The next challenger steps into the ring. The grayish-blue haze of cigarette smoke was the first thing to greet those who dared challenge "The Ghost" in a round of bones, next came mocking shouts of good-natured ridicule. "The Ghost" was king of the broom closet, he let everyone know it and would not be dethroned by anybody. Freddie Solomon would unceremoniously dispatch those foolish enough to enter his office - the janitors closet - and test him in a match of bones (dominoes). He sat atop a metal stool at the workbench, mops and brooms the members of his court, smoking a cigarette, clad only in his grass-stained football pants and his cut-off 49ers undershirt - his rule absolute, his authority unquestioned.
The previous invader vanquished, he sought another victim. I would cower as I walked past the door carrying an arm load of soiled jerseys to the laundry room. I knew anyone who walked by the open door with the smoke wafting from it would be subject to the king's ire. "Hey, little vonAppen! You want some too?" I didn't want to challenge the king in his court so I would smile, wave, and go about the business of cleaning up the dirty laundry. I offered deference in the presence of royalty.
"That's what I thought!"
As a youth I spent 6 weeks with my father in the blistering heat of Rocklin, California at Sierra Community College as a ball boy at 49ers training camp. My father and I shared a tiny dorm room on the campus during the summer starting when I was in the 6th grade and continuing through high school. I made $100 cash per week - huge money for a kid at the time. My father was an assistant coach for the 49ers from 1983 - 1989 and I had the privilege of being a part of something that most kids can only dream of.
The days at training camp were long for everybody, most of all for the players and coaches. Luckily, I possessed the boundless energy of adolescence and was up by 6 am and off to breakfast at the cafeteria, then to the field house to get ready for the morning practice - the long days didn't phase me much. I reported to the field house and helped distribute the clean laundry from the night before, hanging the players freshly washed and often still warm jerseys on their lockers before practice. I then set off on foot (or sometimes on a "borrowed" golf cart) to the 3 practice fields beyond the locker room and placed cones in neat rows every 5 yards along the boundaries of the fields. Next, I headed to the baseball dugout to grab tackling dummies and horsed them to strategic locations across the various fields in preparation for the morning drills. By now, my feet were completely soaked from the heavy dew on the grass and I sloshed in my shoes back to the field house to pack a bag of footballs for the players who were now about to hit the field.
When I was 12, I was awkward, ungainly, and I couldn't catch a football - at all. My job as a ball boy involved a lot of catching and throwing. It was painfully embarrassing for me when a player, like let's say, Joe Montana would throw me a ball and I would bat it around as if he had just tossed me a hand grenade with the pin pulled.
Freddie loved to teach, even if it was the simple act of catching a football.
Number 88, "The Ghost," was always out on the field before everyone else. Freddie was a wide receiver for the team back then and he took an interest in me. He could sense my panic and consternation as a ball zipped in my direction bounced off my hands as I awkwardly tried to grab it.
"Hey, little vonAppen. Come over here. We have some work to do."
I trotted over and off to the side of the field we'd play catch. Or more to the point, he would throw me the ball and I would try not to bludgeon it to death with the baseball bats I called hands. Fast Freddie played soft-toss with me to build up my confidence. He worked with me before practice in the wet grass, after practice in the gathering heat of late morning, and stayed late after practice again in the withering incandescence of the afternoon sun to help me learn how to catch the ball. Freddie loved to teach, and he especially loved helping kids in any way he could even if it was as simple as teaching them how to catch a football.
"Little vonAppen, listen up, turn your hands this way when the ball comes at you like this," he would patiently demonstrate the correct method for plucking the ball from the air. "Thumbs together - like this. Pinkies together - like that."
Frustrated, I dropped the ball time and again and he'd say, "That's alright. Stick with it. We'll get there. Don't quit."
I didn't always want to stay after practice but Freddie wouldn't let me quit. I had to get better or else he wouldn't let me off the field. It wasn't about playing catch. It was an exercise in kindness, interest, and patience.
Freddie took time when he was hot and tired and spent it with me so I wouldn't look like a fool when I was on the field with the team. In his way, he left his mark on me forever. For the years he was with the 49ers and throughout my football playing days I always thought of him as I caught the ball, looked it all the way in to the crook of my arm, and tucked it tightly to my body to ensure I wouldn't fumble. Freddie didn't just teach me how to catch a ball, he taught me about patience - not just in teaching, but how to find patience in myself. I learned that this little big man always had time for kids and gave of it freely even amidst the stresses of an NFL training camp.
"Your soul is nourished when you are kind."
Since his retirement from the NFL Freddie has been serving as a mentor for at-risk youth in the Tampa, Florida area which he has called home since he hung up his helmet for the last time. He has been a community coordinator for the Hillsborough County Sheriffs Department since 1991 and the department recently dedicated the sheriffs annex in his name.
The inscription on the plaque with a life-size image of Freddie Solomon with children in football uniforms says:
"AS I KNEELED BEFORE THE THRONE OF SOLOMON, THE KING OF KINGS SAID UNTO ME, 'THERE IS MORE WORK TO BE DONE.'"
Freddie was diagnosed with colon cancer that spread to his liver last year. He has been battling the disease and enduring brutal bouts of chemotherapy. His spirits remain high. In his address to the public at the dedication of the annex that now bears his name and likeness he said, "It takes a family. It takes a team to make it work. I'm only as good as the people around me."
In a small way I was witness to Freddie Solomon's charity and for a fleeting moment in time I was touched by his kindness. He has built a life of making things better for other people. Only now, as he battles cancer am I aware of the impact the small token of teaching had on me. The night I found out that Freddie Solomon had cancer I lay awake and stared at the ceiling pondering how small gestures from big personalities leave lasting imprints on lives. I thought of what a fierce competitor Freddie is and how kind he was to me as a kid. When we're young, we think those people, be they loved ones or sports heroes, will always be there - forever. In our fallible memory, they're suspended in time, always the way they were years ago. Sometimes, these treasured memories are our favorite places to visit.
I am thankful to have crossed paths with such a great human being. For me, there is more work to be done, much more. Freddie has taught many people, young and old, that we must pay forward the virtues instilled in us by those we call dear. He taught those whose lives he has touched that teaching is about humility, patience, and unearthing the best in others.
King Solomon said, "Your own soul is nourished when you are kind."
Thank you King Freddie. Your soul most certainly is well nourished.