would have been the winning touchdown.
“Solomon looked like he beat (Dallas DB) Everson Walls,” said Vin Scully during CBS’ broadcast of the game.
Two plays later, Dwight Clark caught what forever will be referred to as “the catch.” He leapt, seemingly miles above the ground and came down with what would send the Niners to the 1982 Super Bowl, where they would defeat the Cincinnati Bengals.
What most fans don’t know is that Clark wasn’t the original option on that 3rd down play-call; the play’s first option was UT alum Freddie Solomon, who slipped in the mud during his route. And Clark knows it.
“If Freddie doesn’t slip,” Clark said, to the Tampa Bay Times, “Freddie is the guy who makes “‘the catch.’”
Solomon is regarded as one of the best players to ever come out of UT’s football program. Although a wide receiver in the NFL, Solomon played quarterback for the Spartans. In his final season, he set an NCAA record with 1,300 rush yards while also compiling 19 touchdowns. “Fabulous Freddie” as he was called, finished his four years at UT with 5,803 total yards and garnered 13 first-place votes in the 1974 Heisman Trophy voting.
“He was the best player in the country,” said Vin Hoover, Solomon’s teammate at UT, to the Tampa Tribune. “Had he played for Oklahoma, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ohio State, some place like that, he would’ve won the Heisman. Freddie was a phenomenon.”
After the ‘74 season, Solomon left for the pros and UT disbanded its football program for many reasons, including growing competition from within the Tampa Bay market.
Even with all of his statistical accomplishments, Solomon’s greatest gift wasn’t in his football prowess. It was in his personality and in his passion for the Tampa Bay community and with the University of Tampa in particular.
From Sumter, S.C., Solomon spent the beginning of his life self-conscious and quiet, embarrassed of a speech impediment that troubled him for years. He was scared of people for most of his childhood, except for one day a week.
“Except for Friday night (during high-school football season),” Solomon once said, according to the Tribune. “I wasn’t frightened then.”
Solomon used his success as a football player to overcome his social issues and eventually become a role model for the community where he attended college.
In December, UT held an event called “Freddie and Friends” to raise money for an eventual scholarship in Solomon’s name. Roughly 500 people attended and over $200,000 was raised. During a 10-minute speech, Solomon vowed to fight his illness while also imploring attendees to help others fight as they go through the same battle.
“What I would like to say is that not only pray for me, but pray for all the other cancer victims,” Solomon said then, according to the Tampa Bay Times. “For they need just as much prayer, or even more, than Freddie Solomon do. You’ve given me the will to stand up and fight, and I’m going to fight it with all I’ve got. I’m not afraid. It’s another game. I must prepare myself to take on that challenge.”
Solomon will be remembered for his blazing speed but more importantly, his lasting principle.
“He gives from the heart,” Solomon’s wife, Dee, said at the December event. “And doesn’t expect anything in return. I think he’s touched a lot of lives.”
The wide-out with the sixth-most receiving yards in 49ers’ history, and the mentor to Jerry Rice, has a place in UT’s Hall of Fame. But there is so much more to the story of his life, so much more room for inspiration.
“Your greatest asset and greatest legacy is you’re a teacher,” Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee said in December.
“You’ve taught so many about what it means to have good character.”
This article was originally published in The Minaret.