“The Ghost”

Get outGet out of my office!”  Raucous shouts bounce off the concrete walls of the  Sierra College field house.  A hulking football player shuffles through the door with his head down and starts for the showers.  The disembodied voice booms again, “Who’s next?


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:

FREDDIE SOLOMON

“COACH”

“AS I KNEELED BEFORE THE THRONE OF SOLOMON, THE KING OF KINGS SAID UNTO ME, ‘THERE IS MORE WORK TO BE DONE.'”

-Freddie Solomon

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.

God Bless.



From The Chicago Tribune:

Former 49ers Receiver Freddie Solomon Dies

February 13, 2012|Tribune news services
Former 49ers wide receiver Freddie Solomon died Monday at the age of 59 following a nine-month battle with colon and liver cancer.
Solomon, known as “Fabulous Freddie,” was a quarterback at the University of Tampa and spent the past two decades working with youths in the Tampa, Fla., area.
Former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo recently spent Super Bowl weekend with Solomon and his family as Solomon’s health deteriorated.












Continue Reading

Alchemy in San Francisco

Last week I posted a piece about Jim Harbaugh and the power of belief in a cause. The week prior to that, a post about Matt Flynn, preparation, and keeping your head in the game.


Smith and the 49ers have a leader they believe in.
I realize that this is a Fire Engineering blog, and not a sports blog, but bearing witness to the transformation of the San Francisco 49ers – and in particular Alex Smith (the starting quarterback) – makes one marvel at how for nearly 10 years an organization got it so wrong in terms of leadership and direction and why now they seem to be getting it right.

Where were the 49ers going wrong and how did they turn it around? They continue to pull things together – pulling out an improbable win in the waning seconds of the divisional playoffs – by rallying around one another. The 49ers and Alex Smith have a leader that believes in them – and a leader that they believe in as a team – this synergy is where the turnaround starts and maybe where it ends.

Can it really be that simple? 


Sometimes it is.

Quality Coaching

Much of Alex Smith’s success this season can be attributed to quality coaching. Smith has shown flashes of brilliance in his career; but overall, due to lack of a solid coaching foundation, he has not been able to perform week-in and week-out with consistency. The pieces were there – the sports pundits could be heard saying that the 49ers were one of the most talented teams in the league – the most talented team that wasn’t winning.

In any endeavor, results are based on high standards and the ability to achieve those standards consistently. Previous years had seen 49ers players subjected to many changes in leadership styles, and they had continually had the carpet pulled from beneath their feet. The only consistency in the organization was inconsistency – and nothing was working.

There isn’t a whole lot that can take place without first believing.

The previous two head coaches – Mike Nolan, and Mike Singletary – could easily have been described as impatient, irritable, vague, ruthless, egomaniacal bullies. At every opportunity they would publicly chastise players, and routinely threw Smith under the bus, questioning his toughness and his leadership skills.

So much for praising in public and criticizing in private.

The books say leadership is not a mysterious and innate quality that certain individuals are born into. True, some have a tendency toward leadership traits, such as a stalwart personality – but a strong personality on its own does not guarantee that a person will be successful in a leadership role. Sometimes the opposite is true.

Nolan and Singletary both possessed strong leadership characteristics, but couldn’t get their men to respond.

What doesn’t work as a leader:
  • Being ruthless
  • Being a loner
  • Being uncooperative
  • Being ambiguous
  • Being a dictator
Strong personalities, when left unchecked, can lead to a despotic form of leadership. Those who choose to lead by oppression and absolute power are not paying forward positive leadership traits, and often cause those who must follow this positional leader to detach from the organization in order to survive.

Which brings us to the current coaching staff. Harbaugh preaches the team concept and will not disparage his men at any time. Harbaugh has built a solid support system around his quarterback – pledging his allegiance to him even before the season started. 

There has been no ambiguity. Harbaugh saw something in the kid who had been the scapegoat for all of the team’s ills, and knew he could reach him. He has placed people around Smith who touch him in different ways. Smith has lacked quality coaching in the past – now that he has unwavering support and quality instruction there is no telling how far he and his team can go. A group of men once adrift in a sea of uncertainty are now one win away from the Super Bowl.

How many times over the last year have you read articles in fire service publications about the vacuum that exists in our realm as a result of the massive exodus of veterans? We have to constantly move forward and look to the past for guidance.

The key is that we must always move forward.

Many times, all people need to be successful is for someone to believe in them. There are many great brothers and sisters in the fire service today who are working towards leading the profession forward with forethought and insight as great as that of anyone of any generation, past or present.

Like Smith, these “doers” gain confidence if people in leadership positions recognize their drive and support their efforts. If their attempts at positive change are continually cast off or snubbed, their talent will wither and die. It happens all the time.

Alex Smith has the right people leading him.

Frank Gore (the 49ers starting running back) said this of his quarterback, “(Smith) deserves all this. He has had some tough times. We have the right people leading us. And he’s got the right people leading him.”

Egos Checked at the Door

Harbaugh has instilled trust in his men – he motivates them with an unflinching commitment to the team. He does this by defending them from outsiders and constantly supporting their efforts. He is honest with them – but most of all he is a team builder. Harbaugh is a great communicator who relates to his guys as a man who has been there before. He has credibility because he says what he means and means what he says.


