Freddie Solomon, one of the most beloved members of the 49ers' early Super Bowl teams, died today in Tampa from complications from colon and liver cancer. He was 59.
Solomon's health had deteriorated rapidly since his diagnosis last year, and friends and former teammates had visited him in recent weeks. Former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo, who also lives in Tampa and who was perhaps closer to Solomon than any of his former players, was constantly by his friend's side over the last month. Solomon's weight -- about 190 pounds when he played -- had dipped to 130 as he went through treatment to fight his cancer.
"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," DeBartolo said. "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."
Solomon played quarterback at the University of Tampa but was drafted by the Dolphins in the second round in 1975 as a wide receiver. He was traded to the 49ers in 1978 and was a starter opposite Dwight Clark until another receiver, named Jerry Rice, came onto the scene in 1985.
Long-time 49ers general manager John McVay was the head coach at Dayton in the early 1970s and remembers travelling to Tampa to take on Solomon's squad. "They ran the option, and I tell you we haven't caught him yet," McVay said. "He was fast. He was elusive. He was just a great player."
That speed meshed well with Bill Wash's West Coast offense. Solomon led the 49ers in receiving yards in 1978 and 1979. His best season came in 1981 when he caught 59 passes for 969 yards and eight touchdowns. That was the year of "The Catch." Solomon famously was Joe Montana's first option on that play. But he slipped on the route, forcing Montana to go to another option, Clark, in the back of the end zone.
Few recall that Solomon also was the 49ers' emergency quarterback on those early Walsh-coached squads, and the 49ers had plays designed specifically for Solomon if their first two quarterbacks went down with injuries.
McVay described Solomon as the antitheses of the selfish and mercurial wide receivers that have been part of the NFL landscape for the last two decades. He first mentored Clark, who arrived in 1979 along with Walsh and McVay, and later did the same with Rice, who was drafted in 1985.
"Freddie had a natural leadership, a natural big-brother attitude," McVay recalled. "He was someone who would speak to the younger guys and give them the guidance they needed." Said Clark, who works on the business side of the team, in a statement issued by the 49ers:
"It's certainly a sad day here. Just trying to get my hands around it a little bit because I've never had anyone, other than family members -- Freddie Solomon's the closest person to me who's passed away. "I'll miss him terribly," Clark continued. "He was a great friend. He taught me how to be an NFL player."
Services will be held on Friday at Saint Lawrence Church in Tampa.
-- Matt Barrows