TAMPA — In the hardscrabble streets of Hillsborough's Nuccio neighborhood, Freddie Solomon was more than a former football great.
Sure, Solomon was a star quarterback at the University of Tampa in the 1970s and, as a receiver, helped the San Francisco 49ers win two Super Bowls. But to the children and working-class families in the neighborhoods off Sligh Avenue just east of Tampa, the Solomon they knew was a gentle giant who began volunteering with the local youth football league more than two decades ago and just kept helping. For 21 years, the man known as “Fabulous Freddie'' on the field spent his days mentoring youth as a liaison with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, teaching a little football and a lot of life lessons.
Then the cancer came, and on Feb. 13, 2012, he was gone. So, too, it seemed, was the Solomon presence in the tough neighborhoods that so needed someone to tell the kids - and the adults, too - that if they worked hard and played straight and made the right decisions, anything was possible.
Then one day Sheriff David Gee had an idea. He called Delilah Solomon.
The community needs help, Gee said. Maybe you're the one to give it.
Delilah “Dee'' Solomon wasn't sure at first. As Solomon's widow, she knew all the hours he put into the sheriff's community-relations outreach program and the respect her husband had earned from the community. He was beloved, the county earlier this year had renamed the community center at Nuccio Park the Freddie Solomon Community Center.
How could anyone possibly fill those huge shoes? She loved the children, loved the idea of helping, but that wasn't her background. She was a white-collar worker, recently taking early retirement from her longtime position as a recruiting director with Suncoast Schools Federal Credit Union.
She understood how the idea might make sense, but she wasn't sure. She told the sheriff's office that she wasn't her late husband.
Gee and the sheriff's office were persistent. Sheriff's Chief Deputy José Docobo told her the sheriff and he thought she would be perfect in a role similar to the one her husband had held for 21 years in the Nuccio neighborhood.
Once the community center rehabilitation was completed later this year, she would be in charge of programming for youth, young adults, families and seniors. She also would play a role communicating with the community to learn what the needs were and how to meet them.
It wouldn't be easy, they told her, but the rewards would be great.
“The chief (Docobo) said to me, 'This is a marriage. We're in it for the long haul and would you think about it?'” Solomon said.
She went to her Plant City home to ponder the idea. Her husband, she knew, would love the idea, and soon she did, too.
She called the sheriff's office and said she would be honored to help.
The joy, she said, came from being “able to come to a place every day that has his name on it and then to be able to help kids because that is what his life was all about.” His life was “to instruct the kids, to help them with the respect (and) with them wanting to be a better person.”
Sheriff's Capt. Chad Chronister works in the office's community outreach division and is Dee Solomon's supervisor. He said while she might have had her doubts about being able to take over after her husband died, the sheriff's office never did.
All the years Freddie Solomon was working and volunteering in the area, Dee Solomon was with him, Chronister noted. She learned what programs worked and which ones didn't. She wasn't an outsider - she had earned a rapport with the community.
“She did it because she was just as vested with these children and showing the children that there is a different path, a different way of life,” Chronister said. “She's been doing it for 21 years. So for us it was a no-brainer.”
The county and sheriff's office have targeted the Nuccio area for attention. The sheriff's office began a cleanup offensive this summer in the neighborhood, which is roughly bordered by 56th Street, Puritan Road, Hillsborough Avenue and 43rd Street.
Vacant houses linked to crime and drug activity were torn down. Deputies served warrants to hundreds of people in the area. Hillsborough County Code Enforcement hauled away tons of garbage and debris.
Now the sheriff wants to focus on the children and use Solomon and the center to reach them through a number of programs, including literacy classes, after-school programs, summer programs and family nights, Chronister said.
“The sheriff has a real simple philosophy - where we can make a difference is with the children,” Chronister said. “So let us start there.''
Gerald “Duke” Scott, athletic director with the Nuccio Jaguars Youth Football League, said Dee Solomon already has met with him and other people in the community to get their input on what's needed and how she can help.
“A lot of people are geared up with her working in the community,” said Scott, who was mentored by Freddie Solomon through the youth football league. “She brings hard work, commitment and understanding. I think it's a unique idea. Let her pick up where he left off.”
Solomon said she's moved that the sheriff's office has entrusted her with the role once held by her husband.
“They did not have to do this,” she said. “It makes me feel so honored that they want me to be a part of the beginnings and the continuation of Freddie Solomon.”