Harbaugh knows what it means to be the underdog. Harbaugh was himself an NFL quarterback who was never the most gifted athletically and played with a chip on his shoulder the size of an aircraft carrier. He excelled because of a relentless pursuit of perfection and by getting his teammates to believe in him. He coaches the same way. Our job as leaders is to believe in our people and give them the opportunity to go wherever they want to go.


Give them the credit when they have earned it.
  • Be trustworthy
  • Make decisions
  • Have foresight
  • Encourage the team concept

Harbaugh has cultivated the same strong leadership qualities that he possesses in his contemporary, Alex Smith. In all likelihood, if Harbaugh had not landed the head job in San Francisco, Smith might have bounced around the league for a few more years and not amounted to much. This would not have been for lack of talent, but rather due to the fact that he had been so beaten down by the previous coaching staffs and the national media.

After a while, when people say enough bad things about you, you start to believe it.

Harbaugh gives all the credit to his guys. He once told the media, “Don’t talk to me, talk to the guys. They’re the ones that won the game.”

You have nothing to lose and everything to gain when your people succeed. Everybody wins because you got there together. Their growth and success is your legacy. If you can look down the line at all of the people who came through your firehouse that went on to be successful, charismatic, and understanding leaders, then you can be proud of the rich heritage that you helped to create.

It doesn’t just come from you, we are compilation pieces; collages made from everyone we have ever known. Pieces of our every contact mold us into who we are today. Today’s interactions change what we will be tomorrow. We are the result of a lifetime’s worth of input from all the leadership we have observed, be it positive or negative. Take in everything you are witness to. If we are keen observers of those around us, the learning never stops.


Outstanding coaches are often great simplifiers who can cut through nonsense and doubt to create a solution that everyone can rally around.


The 49ers and their coaching staff in particular are true alchemists. They have taken largely unappreciated talent and transformed it into something extraordinary. There isn’t a whole lot that can take place without first believing.



















Continue Reading

The Jackhammer

Harbaugh is an inspirer of men.
With the Superbowl fast approaching and the San Francisco 49ers in the big game for the first time since the 1994 season, one cannot bear witness to the turn around in the Bay Area and not ponder how it came to be.

The power of belief in a cause, in a person, and in each other cannot be overstated when you look at what coach Jim Harbaugh has brought to every coaching post he has held since becoming a head coach at the University of San Diego (USD) in 2004.

An enthusiasm unknown to mankind

Harbaugh has brought a winning angle with him wherever he has traveled.  From a small school with no scholarships – USD, to a PAC 12 school with lofty academic standards – Stanford – that makes winning difficult year in and year out, to a moribund franchise in the NFL that had lost its way almost entirely – the 49ers – foundering in search of an identity in the shadow of what once was.
Jim Harbaugh (center) at Stanford


“What Jim Harbaugh has done with the 49ers is really remarkable, because people didn’t think this was a good team.  He’s a very smart coach, and a very good inspirer of men.”
-NPR

Harbaugh has a personality that some would call difficult. Acerbic by some standards he says of himself, “I know, I’m moody and complicated.”  Stubborn and persistent, he is not one to mince words or indulge in undue pleasantries.  Jim Harbaugh is not going to change who he is for anybody – cowards do that.

“We ask no quarter.  We give no quarter.”

“I’m not going to apologize for being fired up.  If that offends you or anybody else then so be it.”

Harbaugh isn’t afraid to lead.  Sometimes being a leader means making other people angry.
Harbaugh goes further,  “I don’t take vacations, I don’t get sick.  I don’t observe major holidays.  I’m a jackhammer.”  All you have to do is look back at the footage of Harbaugh and coach Jim Schwartz (Detroit Lions) at the mid-field stripe after the 49ers last minute win at Detroit on October 16, 2011 and you’ll see it, the exuberance of a wild man, and a passion for his craft that inspires an almost religious devotion from those in his charge.

Who has it better than us?  Nobody.

By all accounts there isn’t some complicated formula that Harbaugh and his staff have come up with to almost instantly turn around their work place wherever they go – its not Theory X, Y, or Z of leadership.  It’s simple really – be a stand up guy, say what you mean, and mean what you say.  All decisions are based on what is in the best interest of the collective, not the individual.  If you want to be an individual you need to find someplace else to work.

People only ask a few things of a leader – and it’s not too much to ask:
  • Be forthright
  • Have vision
  • Give clear direction
  • Have a game plan that works

Harbaugh’s commitment to his team and his way – the concept of one team working together toward the ultimate goal are uncompromising.  That’s what his guys love about him – that’s why they would follow him anywhere and through anything.  This belief – this collective soul – that Harbaugh inspires in his men wherever he goes is what drives his success.  The belief in the team concept is so strong and in turn the players belief in the leader so fervent, that success – while not assured – is made much more possible.  Harbaugh’s players go hard for him because he believes in them.

Harbaugh makes people believe.
Harbaugh’s leadership is effective because it is relentless.  He works his craft and his guys hard.  If people don’t like him he doesn’t seem to care.

Harbaugh is real.  “I’m not going to apologize for being fired up.  Apologies always sound like excuses to me.  If it offends you or anybody else then so be it.”

Harbaugh doesn’t need to be a media darling.  He is not about saying the right thing or being liked – his leadership will be defined by his results and how much his players revere him – not by how he is judged by outsiders.  Jim Harbaugh has that something – that God given talent that transcendent leaders have – he makes people believe.








Continue Reading