TAMPA -- Even in death, Tampa football legend Rick Casares remained larger than life.
Casares, once the Chicago Bears' all-time leading rusher, still considered by many as the finest athlete ever from Hillsborough County, died Friday night at his Tampa home, said his wife Polly. Casares was 82.
“He was a man's man, but I've never seen anyone who was loved so much by everyone,'' his wife said. “And our mailbox was full every day (with requests for autographs). He sent every one back. He was so flattered to be remembered.''
Casares, a former Jefferson High School and University of Florida standout, died peacefully, drifting off to sleep in his den, his wife said. He hoped to be in Chicago this weekend, where the Bears' 1963 NFL championship team is being honored on its 50th anniversary, but wasn't up to the trip.
Casares was 6-foot-3, 235 pounds – huge by the standards of his era – when playing for the Bears from 1955-64. He led the Bears in rushing for six consecutive seasons, and had a franchise-leading 5,675 yards when he retired. He's still third in the Chicago record books, trailing Walter Payton and Neal Anderson.
At Florida, where he was an All-Southeastern Conference selection in football and basketball, he scored the initial touchdown in the Gators' first bowl game, a 14-13 win against Tulsa in the Gator Bowl.
But Casares made his initial mark at Jefferson.
“Rick was the best high-school athlete to ever come out of the state of Florida,'' Jefferson coach Dick Spoto once said.
Casares once went with his Jefferson teammates to a track and field meet in Miami. He was asked to throw the javelin, which he had never attempted. On his first throw, he set a state record.
In football, his greatest game occurred in 1947, when Jefferson defeated the powerful Hillsborough Terriers for the first time. Jefferson won 6-0 on Casares' touchdown pass to Johnny Alonso, as more than 16,000 fans watched.
In 1949, he was given the Guy Toph Award, emblematic of the best player in Hillsborough County. Casares' No. 60 Jefferson jersey was retired by the school in 1998.
“Jefferson was just perfect for me,'' Casares once said. “It was the family I needed. What happened at Jefferson has lasted my whole life.''
While at Florida, Casares was drafted in the Army. Later, he became a second-round pick of the Bears in 1954. After his career ended, Casares said a player his size probably would have specialized as a blocker in another era. Not Casares. He was a blocker, a runner and receiver, all rolled into one.
He broke the Chicago rushing records of Hall of Famer Bronko Nagurski. In 1956, he became the sixth NFL player to rush for more than 1,000 yards in 12 games. In 1963, playing for legendary Coach George Halas, Casares was part of an NFL championship team.
“He was the toughest guy I ever played with,'' said Mike Ditka, a former Bears tight end who later became the Chicago head coach. “I remember him playing on a broken ankle. On the field, he was all business. Off the field, he was a real sweetheart.''
In 1999, Casares was selected No. 12 on the Tampa Tribune's All-Century Team, a list of the area's top homegrown athletes of the 20th century. In 2007, he was recognized as one of the running backs on the Florida High School Athletic Association's All-Century Team, a star-studded group that included five Pro Football Hall of Famers and one Heisman Trophy winner.
After retiring from the NFL, Casares worked in real estate, the recording industry and lounge club ownership.
“I wish I had a penny for every time somebody said to me, 'Casares? That's your name? Are you related to Rick Casares?'' said Ernie Casares, his first cousin. “He made such an impact.''
A memorial service will be held Wednesday morning at 11 at Gonzalez Funeral Home, 7209 N. Dale Mabry Highway. The burial is private.
Casares is survived by his wife of 46 years, Polly; grandson, Lani Cleary of Los Angeles; step-daughter, Dawn Cleary and sister, Vivian, of St. Petersburg; and nine first cousins, Ernie Casares, Joe Casares, Dennis Antinori, Violet Diaz, Norma Hallem, Gilbert Sanchez, Robert Menendez, Gerri Trafficante and Brenda Fernandez, all of Tampa.