TAMPA - A Tampa Bay sports legend who became a star in the NFL has died. Rick Casares, a high school and college standout in both football and basketball, was 82.
"He was arguably Hillsborough County's greatest athlete," said Mario Nunez, a family friend and leader of an effort to get Casares memorialized at his high school alma mater.
"He was our very own living, breathing Jim Thorpe," said Nunez. "We never got to meet Babe Ruth, but he was as big as Babe Ruth to those of us who grew up here."
Casares was born in Tampa, but moved to New Jersey at age 7 after his father was killed. It was the rough streets up north where Casares learned boxing at a young age, but his aunt refused to allow him to participate in any boxing leagues. Casares returned to Florida at age 15.
At Thomas Jefferson High School, Nunez said the story of Casares and the javelin is the stuff of legend, and a tribute to his formidable athletic skills.
"One day at track practice they said 'Rick, we need somebody to throw the javelin,'" said Nunez. "He picked it up and threw it out of the stadium, figuratively. He set a state record."
Casares would excel at both football and basketball, and was all-state in both sports. He earned a scholarship to the University of Florida, and was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the second round in 1955.
"In 1956 he led the NFL is rushing and in touchdowns scored. Won a championship with them in '63," Nunez said.
"And before he left the Chicago Bears, he was the all time leading rusher for the Chicago Bears and his records weren't broken until some guy named Walter Payton came around," said Nunez.
In an NFL Films documentary about Casares, former teammate Mike Ditka said the fullback was a true professional.
"Rick Casares was one of the most inspirational guys I ever played with," said Ditka. "I idolized him because he was a tough guy who didn't wear it outside. He did everything by example."
Ditka said Casares showed his toughness by playing through injuries, sometimes severe. "I saw the guy try and play a game with a broken ankle, and it was broken," said Ditka.
Nunez said in the day since Casares passed, he's collected hundreds of signatures hoping to move the process along to get the field house at Jefferson High School named after the former star.
"We hoped he would have been there to see it," said Nunez.
Funeral arrangements for Casares are still being arranged by relatives.
Chris Trenkmann can be reached at email@example.com