By Joey Johnston
There are dozens upon dozens of stories about Freddie Solomon, the legendary University of Tampa quarterback.
They don't seem real.
Could they be a sports writer's hyperbole? Colorful tales that were exaggerated over time? Pure fiction?
The stories are all true.
Former teammates describe a player who was faster than a speeding bullet, more slippery than an eel, more elusive than a jackrabbit in the open field.
When Solomon played at UT from 1971-74, he was an instant sensation, a transcendent athlete whose exploits remain seared in the consciousness of all witnesses nearly a half-century later. "Fabulous Freddie'' left UT as the NCAA's all-time leading rusher at quarterback. Good thing that some highlight films still exist. Many of Solomon's touchdown runs defied description.
And yet, despite those unforgettable moments under the bright lights of the old Tampa Stadium, they don't capture Solomon's essence.
Solomon, who played 11 seasons in the National Football League and earned two Super Bowl rings with the San Francisco 49ers, died in 2012 at age 59 after a bout with colon cancer. As attested by the numerous tributes, football was only part of his legacy.
Settling in his adopted hometown of Tampa, he became a coach, a mentor, a tireless champion of his community's charitable causes. Some of the children he helped never knew he was a football great.
The Freddie Solomon Community Service Award is presented annually to a UT student-athlete. The philosophy of Solomon, who worked with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and numerous charities, is displayed on the award's plaque in UT's Martinez Center. It quotes Solomon as saying he wanted people to remember him first as a giving and charitable person, not an award-winning athlete.
"Freddie Solomon was a better person than he was a football player,'' said former UT tight end Vin Hoover, Solomon's teammate and longtime friend. "And make no mistake, Freddie Solomon was the best football player most of us have ever seen.''
PRIOR TO UT
Solomon was a high-school football legend in Sumter, S.C. In 1999, The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., named him South Carolina's No. 1 prep athlete of the 20th Century.
He was ticketed for the University of South Carolina, but couldn't get the test scores. Gamecock coaches suggested a diversion to junior college. Solomon had other ideas.
Integration was moving slowly in the South. Solomon found a school ahead of the curve. He arrived quietly at UT in 1971, still scarred from all the kids who laughed at his stuttering. Solomon's silence was often mistaken for arrogance. In truth, he was frightened.
Until he got on the football field.
"Out there,'' Solomon once said, "I was free to be myself.''
Solomon's career numbers don't just speak volumes. They scream. They shout.
He accounted for 5,803 yards of total offense (then 16th all-time in the NCAA), while rushing for 3,299 (then first among all-time college quarterbacks and 12th overall).
After his senior season of 1974 — about five months before UT administrators decided to shut down the Spartan football program for financial reasons — Solomon finished 12th in the Heisman Trophy balloting and received 13 first-place votes.
All while playing for a small-school program that finished 6-5.
"We heard it from coaches all around the country,'' former UT receivers coach Gene King once said. "If Freddie was at Oklahoma or Nebraska or Notre Dame, he would've won the Heisman. No question. Some people still think Freddie was the best option quarterback to ever play football.''
Solomon's football story is best told with quick start-and-stop anecdotal snippets (sort of like his running style).
The first time Solomon touched the ball for the Spartans, it was a 55-yard kickoff return in the 1971 opener against Louisiana Tech. Only a shoestring sideline tackle prevented a 99-yard touchdown.
His freshman coming-out party was UT's third game on a brutally hot afternoon against Youngstown State. Solomon, opposed by Penguins quarterback Ron Jaworski, rushed for 147 yards on just nine carries, including a stadium-record 78-yard touchdown.
Before Solomon's fourth college game, Tampa Tribune sports editor Tom McEwen quoted an NFL scout, who already was marveling at the player's potential as he watched from the press box.
"He has the quickest hands and quickest feet of any quarterback I've ever seen,'' the scout said. "My God, he could be a great one.''
For two seasons, Solomon shared the quarterback position with Buddy Carter, more of a pocket passer. There was never a complaint — just an accentuation of the positives on each side.
As a sophomore, Solomon helped the Spartans to a 10-2 season and a Tangerine Bowl victory against Kent State.
As a junior, Solomon's astounding statistical journey kicked into overdrive. Against UT-Chattanooga, he had 15 carries for 239 yards, including touchdowns of 39, 65 and 81 yards.
