No. 67 Reche Caldwell

By JOEY KNIGHT of The Tampa Tribune

He excelled as a tailback, quarterback and punter at Jefferson High. Steve Spurrier currently uses him at wideout and kick returner. Then, of course, there’s the position Donald Reche Caldwell Jr. probably could make millions playing.

Center field.

Heck, he also probably could have played big-time basketball, observers say, if he had immersed himself in that sport instead of dabbling in it. The Natural? Redford has nothing on Reche.

Many of the other 99 All-Century Team members have more championships than Caldwell. Some have more local or national prestige, and some even boast more renowned individual feats. But you could argue none were born with more raw athleticism. Your case would be more airtight than a Caldwell spiral.

“In the 25 years or so I’ve been [at Jefferson High], he’s probably the best all-around athlete to come out of there,” longtime Dragons baseball coach Pop Cuesta said.

For someone who coached Fred McGriff, Tino Martinez and Luis Gonzalez, that’s a big-league endorsement. Want even bigger? The guy who coached NFL employees Coleman Bell, Kirby Dar Dar and Torrance Small at Jefferson agrees.

“He’s No. 1,” ex-Dragons and current Plant High football coach Darlee Nelson said. “We’ve had so many that have stood out for us. But the intangible he had was, he was able to bring that total championship to our program. And he did it pretty much with his feet and his arm.”

The arm would emerge in time, but Caldwell dived into the local scene feet first. He began his prep career as a freshman tailback and helped lead the Dragons to a playoff berth. The following spring, Nelson moved him to quarterback, a position he’d never played before.

On his first career attempt, in the spring jamboree, Caldwell threw a touchdown pass. Eighteen months later, as a junior, he had passed for more than 2,300 yards, scrambled for nearly 1,000 more, and led Jefferson to within a game of the Class 5A state final.

His touch on the ball was as soft as the job of containing him was hard, and his running ability made him most dangerous when flushed from the pocket. As for instincts? For a second-year prep quarterback, he checked off receivers better than some second- year collegians.

And like it or not, Tampa Catholic fans, he posted his numbers against stiffer overall competition than Kenny Kelly faced at the 3A level. “Reche was better,” said a non-Jefferson coach who requested anonymity. “Caldwell never had the kids to throw to that Kenny Kelly did. If Caldwell would’ve had Darrell Jackson to throw to, wow.”

Go from the backfield to center field, and Caldwell also rivals Kelly, who is a Devil Rays prospect during his summer. According to Cuesta, pro scouts attended Jefferson games to watch McGriff, Martinez and Gonzalez, but Caldwell’s the only one they came to watch practice.

“What they wanted to do with Reche was take him down to the instructional leagues, take him to South America to play,” said Cuesta, who watched Caldwell set five career offensive records at Jefferson. “They wanted to accelerate his development to the majors.”

Their interest waned when Caldwell signed a football scholarship with Florida in February 1998 and declared the sport his top priority. Cincinnati drafted him in the 37th round that summer, but he passed.

Now he catches – as a wideout in Spurrier’s offense. Contrary to popular belief, he volunteered for the position change and has a lot more receptions (23) than regrets. He also may give Gator baseball a serious try. The urge is still there. So is the athleticism.

“Sometimes I do stop to think, ‘What if I concentrate on just baseball and don’t play football?’‚” Caldwell said. “But it’s also the other way around. I never really just concentrated on one sport in my life.”

Up next, No. 66: Jesuit’s Dave Magadan becomes the nation’s top college baseball player at Alabama.

Reche Caldwell nearly led Jefferson to the 5A state finals as a junior. Tribune file photo

Reche Caldwell: Jefferson ’98

Highlights: Perhaps the greatest all-around athlete to come out of Jefferson since Rick Casares, Caldwell excelled at four sports in high school, but is remembered most for his football and baseball feats. … A converted tailback, he threw for 6,936 yards and 77 touchdowns as a three- year starter at quarterback, a position he never had played before arriving at the school. … Enjoyed his greatest success as a junior, throwing for 2,338 yards, leading the Dragons to within a game of the Class 5A state final, and earning 5A state player-of-the- year honors. … In four baseball seasons, he established Jefferson career marks for batting average (.379), doubles (25), triples (six), steals (67) and runs (76). The numbers take on more merit when considering Jefferson also produced Fred McGriff, Tino Martinez and Luis Gonzalez. … Big-league clubs shied away from Caldwell once he indicated he would honor his football letter of intent to Florida, but the Reds still drafted him in the 37th round in the summer of 1998. He didn’t sign.
Today: A redshirt freshman wideout, Caldwell, 20, has 23 catches for 259 yards and two touchdowns for the Gators this year. He returned two kickoffs for touchdowns during preseason scrimmages, but hasn’t had a return of longer than 30 yards during the regular season. Briefly a pinch runner on UF’s baseball team before quitting in 1998, Caldwell said he’ll give it another try this spring. He has a 2-year-old daughter, Recheyla. He has had no recurrence of the frightening seizure he suffered in a class during his senior year.