No. 12 Rick Casares
By ROZEL A. LEE of The Tampa Tribune
Before the Bucs, before Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn … before Doc or Tino or Lou … before Brooke Bennett struck gold, there was Rick Casares.
A product of old Jefferson High, a two-sport athlete at the University of Florida and record-setting running back of the Chicago Bears, Casares was this city’s first football icon.
Casares literally did it all (ran, passed, blocked and kicked) for the Dragons, who won city titles in 1947 and ’49. He also won a state track and field title in the javelin. At 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, he was hailed as the nation’s best high school player.
“His determination and desire, the fight in him, that’s what made him a great athlete,” said longtime friend and Dragons teammate Jimmy Giglio. “He was tall and lanky and didn’t know his own strength.”
The fight that raged inside him was an angry remnant of a boy that lost his father at too young an age.
It was the 1940s and Casares left his home in New Jersey to live with his aunt and uncle in Tampa. He had wanted to become a boxer, but his energy was channeled toward football.
At Jefferson, he was all-state, All-Southern and an All-American in football his senior year. He also earned all-state honors as a basketball player for three years. He played baseball, too.
“And just one day picked up the javelin and threw it,” said his former coach, Dick Spoto. “He was the best high school athlete to ever come out of the state of Florida.”
Photo courtesy of Jefferson High
And it nearly never happened.
Spoto spotted Casares when he arrived as a freshman too late to play football, so Spoto convinced him to try out for basketball.
Casares didn’t want to stay in school, Spoto said, but Jefferson’s coaches counseled him about what sports could do for him.
“Once he got interested in sports, he was just a good, good kid with no intentions of ever quitting school,” Spoto said.
He parlayed his talents into a football scholarship to the University of Florida, where he starred in football and basketball from 1951-53. His final year, Florida played in its first bowl game. By then 6-3 and 225 pounds, Casares scored Florida’s first points on a 2-yard run to pave the way for a 14-13 Gator Bowl victory against Tulsa. That led to all-Southeastern Conference honors before Casares became a second-round draft choice of the Chicago Bears.
From 1955-64, he was the forerunner of many talented Bears running backs. He ranks third in career rushing (1,386 carries for 5,675 yards and 49 touchdowns) behind Walter Payton and Neal Anderson.
In 1963, he won a championship ring and one of his teammates was New Orleans and former Chicago coach Mike Ditka.
“He was the toughest guy I ever played with,” Ditka said, recalling a time when Casares played on a broken ankle. “On the field, he was all business. Off the field, he was a real sweetheart.”
Casares never shied from the limelight, though his dominating presence belied his quiet nature. His charm and soft voice contradicted the big and very tough athlete he was.
“After bullying his way for 10 or 12 yards, he’d come back and say ‘Nice blocking’ to the guys,” Spoto said. “He was a very nice, respectful guy all the time.”
Football led to careers in real estate, the recording industry and lounge club ownership.
It was a long way from the night when, as a 7-year-old, he heard his father dragged from his family’s Ybor City home. The elder Casares was the victim of a gang-style killing.
He moved to Patterson, N.J., with his mother, who eventually sent him back to Tampa when a boxing promoter wanted to sign the amateur champ to a professional contract at age 15. His mother would not permit it.
Jefferson and Spoto, he said, turned his life around.
“Jefferson was just perfect for me,” Casares said. “It was the family I needed.”
At 67, he remains an imposing figure. Casares’ quiet confidence is not far removed from his playing days, when he struck fear in opponents. And his humility remains.
“He’s just an all-around good guy,” Giglio said. “He was always fair with everyone.”
When Jefferson retired his No. 60 jersey in 1996, he had come full circle. Back among former classmates and friends, days of burgers at the Goody Goody and 10-cent movies at the Ritz didn’t seem so long ago.
“Individual honors are hard to deal with,” he had said at the time. “Guys from my era always put the team first.
More than the Bears or Gators, it was the Dragons, he said, that meant the most to him.
“Your first sports recognition comes in high school,” he said. “My success with the Bears was for 10 years. What happened at Jefferson has lasted my whole life.”