Hillsborough County isn't quite as gentle and sweet today. It's a temporary setback, but there's a smile missing, one that was as unstoppable as its owner once was on a college or professional football field, or when anyone needed help, especially a child.
Freddie Solomon died Monday after a battle with cancer. He was 59. My last memory of Freddie is him gently working the room last November, at a tribute in his honor at the University of Tampa, where he starred as a player.
Everyone in that room, and in the theater when the celebration moved across the street, knew that their friend Freddie was dying. People tiptoed to him, trying to think of the words ...
Freddie would give a Freddie hug and a Freddie smile. Then came that soft Freddie voice.
"How are you doing?" he asked, again and again, all night.
How were we doing?
That was Freddie.
Freddie and friends.
We lost Lee Roy Selmon last September. And now Freddie Solomon is gone. If you asked me to name the two sweetest athletes I've come across in Tampa Bay, it would be Lee Roy and Freddie, photo finish.
Freddie was the sun on your face, no matter what the weather, wherever or whenever you saw him. He really was that humble, that kind.
He came to us 40 years ago from South Carolina. The Bucs weren't around yet, so the big show was "Freddie and Friends," as billboards around town proclaimed the now long-gone Tampa Spartans football program. Freddie was electric, an option quarterback who gave jaws no option but to drop.
Back to that loving November tribute, arranged by his university, his friend and former employer, former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo, and by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, where Freddie worked tirelessly with youth at football and at life.
At one point, a video showed Freddie at UT, impossible to stop, breaking tackles, outrunning everyone.
Was he that good?
He was that good.
There were tributes from his 49ers teammates, who talked about the nicknames Freddie the receiver gave them, or how much Freddie meant to San Francisco's first two Super Bowl champions.
Was Freddie that big?
"Freddie was the guy," Joe Montana said his video tribute.
There was a salute from the sheriff's office. Did Freddie help that many children at risk?
Freddie was there. He helped the least of us. Freddie and his beloved bride, Dee, were always there.
Monsignor Lawrence Higgins delivered the prayer on tribute night. He began:
"Heavenly father, we ask you to bless a truly selfless man."
Freddie Solomon gained an amazing 5,803 yards in his UT career. In 11 NFL seasons, he caught 381 passes and made 48 touchdowns.
Freddie was sometimes kidded about the catch he didn't make. It happened 30 years ago in the NFC championship game. The 49ers trailed Dallas, but drove to the win to go to the franchise's first Super Bowl. Freddie was all over that drive, Montana to Solomon, big plays, down the field, close to the Dallas goal line.
Then Montana overthrew Solomon for what could have been the winning points. Then, on third down, Freddie was the intended receiver, but slipped and fell. Montana kept rolling right, rolling, until he found another Freddie friend, Dwight Clark, in the back of the end zone for history, for forever.
"Freddie could have been the big hero if it wasn't for me," Montana said with a grin in his video tribute last November. "And then he goes and falls down."
But he knew what we all knew:
Freddie was a big hero, and always will be. Freddie didn't fall down, he helped others up.
Freddie Solomon is gone - so we'll have to pick up the slack.
Let's start with a smile and a hug.