Those Were The Days
ORLANDO - When Tampa's Rick Casares arrived at a Florida Citrus Bowl suite on Friday night, he was greeted by a wide-eyed man, who quickly extended his hand. "Mr. Casares, you were my boyhood idol. I can't tell you what a thrill this is." The man was John Stewart, executive director of the Florida High School Athletic Association, a fan of the Chicago Bears while growing up in Indiana. Casares is long accustomed to being recognized as a former NFL star. After all, he once held Chicago's club record for career rushing.But his days at Jefferson High School? Casares played his last high school game more than a half-century ago. Yet there he was at halftime of the Class 5A state championship game, being honored as a member of the FHSAA's All-Century Football Team, which was selected by state media members. Former Tampa Catholic wide receiver Darrell Jackson also made the team, but couldn't attend the ceremony because he plays with the San Francisco 49ers. Also present was former Bartow Union Academy star Ken Riley, now an administrator at Winter Haven High School, who had 65 career interceptions with the Cincinnati Bengals. Riley, a high school quarterback, said his prep team included nine future NFL players. "It was a long time ago, but those memories never fade away," Riley said. The All-Century team had 100 selections before being narrowed to a list of 33 players this week. Former Pensacola Escambia running back Emmitt Smith, who became the NFL's all-time leading rusher with the Dallas Cowboys, was named Player of the Century. Meanwhile, Lakeland's Bill Castle, part of the 12-member All-Century coaching staff, was selected Coach of the Century. Castle is 308-74 in 32 seasons with six state championships, including three consecutive titles (2004-06), a pair of mythical national championships and a state-record 53-game winning streak (that was halted this season by Kissimmee Osceola). Castle hopes to continue that legacy next season. For most of the All-Century players present on Friday night, their playing days are long-ago memories. As Casares put it, "It's just so nice to still be remembered." Really, how could anyone forget? "We just missed each other in the NFL, but I knew enough people in the league who told me what a bruising running back Rick Casares was," said former Miami Dolphins all-pro guard Larry Little, another All-Century Team member. "I can only imagine how good he must have been in high school." Casares, 76, was an All-State single-wing tailback for the Jefferson Dragons from 1947-50. In fact, some old-timers still talk about his touchdown pass to Johnny Alonso in 1947, which gave Jefferson its first victory ever against Hillsborough. Before entering the University of Florida, Casares was selected Most Valuable Player of the National High School All-Star Game at Memphis, Tenn., a contest that included Johnny Lattner, a future Heisman Trophy winner from Notre Dame. With the Gators, Casares matured into a 6-foot-3, 235-pound runner who scored the first touchdown during UF's initial bowl-game appearance. And Casares will never have to buy another meal in Chicago, where he starred for the Bears from 1955-64, leading the team in rushing for six consecutive seasons. He had a team-record 5,675 career yards (that mark was broken by Walter Payton in 1979). But Friday night was about the beginning, where it all began for Casares. "Those were the best days, the high school days," he said. "The lessons I learned from my coach Dick Spoto have lasted a lifetime. "You approached every play like it was your last play. You didn't play for fame or notoriety or certainly not TV appearances. You played because you loved it. The fact that all these people remember those days is pretty overwhelming to me."
Reporter Joey Johnston can be reached at (813) 259-7353 or [email protected]