When Solomon's senior season commenced, the football nation began to take notice.
In a loss at San Diego State, Solomon took a quarterback draw for an 81-yard score. He broke an estimated 12 tackles, escaping twice from a few players.
"He's the most exciting collegiate runner since O.J. Simpson, and he moves faster than anything that doesn't burn fuel,'' wrote Jack Murphy, sports editor of the San Diego Union.
The following week back in Tampa, Solomon rushed for 182 yards and passed for 103 against No. 12-ranked Miami, which escaped 28-26 when UT's potential game-winning field goal hit the right upright and deflected out off the crossbar.
Afterward, Hurricanes coach Pete Elliott said Solomon was "the finest football player in the country today. No doubt about it. He's the biggest threat I've ever seen on a football field.''
In Solomon's senior finale against Florida A&M, he had 14 carries for 211 yards, including touchdowns of 59 and 79 yards.
Solomon became a second-round pick of the Miami Dolphins, but never had a realistic shot at playing quarterback. He was shifted to wide receiver, where he flourished after being traded to the 49ers in 1978.
Solomon, who was the intended received on the famous connection between Joe Montana and Dwight Clark ("The Catch'') in the 1982 NFC Championship Game, had 371 receptions for 5,846 yards and 48 touchdowns in the NFL.
"I've met thousands of players who came through my locker room, but I've never seen anyone with a heart like Freddie,'' said former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo, who operates a sports and entertainment business in Tampa. "We wouldn't have reached the top without Freddie.''
Who did Solomon resemble in the open field?
The first comparison is usually Michael Vick, the prime-time version. But others see the legs and improvisational ability of Barry Sanders, maybe Gale Sayers.
When his football career was done, after he had settled into a meaningful, productive life, Solomon couldn't outrun cancer.
On Nov. 30, 2011 — 37 years to the day since the Spartans played their final football game — UT, the DeBartolo family and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office produced an event entitled "Freddie and Friends'' at UT's Falk Theatre. It raised more than $200,000 for the endowment of a scholarship in Solomon's name.
Solomon was almost embarrassed.
"I did not seek this,'' he said.
At the same time, he was gratified by the turnout of former UT and 49er teammates, plus the opportunity to further spread his message.
"I just never thought of myself as a big-time star,'' said Solomon, who in 2002 was named UT's co-Athlete of the Century, along with former baseball player Tino Martinez, a four-time World Series champion with the New York Yankees. "I'm just Coach Solomon.''
That's how he was known while working in community relations with the Sheriff's Office.
He rarely told stories about his football exploits. It was about reaching kids, sometimes the most desperate, hopeless cases.
That was the irony. Solomon once stuttered so badly, he could hardly finish a sentence. But he could communicate profoundly with youth, giving them hope and sometimes transforming them into productive citizens.
Each winter for a dozen years, Solomon, DeBartolo and the Sheriff's Office organized a Christmas celebration for foster children. The kids got wrapped presents. Their caregivers, unexpectedly recognized and summoned forward, were screaming or sobbing in disbelief after receiving gift envelopes filled with hundreds of dollars.
Solomon didn't seek attention for that, either. He was usually off to the side, fighting back his own tears.
"I can't think of another person who is so revered in this community,'' UT president Ronald Vaughn said on the night Solomon was honored.
"Freddie and Friends'' was highlighted by the premier of an NFL Films presentation, "The Legend of Freddie Solomon.'' It chronicled his 49er years, but also featured priceless footage from his UT Spartan days.
"That's it, he's a legend,'' DeBartolo said then. "That's who Freddie Solomon is. And legends live forever.''
As an electrifying quarterback, as a productive NFL player, as a human being who always sought to give back, Freddie Solomon was more than memorable.
The nickname fit perfectly.
He was fabulous.
Joey Johnston has worked in the Tampa Bay sports media for more than three decades, winning multiple national awards while covering events such as the Super Bowl, World Series, Final Four, Wimbledon, the U. S. Open, the Stanley Cup Finals and all the Major bowl games. But his favorite stories have always been about Tampa Bay Area teams and athletes. A third-generation Tampa native, he was a regular in the Tampa Stadium stands at University of Tampa football games.