It was a time to honor Freddie Solomon, the University of Tampa football legend, two-time Super Bowl winner with the San Francisco 49ers and tireless champion of the community's charitable causes.
In typical Solomon fashion, he said he wasn't worthy of Wednesday night's lavish "Freddie and Friends" affair, attended by 500 people and sponsored by the DeBartolo family, UT and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. Proceeds from the event, which totaled $200,000, will go to the endowment of a UT scholarship in Solomon's name.
"I didn't seek this," said Solomon, 58, who since May has battled colon cancer and cancerous lesions that spread to his liver. "It's overwhelming to be part of this. All I know is to work hard, do your job and be a good teammate."
When Solomon and his wife, Dee, thanked everyone for their presence, teammates were everywhere throughout the Falk Theatre, where the NFL Films premiere of "The Legend of Freddie Solomon" was shown.
"This isn't a memorial," said Tampa resident Eddie DeBartolo, former 49ers owner and one of Solomon's closest friends. "He loves this. And you know why? It's not the reason anybody would think. He loves this because he thinks he's getting his word out.
"It's not about Freddie Solomon. It's about what he (does) with the kids, the sheriff's youth camps and everything else. This guy is all about people and how he can help people."
Wednesday night's event attracted three of Solomon's former San Francisco teammates — Dwight Clark, Eric Wright and Fred Dean — and 49ers football legends Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Ronnie Lott gave video tributes.
"When I came (to the 49ers), it didn't take me long to realize I was in way over my head," Clark said. "Freddie tried to help. He stayed after practice and taught me things. That's how he is with everybody."
Wednesday night was the 37-year anniversary of UT's last football game, but former Spartans tight end Vin Hoover said Solomon's legacy has lived on.
Solomon's UT football exploits speak for themselves. "Fabulous Freddie," as he was known in Tampa, accounted for 5,803 yards of total offense (then 16th all-time in the NCAA), while rushing for 3,299 (then first all-time among college quarterbacks). Playing for a 6-5 small-school team, he still finished 12th in the 1974 Heisman Trophy voting.
But Hoover said football is only part of Solomon's appeal.
"I think this night will give him strength; it's going to uplift him," Hoover said. "It's a great night for this community to pay back somebody who has never asked for anything. He just wants to walk softly through this community and be a teacher. That's what I respect about him the most."
Also on hand was Steve Satterfield, the Sumter (S.C.) High School head football coach when Solomon was a senior in 1970. It was the first year of integration, and Satterfield already had a quarterback returning from his state championship team.
The offense went nowhere in two series. Solomon asked for a chance.
"He runs for five touchdowns," Satterfield said. "They almost didn't even touch him. My assistant coach looks at me and says, 'Looks like we have a new quarterback.'
"The first time I saw him, I had a watch timing him. I didn't know who he was. Freddie ran a 4.3 in the 40. I had never seen a 4.3 in my life. I really felt like something was wrong with my watch, and I asked them to get me another one. Well, then Freddie ran a sub-4.3. Evidently, he felt I didn't believe what he did. He didn't even look like he was running. He was so smooth. I had never seen anything like that before. He was awesome."
But in Tampa, since his retirement after the 1985 NFL football season, "awesome" also describes the work Solomon has done with children. Some needed encouragement. Some needed a mentor. Some just needed a friend.
"Whenever I came in this area, everybody talked about this guy, Fast Freddie Solomon," said former Detroit Lions coach Wayne Fontes, once an assistant with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "When I met him, I found out he was a wonderful human being. If you don't love Freddie Solomon, you don't love America and apple pie.
"That why all these people are here. It's a tribute to him. If somebody else had the same thing going on, 10 people would show up. But this guy is an icon."