Monday, January 11, 2010

Solomon Shines at All-American Bowl, 1/5/75

In the 7th annual Lions American Bowl on January 5, 1975, the South all-stars came into the game as a 14-point underdog against the best of the North. Winless in the series since 1970, few gave the South a chance. Even so, the South did have a chance because of a weapon on their roster known all-too-well to football fans in Tampa: quarterback Freddie Solomon.

The star quarterback from the University of Tampa would play the last game of his amateur career on the same field where he left an indelible mark on the sport. It would give Solomon -- an almost-certain first-round NFL Draft pick -- one final chance to showcase his skills.

His athleticism and talent were never in question among pro scouts, some of whom dubbed him the best "pure athlete" in the draft. Blessed with blazing speed, Solomon could outrun anyone on the football field. He left his opponents, as well as opposing coaches, in awe.

Miami Hurricanes head coach Pete Elliott described Solomon's running as "out of this world" and called him "one of the finest football players I have ever seen."

His own coach, Dennis Fryzell, said that he "wouldn't trade Fred Solomon for any quarterback in the country."

Still, he had some doubters. One opposing coach said that he did not regard Solomon as a "complete quarterback" or a "sophisticated passer." Even admirers like Elliott, however, couldn't resist the occasional backhanded compliment towards Solomon.

"The greatest sight is to see Freddie drop back to pass," Elliott once said, "and then pass."
Yes, even as Solomon set the NCAA record for rushing yards by a quarterback, there were doubts.

As he prepared to turn pro, many scouts and front office executives questioned whether his skills would translate at the quarterback position in the NFL. They wondered if he'd be better off as a wide receiver, running back -- or even a defensive back.

By his own admission, Solomon acknowledged he was not a traditional drop-back passer.

"All I want," Solomon said, "is the respect of being drafted as a quarterback and the chance to see if I can play it. I think I can. If somebody would take me and work with me this offseason on the drop-back technique, I know I could do it."

If Solomon's goal was to use the Lions American Bowl to showcase his quarterbacking potential, he should have considered the game a rousing success.

In front of an announced crowd of 19,240 at Tampa Stadium, the South defied the odds and triumphed over the North, 28-22. How the South won, however, is more interesting than the fact that it actually won. Solomon almost singlehandedly delivered the victory for his team.

He led the South on all four of their touchdown drives -- covering 70, 65, 68, and 50 yards -- even while splitting time at quarterback with Rockey Felker of Mississippi State and Chris Kupec of North Carolina.

Although his passing stats on the day were on the low end -- 3 of 3 for 66 yards and one touchdown -- when given the opportunity he made two critical passes on what turned out to be the game-winning drive. Solomon connected on pass plays of 24 and 26 yards to University of Florida receiver Lee McGriff, the latter coming with 15 seconds left in the game to break a 22-22 tie.

"I've felt all along that I could pass," Solomon said. "I hope I made a believer of some people today."

Solomon also gained 45 yards on the ground and scored two rushing touchdowns, including a dazzling eight-yard run that showcased his speed and athleticism.

"We ran the wide veer to the left," he said of the play. "Their defense had it stacked up, so I turned the other way, and ran for daylight."

For his efforts, Solomon earned the South's MVP award. Moreover, Solomon proved his abilities under center.

"I hope that what I did at the end of the game will make believers out of some of those people," he said. "Sure I want to play quarterback in the pros. If I can't, I'll just have to do something else."

Solomon made enough of an impression over the course of his college career to be selected in the 2nd round of the 1975 draft by the Miami Dolphins. He was not drafted, however, to play quarterback. Miami drafted Solomon with the idea of converting him into a wide receiver and kick returner.

Over the course of an 11-year pro career -- three with Miami and eight with San Francisco -- Solomon proved he could play those positions, too. He amassed 48 offensive touchdowns and five on special teams while becoming one of Joe Montana's favorite targets.

The native South Carolinian known around these parts as "Fabulous Freddie" provided football fans with thrills for four great seasons at the University of Tampa. The NFL may not have been ready for his style of quarterback play back then, but years later the popular use of Wildcat formations have proved that his athletic skills weren't just a passing fad.

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